Obama’s Leadership: Power With, Not Power Over


Jon Favreau has a must-read in the Beast today. It pushes back against the infantile MoDo notion that the stalemate in Washington is a function of the president’s poor political skills, rather than a completely gerrymandered and dysfunctional Republican House, special interest group abuse of the system, and a nihilist GOP base that has basically decided to give up any thinking about policy in order to rely on opposition to anything the president does as one wing of a losing, bitter culture war struggle.

Favreau also notes the recurring rhetorical theme of this community-organizer president in Obama’s own words:

This campaign can’t only be about me. It must be about us—it must be about what we can do together. This campaign must be the occasion, the vehicle, of your hopes, and your dreams. It will take your time, your energy, and your advice—to push us forward when we’re doing right, and to let us know when we’re not.

There is another factor, I think. The president understands his role differently than his predecessor. He is not the “decider”; he is the catalyst for change that must come from below and from the other branches of government. He is not a legislator. And the Congress is the part of government that is currently failing us – not the president.

The blogger Smartypants also recognizes this:

I’ve often talked about the fact that in his days as a community organizer, President Obama studied and taught about power relations. Its clear to me that he has an understanding of the power of partnership PowerWindow2and is constantly calling on us to join him in exercising that power.

Practicing leadership from a position of “power with” requires that you have an independently strong ego and don’t need to dominate in order to prop it up or feed it. And it also requires trust in the people you set out to lead. These are some of the characteristics I most admire about President Obama and ones that are often most misunderstood by his critics on the left and the right.

Its only natural that when people are so used to the power of dominance that they would dismiss the reality of the power of partnership. Its why we so often hear Obama criticized as weak and naive. But history tells us that all of the battles won by the left in this country have been based on a partnership model of power … enough people finally spoke up in ways that couldn’t be ignored. We see that in the battle for civil rights, unions, women’s suffrage, anti-war, etc.

The archetypal achievement of this president in that regard is his deployment of “power with” with respect to gay rights. The power to change came from below – but he masterfully guided it, nudged it, and helped without getting in our way. Ditto universal healthcare when he refused to impose a bill, but demanded that the Congress come up with one along similar lines.

This is the same dynamic with immigration reform. A president is not a dictator or even a decider. He presides and enables, articulates and maneuvers the entire body politic. He can screw up – Toomey and Manchin were not the most connected Senators on Capitol Hill and couldn’t deliver many votes compared with the NRA’s relentless fanaticism. Baucus wasted critical momentum for universal healthcare. But he is emphatically not a legislative dictator in our system. And real conservatives will admire this – not leap to dismiss him as a “lame duck” because of it.

The trouble right now is that a certain narrative is over. It began with the 2000 election, continued with 9/11 and a dubiously legitimate president marching the country into two deeply divisive and disastrously costly wars, trashing the country’s hard and soft power, and wrecking the government’s balance sheet before leaving his successor with the worst recession since the 1930s. Obama was elected to heal that gaping wound. And he has: one war is over, the other winding down; torture is over; alone among Western countries, the US economy is slowly, slowly returning to health – its rebound cramped by spending discipline. Obama’s re-election also cemented a deep social shift: we are now emphatically a multicultural country that celebrates that fact. Latinos and gays are part of the American spectrum. These are profound changes in five short years. And many seem ready now to relax and see his re-election as the end of the central narrative of the 21st Century so far. Hence the difficulty of leading from below today.

You want more from him? Get off your asses and make him and the Congress do it. We’re a republic, not a benevolent dictatorship. And we remain lucky to have such a sane, stable, no-drama pragmatist to marshall the forces we can muster. But without us? He is head of state and not much more.

(Photo: US President Barack Obama holds a press conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington on April 30, 2013. By Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.)