A Letter from the Provinces: On the Promise of Obama’s Leadership

by Patrick Baker                                                                 November 8, 2008

In the provinces, Obama’s election seems to amount to nothing less than the promise of a new world order. Those of us with direct experience of American politics, however, know that Obama’s promise is much less than that. Indeed, such is the mantra even among the President-elect’s own intimates. And we are being told by pundits, politicians, and journalists alike not to expect too much from the man who will inherit Bush’s black hole. America voted for change, and now it is being reminded that change is difficult. Nevertheless, one thing has changed definitively with the election of Barack Obama: the structure of presidential power and the related style of leadership.

    In the recent past, presidents have owed much of their success to big moneyed interests, usually referred to benignly as “lobbies” or “donors”. Obama is different in that his donors – the ones who put him over the top, anyway, and especially after Super Tuesday and again in September – were hundreds of thousands of ordinary people, not big corporations. The upshot is that Obama does not owe concerns like Exxon Mobil or Halliburton anything at all. That doesn’t mean that such interests will no longer be represented. But they will have to fight now, and fight hard. The Cheney Energy Task Force – with all the geopolitical baggage it brought with it – will most certainly not be reassembled by the next president.

    Now, Obama, because of his inexperience, is going to have to rely heavily on advisors, but he will not necessarily be owned by them like Bush was. He will not assemble a team of lackeys, and he is too strong a personality to allow himself to be bossed around by his Secretary of Defense or Vice President. Obama will not be owned by his underlings as Bush was, for the simple reason that his election owes nothing to them. Bush was chosen and then (maybe) elected president as an acknowledged arm of the Republican National Committee. He knew that he was in the Oval Office to rubberstamp the decisions of RNC higher-ups; they got him into power, and he believed that the whole point of the office of the presidency was to execute their will. Bush’s style of leadership followed the chairman-of-the-board model. The chairman represents the will of the board (the cabinet) and the stockholders (the party); for the most part he is a figurehead, while day-to-day operations are decided by the company’s president – in Bush’s case Cheney, and for a time Rumsfeld, now Paulson. Leadership on that model means getting all these forces organized and then getting out of the way to let them do their job.

    Obama, on the other hand – like Bill Clinton in his day – owes nothing of his election to the Democratic National Committee, and so he has a free hand. They need him, not the other way around. Obama also has a very different idea of leadership. As a community organizer, he learned that the chief needs to listen to constituents and advisors, but that ultimately he must be the one to make decisions and set policies. He then entrusts their execution to his officers, who appear to be and think themselves to be – and in a sense become – the real actors. This model of leadership is described countless times in the second section of Dreams from My Father. It is both effective and responsible. It is based on the ombudsmanship concept of governance, which entails sifting through the people’s whims and desires to find and represent the true public interest.

    Obama’s real promise is that he can free Americans from the childish whorishness that has typified governance ever since the Gingrich Revolution. First under a Republican Congress and then with a Republican president, the Grand Old Prostitute listened to people’s most irrational whims, decided which of these tricks it could turn most easily and for the most amount of money for its rich friends and unscrupulous lobbies, and then offered them on a platter. In a sense it represented the public interest, but only if interest is identical to unreflected, base desires. Republicans promised no taxes, no oversight, no services, no government – not worrying that Katrina might hit or that infrastructure would collapse, or that their fantasy wargames would have real-world consequences.

    The ombudsman would never spring for such ideas, because he knows that one of his essential responsibilities is to protect the people from its own shortsightedness, ignorance, and often just its stupidity. Obama’s promise is that he will return the presidency to this model and thus to its basic function: that of actually governing. Such is the promise, at any rate, that his leadership holds for the whole American empire, from the capital to the provinces.

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