Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Obama's State of Obama Speech

The Nation is on the edge of its seat as President Obama prepares to mount the podium for his Second State of the Union Address. Already the press is all a-twitter with talk of expectations and strategies: will Obama address the middle class about deficits and jobs? will he hold his progressive base , will he deflect Republican attacks, and what will the balance of perceptions be when Byrd flies the coop.

And of course, after the speech, there will be the usual flood of post-gnostications and wise palaver about whether Obama had managed to "save" his ratings, or his party's prospects or successfully "re-define" his latest re-definition or "hone and recast" his "message"... and what are the downsides and upsides to this or that ... and blah, blah, Blah!

But none of this will matter because Obama has already proved the only important point: he is not a leader.

What is a leader anyway? Although it is been expressed in a variety of forms, a leader is one who summons the will of the people he leads. As put by the German philosopher-sociologist Johann Gottfried Herder (1744 -1803)

"A poet is the creator of the nation around him, he gives them a world to see and has their souls in his hand to lead them to that world."
Herder believed in what might be called a Poet-King -- the leader who emerges from the mass of People and who, distilling their desires, leads them to the future they remember.

The idea was taken up by Tolstoy who ridiculed the idea of command-leadership -- the notion that leaders direct and pull their followers. Napoleon "decided" nothing, Tolstoy wrote, but was rather himself impelled by the swelling force of French sentiments. He was merely the Lead Goose.

At first blush, Tolstoy's cynical Lead Goose and Herder's romantic Poet-Fuhrer seem to be at odds with Plato's classical definition of the Philosopher King. It is typically thought, among academics who think about such things, that Plato's philosopher king was a rationalized version of the Egypto-Persian-Babylonian notions of the Divine King, the God-appointed super-hero, given unto us to rule over us. But these concepts of leadership are less autocratic than they might otherwise appear.

The main difference between Plato and the Persians was that Plato's king was to emerge from the mists of a "system" of education whereas the Persian god-king emerged from behind the smoke and gongs of some temple orifice. In either case, the key lay in the emergence: the leader comes from somewhere recognized and assented to by the whole body of people. Their assent may manifest itself in what to us appear to be silly and superstitious ways, but we should not confuse the level of consciousness with the consciousness itself. In seeing the leader as their leader, the people have knowledge or witness of themselves as seen in him.

Alexander's attempt to meld Greek and Persian forms of leadership failed precisely because his Greek subjects could not see themselves reflected in Persian garb and his Persian supporters were insensible to Hellenic poetry.

Rome fared better. With a certain amount of success the Roman stoics adapted Plato's theory of the philosopher king to the Principate -- the rule, under the Caesars, of the "First" man in the Senate. The so-called imperial system inaugurated by the Divine Augustus, was an artful blend of Platonic idealism, Roman practicality and Oriental mysticism. The emperor would emerge from the Senate or that class of presumably well-educated men, be approved by the whole body of the army, be endowed with such "exceptional" qualities of generosity, or perserverance, or courage or whatever which would, on his death, be recongized as "divine". But the lynch pin of the marvellous concoction was the emperor's auctoritas -- that quality of presence and statement that would cause people to say "he speaks with authority!" -- he speaks for us; he has the juice.

Under the aegis of Christianity, the juice, was the Holy Spirit -- that recognitive force that would move each of the bishops (or later, cardinals) to see in Sylvester or Clement or Boniface the next Vicar of Christ. But whether in conclave or camp, the juice that appeared to emanate from the leader in fact flowed from what the people saw in their annointed.

This is not to say that leadership is merely passive. Tolstoy somewhat overstated the case. The poet-king has to know his audience: what they want, what they want to hear, what they actually need and what they are capable of. Good emperors as well as good lieutenants understand that having "the juice" comes from opening one's self up to it. Their skill lies in knowing how to evoke it and, evoking it, lending themselves to being impelled by it. True leadership draws its strength and shape from the people, "called by fate and forming fate" at the same time. None other than Machiavelli put it succinctly. Whatever cunning, artifice and force, the Prince may employ (and employ he must), he will not be able to rule without the "goodwill" of the People.

Of all the American presidents, Washington and FDR perhaps understood this best. Both men were in a sense empty. Neither was known to be an intellectual force, full of his own ideas, like Hamilton or Wilson. In fact, both men were infused with a certain superficial vanity, as well as a predisposition to jovial drinking. But they knew their stuff, and their stuff was us. They had an inate sense of how to talk to their compatriots, how far the people pushed and how much they could be pulled. But their "opening up" was not just a matter of technique. As if by a sort of mysterious accident, the character of both men synchronized with expectations and habits of being their contemporaries. Of the two, FDR was the greater master politician because his audience was vaster and he had, in addition to everything else, the ability to make people laugh. It is often overlooked that the sparkling part of charisma is cheerfulness and humour. JFK had this which was why he was world-beloved.

True and responsive leadership ought not be confused with being a mere weather-vane. Part of the wretched degradation of America's political class is the cheap and lazy notion of our politicians that they can hire an accountant of sorts to provide them with leadership. "Tell me what the people are thinking and then tell me how to market myself to them." The absence of real leadership is what causes politicians to spend lots of money hiring exerpts to craft maleable and ambiguous position papers and replies to constituents' letters. It is what causes some of them, to create alternate personas for different and opposed segments of their constituencies. This is not leadership but mere opportunism. In the most root and primary sense it is a perversion or corruption of what leadership is truly about.

As is often the case, it takes time to tell whether something is true to form or not. During Obama's candidacy there was a distinct sense that he was "tapping into" a popular groundswell for change in a progressive direction. How much and how far remained to be seen, but the popular yearing was unmistakable. It would be up to Obama to give the country a world to see and to lead them to that world.

This he utterly failed to do, almost from the first day in his office. His entire legislative and policy agenda has gone beyond failing and has amounted to a virtual repudiation of the desire and demand for change that he tapped into. Now he and his party are struck into a Henny Penny panick over the loss of a seat. It is, we are told, time for "rethinking," "recalibrating" and "pulling together" and blah, blah, Blah!

But none of this matters. In "reverting to message," Obama has already told us that he is a mere weather vane; and that is all we needed to know.

©WCG, 2010

1 comment:

ellin barret said...

next comment on Obama's Q&A meeting with the Rebublican retreat in Baltimore. Thought his remarks very intriguing.