The Obama Watch

The Democrats Find Machiavelli

That's what happens when you think you have a Prince for a president.

By 12.1.11

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Perhaps it had to happen. The Democrats, with an unpopular leader, down in the polls, and with little hope of an improvement in the economy, have found Machiavelli, the patron saint of seizing and holding on to power at all costs. Chris Matthews, the protagonist of Hardball, has written a book on Jack Kennedy as a leader in the Machiavellian tradition, preferring to be feared rather than loved. Though Bobby was the one who gained a well-merited reputation for ruthlessness, Jack, writes Matthews, "could be pitiless."

It is filled with examples. Jack "had no choice but to destroy" William Burke, the Massachusetts Democratic State Chairman, using the Boston cops to keep Burke out of the room while the state committeemen were voting him out as chairman. Similar tactics were used on the Governors of Ohio, Maryland, California, and Pennsylvania. And when Kennedy became president and Roger Blough, the president of U.S. Steel, defied him by raising steel prices, Blough and his staff were subjected to subpoenas, searches by FBI agents, and threats that their hotel bills and nightclub expenses would be made public.

Dana Milbank, the Washington Post columnist, ends his laudatory column on these tactics by drawing the conclusion: "Sometimes, that's how it must be. Can Obama understand that?"

So much for Republican ruthlessness.

But the trouble for Democrats is that Machiavelli is not good news for Obama. Not that Obama hasn't tried more than a little ruthlessness of his own. While he was in the Senate, for example, Obama was one of the leading supporters of campaign finance reform. When he launched his candidacy and saw he could get the money, he threw finance reform overboard like an empty beer bottle and raised more money than any presidential candidate in history. When he was campaigning, he said that the Afghanistan war was the one that Bush ought to have fought. When the opinion polls turned against it, he announced that 30,000 troops would be returning to the U.S. -- and, surprise, surprise, most of them would come back a month before the election. Similarly, he maneuvered the Iraqi government into saying that they didn't need American troops any more -- largely by telling that government that he wasn't prepared to leave more than 3-5,000 -- so no doubt he will be going round the country next year telling us all that he ended the Iraq war. He must be hoping that this ruthlessness may still be enough to pull him through.

Another problem for Democrats is that Machiavelli believed that public opinion was seldom wrong, and the leader needed to keep on good terms with the people. "Not without good reason is the voice of the people likened to that of God," he wrote, "for public opinion is remarkably accurate in its prognostications, so much so that it seems as if the populace by some hidden power discerned the evil and the good that was to befall it." This is a truth on which American democracy rests. Recent writers like James Surowiecki have noted the remarkable ability of groups of people to predict more accurately than the experts how to come to wise decisions, foster innovation, solve problems, predict the future, and even count the number of marbles in a glass bowl. It is a truth with which a lot of Democrats have struggled, hence the flirtations of Matthews and Milbank with ruthlessness, and the inclination of Democrats like Peter Orszag and Bev Perdue to entrust decisions to commissions rather than the American people.

Another reason why Machiavelli is not good news for Democrats is that he deplores extravagant expenditure. In his chapter on Liberality and Meanness in his best-known book, The Prince, he advises that it may be good to be reputed liberal but unfortunately this carries with it the problem that liberalism is an expensive proposition "so that a prince thus inclined will consume in such acts all his property, and will be compelled in the end, if he wish to maintain the name of liberal, to unduly weigh down his people, and tax them, and do everything he can to get money. This will soon make him odious to his subjects…" Much better, Machiavelli says, for the prince to be thrifty, to cut down on expenditures -- in effect, to tackle the deficit -- and use the money he saves for important matters that will increase his reputation.

Machiavelli couples this advice with the observation that the two greatest threats to the leader are to be hated or despised. The American people -- some blogs to the contrary notwithstanding -- are not great haters. But they are very ready to disdain politicians. McCain, for example, suffered when he called for a conference in Washington on the economic crisis in the midst of the 2008 campaign, and then had nothing to say.

And here is where Machiavelli's warning to Obama comes in. One of the biggest dangers Obama faces is this kind of ridicule: promising to take the "tough decisions" and then leaving them to someone else; promising to focus like a laser on jobs, jobs, jobs, and failing to provide them; creating the biggest new entitlement program since the 1960's, and then telling us that it would actually save money; and creating the largest deficit in US history, and then, even at the eleventh hour, failing to deal with it.

Machiavelli valued two qualities in a leader, courage and intelligence. The leader shows courage by actually taking the tough decisions. As George Orwell once put it, "the leaders who offer blood, toil, tears and sweat always get more out of their followers than those who offer safety and a good time." But Obama has seldom shown much interest in putting his head above the parapet. In his eagerness to strengthen his appeal, Obama has forgotten those sacrifices he was demanding of those who made $250,000 a year. He now demands sacrifices only of the Warren Buffetts of the world, the fleece-lined sacrificial lambs, the millionaires and billionaires, and, of course, the makers of corporate jets.

Still, Obama's defenders would say, surely he has the intelligence? And here we have to introduce another liberal admirer of Machiavelli, Jonathan Powell, Chief of Staff to Tony Blair throughout his ten years in office as Britain's Labor Prime Minister. The poisonous politics of the British Labour Party may have suggested to Powell that he consult Machiavelli, but that's another story. In any event, Powell, in his The New Machiavelli: How to Wield Power in the Modern World, notes that by intelligence Machiavelli did not mean mere intellect. He meant "judgment or instinct -- what we would now call emotional intelligence. This is the mysterious ingredient that allows great leaders to have a sense of where Fortune will lead and how best to take advantage of it. Unlike wisdom, for example, which can be acquired with experience….[a] leader has to be born with them." The pre-eminent examples of such judgment in our time were Reagan's decisions -- in conflict with nearly all the experts of his time -- that the spiraling inflation of the 1970's could to be broken, and that the decline of the Soviet Union could be hastened.

