April 22, 2009 Volume 2 Issue 9
. . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .
by Timothy Sherratt
As a political scientist who studies political leadership, I am especially interested in President Obama’s First Hundred Days. What effect will his historic election have on the prospects for his political agenda? Will it help him pass universal health care? Will he get new laws to foster green energy? Will he be able to cash in his “historic election” for education reform?
My thesaurus defines a helpful term for our analysis: fun·gi·ble adj: “Capable of being interchanged. Used to describe commodities that can be traded or substituted for an equal amount of a like commodity, usually to satisfy a contract.”
Many who attended the inauguration hoped his election as the first African-American President would translate into immediate success with Congress, the media and the American public. That expectation is unrealistic. Obama’s achievement is not so directly fungible. But his status is a resource of sorts, enhancing other resources crucial for accomplishing his goals:
First, there’s the economic crisis. Crises legitimize centralization of power in executive hands and this is helping define his leadership style. There’s also his--and his wife’s--popularity, vital resources of political capital in Washington. There’s the phenomenon whereby presidents elected on a change agenda--think FDR--enjoy stronger Congressional support than those who merely manage existing political projects. And there’s the “permanent campaign,” as political scientists call it. Presidents like to shape public opinion into a weapon to win legislative support. Some presidents fail because they lack the gift for communication. But this president ranks up there with the Great Communicator himself--Ronald Reagan.
In other words, the historic status of Obama’s election focuses attention on him, which, mediated through these other dynamics, can play to his advantage. Presidential leadership, though, is a function of constitutional powers and limits, partisan support in Congress, personal skill, and popularity. These comprise the hard currency of a job that, thanks to our formal separation of powers, compels or condemns the President to be a persuader. He’ll need every penny.
A persuasive style is emerging. “Look,” he says, with a hint of impatience, then a pause, and he becomes the professor he once was, lecturing Congress to pass his budget. “Is there risk? Are there hard choices? Yes. But,” he concludes, “better a large deficit and economic growth that will tame it, than no growth and a large deficit that spirals out of control.”
The message is plain: He doesn’t want his budget interfered with. He believes that only the promise of future restructuring can justify deficit spending on the scale he proposes. Only cost controls from universal health insurance, jobs from green energy and the competitive creativity from an educated workforce can stare down the oncoming headlights of trillion dollar deficits passed to America’s children.
The President’s demeanor may assist his persuasiveness. Though his past voting record reveals a liberal who embraces interventionist government, his progressivism is calm and pragmatic, not shrill and ideological. Wherever he can, he distances himself from a position based on ideology alone: Teachers’ unions in his party may rail against educational innovations, but charter schools work so the President wants more. Stem cell research has a moral dimension but science will guide policy. You get the picture.
In the language frame he has deployed to sideline raw ideology, the ever-divisive issue of abortion cannot be so easily sidelined, however. On abortion, no scientific deflector shield exists. Advances in medical technology ratchet up the reality instead; as the old bumper sticker said, Abortion Stops a Beating Heart. The President knows this. So when members of his Faith Council--which include several pro-life members--warn that abortion provisions would kill healthcare reform, how will the President respond?
President Obama views abortion as a women’s rights issue. Whether he is open to a broader view of it, I cannot say. But don’t rights perspectives color one’s entire view of law, irrespective of the right in question? Don’t rights inhibit a holistic view of law, such as the Bible’s view that law is instructive and life-giving? “Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the law, says the Book of Common Prayer. No thanks, responds American culture--even a “brush” with the law is unwelcome! Rights reduce laws to limits.
But laws providing healthcare deserve to be less about rights and more about care. What sort of leadership will the President provide on this issue? Will he focus on care as the priority in healthcare reform or succumb to pressure from forces within his party to expand abortion rights? Whose advice will he take to his heart? Whose advice will he consider more fungible? The choices President Obama makes should help us distinguish the statesman, shepherding a new political settlement into the present century, from the politician navigating toward the next election.
Dr. Timothy Sherratt is professor and chair of political studies at Gordon College. He and his family live in Rowley, MA.