Why isn’t Barack Obama tougher? During the week that he signed a debt deal in which the Republicans took him to the cleaners, markets tanked, and U.S. debt got hit with a historic and disastrous downgrade, several answers were bruited. It’s political: he’s in thrall to polls telling him that accommodation is what independent voters want. It’s ideological: he’s in fact (say some liberals) an aggressive moderate who’s perfectly fine with massive spending cuts. It’s psychological or biological: he just doesn’t have the tough-guy gene.
All these factors are present to varying degrees. But let me offer a different explanation—one that’s a little deeper. The problem rests in the realm of political philosophy. Obama has beliefs about democratic governance, and about himself as president, that dictate his behavior in battles like the debt-ceiling brawl. These beliefs were a big part of what made him so inspirational to so many people before he won the 2008 election, but they have served him—and his voters, and the country—poorly since he took office, and especially since the Republicans won control of the House of Representatives.
Obama believes in civic virtue, and in the idea that in a democracy it’s the duty of responsible leaders to reason together on behalf of something they all agree to call the common good. The fancy name for this theory of government in political-philosophy circles is civic republicanism: the “civic” part refers to action taken in the public sphere, while “republican” (a small-r republican and a big-R Republican are very different animals) signals a concern with tyrannical majorities and a faith that reasoned debate will produce a balanced result.
You might be laughing already, but the concept has played a crucially important role in American history. Thomas Jefferson cherished and advanced civic-republican beliefs, as did James Madison. Not bad: the author of the Declaration of Independence, and the thinker who produced some of the most important Federalist Papers written in defense of the U.S. Constitution of 1787. In the early 19th century, these ideas were still alive enough that we had a brief period of more or less civic-republican government under James Monroe. Dubbed the “Era of Good Feelings” by journalist Benjamin Russell in 1817, it began after the War of 1812 and the collapse of the Federalist Party. During this period, President Monroe made many patronage appointments without regard to political loyalty, for example.
A return to that kind of civic culture is what Obama hoped to bring about—all that talk about transforming politics. And that vision was key to his appeal during, and before, the campaign. The most famous sentence in Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention speech—“there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America, there’s the United States of America”—is a textbook civic-republican sentiment. After the thuggish, with-us-or-against-us posture of the Bush administration, it was something millions of Americans wanted to hear, and believe in.
Well. This many years later, it’s pretty clear that Barack Obama isn’t going to transcend liberal America and conservative America. Why? One reason is historical. Civic republicanism has rarely worked well in practice. Maybe during World War II, when civic duty was crystal clear and citizens were reminded of the common good every time they heard a battle report or picked up their sugar coupons. But otherwise, self-interest usually wins the day. Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley notes that even Monroe’s pacific era quickly washed away under the weight of 1819’s economic panic and 1820’s Missouri Compromise. The civic comity of the time “merely allowed differences to fester until the party system collapsed,” he says.
But other reasons have to do with Obama himself. To begin with, says historian Eric Rauchway of the University of California, Davis, Obama misapprehends history. Obama admires the Abraham Lincoln of the second inaugural—the Lincoln who promised “malice toward none” and “charity for all” those involved in the Civil War, on both sides. But Rauchway points out that six weeks later, Lincoln was dead—and that had the rhetoric of the second inaugural been translated into policy, it would have been disastrous. “The Lincoln who was a great success, the one who gets the monument on the Mall, is the one who was willing to make war rather than accept a moral wrong,” says Rauchway.
Obama also has a highly inflated opinion of his own ability to unite people, which leads him to think that folks on the other side of the partisan divide will join him in compromise. What else could explain his maddening speeches late in the debt-talks process, after tax revenues were already off the table, still beseeching Republicans to accept his “balanced” approach? He really seemed to believe that his political opponents would tally up the tweets and see sweet reason. The verdict of William Galston, a political theorist and former Bill Clinton adviser, is apt: “Sometimes, civic-republican pragmatism can be a fancy label for a fundamental misunderstanding of how politics works.”
It would have been great if Obama’s theory had turned out to be correct. The right wing was always going to savage him, but maybe if the financial crisis had never happened he’d have stood a chance of uniting most of the country and isolating the “he’s a socialist” caucus to the fringe where it belongs. That, however, isn’t the hand he was dealt. So now what? He has to change. I wonder if he’s even capable of it, because discarding these beliefs will mean abandoning the fundamental premise of his presidency. But he has no choice. For one thing, he’s not even upholding his own values. A real civic republican doesn’t pay extortionists, as Obama did in the debt-ceiling debate; he calls them extortionists and leads the country on a better and truer path.
But more fundamentally, he’s in jeopardy. In Brinkley’s words, Obama’s presidency “is failing, and in danger of collapsing.” Lacerating battles await him on the budget (surprise: the debt deal didn’t solve everything!). The economy is grounded. Obama needs to quit trying to transform politics and just focus on winning fights on behalf of a careworn middle class. Otherwise, politics is going to transform him into a nicely intentioned one-term president.