By this criterion Obama doesn't do too well, either. To launch Obamacare at the very moment that the United States was experiencing a dangerous recession was not the supreme example of good judgment. Nor was it good judgment to launch cap-and-trade at the very moment that two huge countries like China and India, with their enormous populations, were driving relentlessly towards unprecedented opportunities for their long-suffering peoples. And time will tell -- perhaps all too soon -- whether Obama has made a safe bet on Iraq and Afghanistan. The trouble with such "Machiavellian" judgments, in the sense we usually use the term of being selfish, cunning or without moral justification,is that they end up being too clever by half.

Modern leadership, says Powell, bringing Machiavelli up to date, requires competence (which he defines as crisis management), the ability to communicate, charisma, perspective, and charm. Surely again, Obama's defenders would argue, he has all of the above. Well, does he? By this stage in Reagan's presidency, faced with a similar recession, his economic policies were already producing results, and inflation and unemployment were both sharply reduced. But Obama also has serious problems with what are regarded as his great strengths, his charisma and his ability to communicate. Charisma comes in part with the job: heads turn when a president, even an uncharismatic president, comes into the room. But charisma mostly depends on continued success. An essential component, says Powell, is optimism. "Generally speaking in politics it is the optimistic candidate who wins and the pessimistic one who loses." So Clinton beats George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush beats Gore, Obama beats McCain, and so on.

But we've seen a lot more of Obama since he was elected. In truth, he is not a cheery soul. He is lugubrious. He is what the English would call a dismal Johnny. His charisma in 2008 consisted in who he was, and what his candidacy said about the progress the U.S. had made in bringing about racial equality. When the American people looked at him they saw a glowing reflection of themselves in the mirror. Now they see him as he is, and he hasn't profited from the change. He sounds strident rather than hopeful, threatening rather than encouraging, divisive rather than a uniter. He is not good at projecting optimism, but such as it is his optimism is increasingly implausible. He goes to small producers of car batteries in the Midwest and sees millions of jobs arising from a largely untried technology; and he used to do the same at solar panel factories and small lengths of potentially high speed rail track, but after Solyndra and the train crash in China he has suddenly fallen silent about these innovations.

There is another error into which Obama is liable to fall. "It is of so great importance," wrote Machiavelli, "that I must not pass it over." It is flattery. Flatterers "abound in courts" and leaders are apt to fall into error "unless they are very prudent or very fortunate in their choice of friends." Powell says categorically that "[w]hat brings down all leaders in the end is hubris. There is no escaping it, whether in a dictatorship or a democracy. Once leaders are sucked into the embrace of the government machine, they are invariably cut off from the real world." Powell observed this hubris in almost every leader. When Blair first met Vladimir Putin he was modest and unassuming. Each subsequent time he visited Putin he had more grooms for his horses and lived in greater luxury.

It was surely an example of hubris that Jack Kennedy was so prolific and indiscreet in his infidelities.

But Obama's ego has long been a weakness. His first biographer, David Mendell, followed him on behalf of the Chicago Tribune for four years, and tells us that managing Obama's ego was "one of the most trying tasks for his staff and paid consultants." Obama's wife, Michelle, "considered it her personal mission to prevent her husband's ego from inflating beyond all proportion." John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, who followed the 2008 campaign intensively for their best-selling Game Change reported that his campaign workers hoped that adulation would not go to his head, "his ego was robust enough already." The same concern is expressed by some of his warmest admirers. Joe Klein of Time wrote that the biggest adjustment Obama needed to make was to find an intellectual equal who could challenge his decisions and demeanor "in private, with the bark off." One of the great dangers of the presidency is that people will tell him what he wants to hear rather than what he needs to hear. In his recent book, Confidence Men, former Washington Post reporter Ron Suskind depicts Obama's senior cabinet officials and staff as often contemptuous of his decisions -- or indecision -- and "slow walking" what they did not intend to carry out.

Machiavelli would point to dangers for the Republicans as well. Obama faced it in 2010, but it may be more dangerous for the Republicans in 2012. It is the danger of change. Change as a slogan, like Hope and Audacity, when unaccompanied by any specific detail, may be alluring. But, Machiavelli notes, "there is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful of its success, than to set up as a leader in the introduction of changes." There are vested interests in all existing systems, there is always doubt about whether change will work, and what it will cost. Underlying the doubt may be naked fear: of losing one's health care, for example. Obama's in-house Machiavellians, David Axelrod and David Plouffe, have already made it clear that they will be exploiting this fear to the full.

It is not an insuperable obstacle. Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, Powell writes, were strong enough to bring about radical reform. So, of course, was Ronald Reagan. But this concern, if the White House Machiavellians have their way, is going to underlie the U.S. election of 2012.

Their problem, and Obama's undoing, is Obama's comprehensive failure. For Machiavelli "princes become great through the difficulties they have to face and overcome." Machiavelli is the supreme political exponent of the principle that winning isn't everything, it's the only thing. Success above all depends on results. To paraphrase Machiavelli, the president who neglects the present for some supposedly better future "sooner effects his ruin than his preservation." If only 13 percent of Americans tell Gallup that they are "satisfied" with how things are going in the country, if only 43 percent approve the job Obama is doing -- and no president has been re-elected with so low an approval rating a year before an election since Gallup began asking the question in 1945 -- then Machiavelli would not be bullish about Obama's prospects. 

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About the Author

John H. Chettle is a former Rhodes Scholar and Senior Scholar of St. Antony's College, Oxford.