Obama And Transforming Leadership

Adapted from: Obama's Challenge: America's Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative President (Chelsea Green Publishers)

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

-- Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Barack Obama could be the first chief executive since Lyndon Johnson with the potential to be a transformative, progressive president. By that I mean a president who profoundly alters American politics and the role of government in American life -- one who uses his office to change our economy, society, and democracy for the better. That achievement requires a rendezvous of a critical national moment with rare skills of leadership. There have been perhaps three such presidents since Lincoln.

Obama unmistakably possesses unusual gifts of character and leadership. Because of the deepening economic crisis, he will have to move imaginatively and decisively. He will need all of his inspirational and political skills, as well as ones he is still learning.

If Obama is elected, on January 20 the recession that he inherits from George W. Bush will become his. He will need prevent further deterioration in what is already the worst financial collapse since the Great Depression. The American economy could return to a path of recovery and shared prosperity -- or rapidly spiral downward.

Voters will expect concrete improvements as well as loftier national aspirations. And as a simple matter of politics, if the crisis deepens in 2009 and he fails to deliver relief, his support could well erode and he could lose a working legislative majority mid-way through his first term in the 2010 elections. He, and we, could end up with economic crisis and political deadlock.

Obama will be challenged both by hard economic realities and by the constraints of conventional wisdom. In principle, two core premises about the economy, which have governed the economic thinking of both major parties for three decades, have been demolished by the deepening crisis. The first is that markets could accurately price ever more complex financial inventions, with no need for government involvement. The second is that private outlays were invariably more effective than public ones.

Economic recovery will require the drastic revision of these premises, just as in 1933. Government has already engaged in massive bailouts of financial institutions, seemingly blowing away the idea that markets don't need government. Yet we have a national case of cognitive dissonance, for the same outmoded ideological assumptions linger on. The Bush administration has been adopting emergency policies in practice that it rejects in theory. Obama, like Roosevelt, will need to reinvent a regulated, balanced form of capitalism.

This path will also make Obama a more effective candidate. McCain's charges of elitism -- preposterous when you recall the path that took Obama where he is today -- are one step short of calling Obama "uppity." They play to lingering prejudices that a black man should not rise above his place.

But the reluctance of some white working class voters to pull the lever for Obama are only partly racist. Obama could be offering more to America's economically stressed families than he has done to date. At times he hits all the right notes rhetorically. But at other times he is caught in an undertow of bad advice -- that we mustn't use deficits, even in a serious recession; and that we need to praise the genius of free markets (which will cause taxpayers to eat a trillion dollars of speculative losses before this crisis is over.)

The new president will need to inspire the American people to demand enactment of bolder measures than either the Congress or Obama himself currently think necessary or possible. As historian Doris Kearns Goodwin observes, all of the great presidents used their leadership first to transform the public understanding of national challenges and then to break through impasses made up of Congressional blockage, interest-group power, and conventional wisdom. In different ways, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson found allies, respectively, in the abolitionist movement, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, as well as the press and the general public. Each president grew immensely in office. Each changed the national mood, then the direction of national policy.

They did not do so by being "post-partisan," or centrist, but by taking huge political risks on behalf of principles that the people came to deeply respect. Often they enlisted some members of the opposition party in their cause, thereby splitting the opposition--but not by splitting the difference. Yet they also functioned as great unifiers.

By appealing to what was most noble in the American spirit, these presidents energized movements for change, and thereby put pressure on themselves and on the Congress to move far beyond what was deemed conceivable. They generated accelerating momentum for drastic reform that proved politically irresistible. The abolition of slavery seemed beyond possibility in 1860, as did the vastly expanded Federal role in the economy in 1932, and the full redemption of civil rights in 1963.

As Goodwin notes, "History suggests that unless a progressive president is able to mobilize widespread support for significant change in the country at large, it's not enough to have a congressional majority. For example, Bill Clinton had a Democratic majority when he failed to get health reform. When you look at the periods of social change, in each instance the president used leadership not only to get the public involved in understanding what the problems were, but to create a fervent desire to address those problems in a meaningful way."

A crisis is an opportunity, but it hardly guarantees a successful presidency. For every Franklin Roosevelt, there is a Herbert Hoover. For every Lyndon Johnson turning the civil rights impasse into moment of national greatness, there is a Jimmy Carter fumbling the energy crisis -- or Johnson himself blundering into Vietnam. And on the conservative side, for every Ronald Reagan bringing working-class voters into the Republican coalition and successfully associating national optimism with far-right policies, there is a George W. Bush.

If Obama does rise to the occasion, he will be elected with a transformative mandate. But if he does not, even if he squeaks into the White House he will face a rough road. In short, Obama must be a great president, or he is likely to be a failed one -- his presidency grounded "in shallows and in miseries."

End of Part I. Tomorrow, Part II: The Hope of Audacity

Robert Kuttner's new book is Obama's Challenge: America's Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency. (Chelsea Green Publishers. He is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos. He'll be covering the election, convention, and the economic situation on at