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Ambivalent Leadership?  Obama, Militant Partisanship and the Challenge of the Modern Presidency

Obama on Feb. 13

Pres. Obama visits Northern Virginia Community College on Feb. 13.  Photo by Damon Green.

We all remember the excitement and promise of Barack Obama’s 2008 crusade for the presidency, when he memorably offered the voters “Change We Can Believe In.” But the momentous and rancorous first three years of his administration has left unclear what kind of change he represents. On the one hand, his extraordinary campaign and the major programmatic achievements of his administration – a huge stimulus package, substantial wall street reform, and the enactment of major health care reform – encouraged scholars and pundits to hope – or fear – with audacity – that we were undergoing a major transformation in American politics. On the other hand, many of Obama’s ardent supporters during the campaign have dismissed him as a broker leader, who has been all too willing to compromise on fundamental progressive principles. Ryan Lizza observes that Obama himself has “settled into the role of a more transactional and less transformative leader,” that is, a pragmatist who adjusts to, rather than controls events. It may be that President Obama is too accommodating and the political environment too intractable to make political history. And yet there is considerable evidence that we are at a moment of consequential democratic decision: the stark Democratic and Republican divide on crucial domestic and foreign policy issues suggest that the 2012 election will pose the most fundamental choice about the future direction of government since the critical election of 1936, Franklin Roosevelt’s landslide victory over Alf Landon, a contest that ratified the New Deal political order, and led to the emergence of the two pillars of American government – the welfare and national security states.

The contrast between pragmatism and partisan rancor reflects not only the ambivalent leadership of President Obama, but also highlights the competing demands of the modern presidency – the tension between managing the received commitments of the welfare and national security states and the sharp partisan conflict over the appropriate uses of national administrative power.  This dilemma was forged by the New Deal, which both initiated a transformation of parties and joined them to an executive-centered administration state, encouraging presidents to extend unilateral executive power to the detriment of collective partisan responsibility. Dan Galvin has noted that New Deal institutional developments have played out in such a way that Democratic presidents since then have emphasized “state-building” (formulating and advancing public policy), while Republican presidents have attended to party building. Building on this work, one of us, in collaboration with Jesse Rhodes and Emily Charnock, argues in a forthcoming article that Republican Presidents, especially Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, were instrumental in building a national, programmatic Republican Party organization dedicated to mobilizing popular support for, and devoting governing institutions to, a new conservative political order.  Whereas the traditional localized parties that dominated American politics until the 1930s constrained national administration, and the New Deal tended to emancipate presidents from this partisan gravitational pull, the Reagan and GWB presidencies advanced a “new” party system that relies on presidential candidates and presidents to pronounce party doctrine, raise campaign funds, mobilize grassroots support, and campaign on behalf of their fellow partisans.

While we think Obama would prefer to formulate and enact policies in the White House rather than engage in the guerilla warfare of legislative politics, Republican Party building efforts had gone so far by the time he arrived at the White House as to imprison Obama in a type of purgatory between “enlightened administration” and militant partisanship. The development of this “new” party system during his presidency helps explain why Obama has been more willing than Democratic presidents since FDR to work closely with his party in Congress and to deploy his extraordinary campaign organization, Organizing for America, as the grass roots arm of the national Democratic party. The pioneering success of OFA in fundraising and mobilization of voters suggest the potential to revolutionize the relationship between the modern presidency and party politics. In fact, the dedication of conservative strategists like Karl Rove to create GOP Super PACs such as American Crossroads is in no small part due to their hope of trumping Obama’s success in building a formidable information age grass roots organization. The resultant political arms race and Obama’s embrace of his own Super PAC, Priorities USA, after condemning them in the 2010 campaign, is a good example that he might be more “partisan and ruthless than he seems to be.

Nevertheless, Obama has embraced militant partisanship more reluctantly than did his Republican predecessors. Other than change, the theme of Obama’s campaign that most resonated with the voters was “post-partisanship.” He and many members of his administration are deeply committed to deploying the presidency in the service of programmatic reform. To a point, this emphasis on executive administration makes sense politically, and appears to dovetail with the desire of many moderate Democrats and Republicans to temper partisan rancor. Moreover, Obama’s pragmatism might be a reasonable response to the challenges of governing in the 21st century, when presidents are ensnared in the problems of managing highly complex domestic and foreign policies. In other words, the task might be to fix rather than overhaul the health care system built on private insurance companies and States; and to manage strategically “Overseas Contingency Operations,” the Obama administration’s preferred term for the War on Terror, rather than fundamentally transform Homeland Security. The problem is that grappling with this “submerged state,” as Suzanne Mettler calls it, risks exalting policy accomplishments at the cost of building enduring popular support for them.

Obama’s challenge has been to figure out how Democrats and progressives might compete with the Republicans’ less complex, if somewhat disingenuous, celebration of limited government. While Obama has not met this challenge, if the economy continues to improve over the next year, and the Republican candidates for president continue their demolition political derby, the president is likely to be re-elected. Given what is at stake in the current struggle between Democrats and Republicans, his presidency is likely to be – for better or worse, depending on your political orientation – if not “transformative,” at least consequential in revitalizing and advancing the progressive tradition.

Sid Milkis is Director of Democracy and Governance Studies at the Miller Center, and White Burkett Miller Professor in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics at the University of Virginia.  Carah Ong is a graduate student in the Politics Department at the University of Virginia.

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