Barack Obama’s presidency has been a “clarifying” presidency. Obama’s big ambitions inevitably made him a highly polarizing figure for Americans, just as his predecessor George W. Bush, also a person of grand ambitions, had been. Like Bush, Obama led by acting as a national “clarifier” of differences between him and his partisan opponents.
John F. Harris’ description of Bush’s leadership style fits Obama rather well: “rather than blurring lines, illuminate and even exaggerate them. Rather than try to reassure opponents, antagonize them – at least on issues in which he believed he could excite his own supporters in even greater measure.” Obama’s approach yielded sharply differing evaluations of his presidency that served to aggravate the political polarization already besetting Minnesota and the nation when he took his initial oath of office.
This “clarifying” style is a characteristic of a “directive” presidency, defined by political scientists George C. Edwards III and Stephen Wayne: “. . . the president is the director of change, who creates opportunities to move in new directions and leads others where they otherwise would not go. In this view, the president is out front, establishing goals and encouraging others inside and outside of government to follow. Accordingly, the president is the moving force of the system and the initiator of change.” This approach, again similar to that of his immediate predecessor, held the possibility of big changes, which Barack Obama ardently pursued in the White House, but also entailed large political risks.
A safer course, according to Edwards and Wayne, is for a president to act as a “facilitator” who builds coalitions, “exploiting opportunities to help others go where they want to go anyway or at least do not object to going.” Bill Clinton, who hugged the political center during much of his presidency and worked productively with Republican Congresses, was the archetypical facilitator, willing to settle for limited policy changes. A facilitator settles for narrower influence, but Obama, given his large Democratic majorities in Congress in 2009, had bigger goals in mind.
No “small ball” for Obama. Obama sought a political “reconstruction” that would create a lasting Democratic regime in the same fashion that Ronald Reagan revived GOP fortunes in the 1980s. That accomplishment proved unattainable.
Reasons for a Clarifying Presidency
What led Obama to pursue a directive, clarifying presidency? The sweeping Democratic electoral victories in 2008 no doubt emboldened him, but certain personal qualities also fueled his big ambitions. Obama’s public career consistently involved advocacy of strongly liberal principles, an approach that he carried with him into the White House. By 2010, the American public identified him as on the left of the political spectrum.
By 2010, a survey by the Democracy Corps, a Democratic polling firm, found that 55 percent of registered voters thought the term “socialist” accurately described his ideological orientation. In 2012, YouGov surveys throughout the year revealed respondents viewed Obama as a liberal. By the end of his reelection campaign, respondents rated him on a zero (very liberal) to 100 Very conservative) scale at “21.” Respondents on average rated themselves at “55” or slightly right of center.
The president’s 2012 reelection victory resulted from voters weighing other considerations – the president’s record, character and positions on particular salient issues – more heavily than their ideological distance from him.
Given his confident possession of liberal ideological convictions, a directive, clarifying leadership in their pursuit characterized his presidency. Obama’s academic background had given him a critical, analytic temperament, contributing to a policymaking style in which he worked from his ideological principles to specific policy proposals.
Obama as Manager
Obama’s management style also encouraged dogged pursuit of his principle-based priorities. His approach contrasted with that of Democratic predecessor Bill Clinton, whose more ‘horizontal’ thinking contemplated a wide range of principles and alternatives and whose White House organization at times suffered from consequent disorganization.
Barack Obama would have none of that. Early on in his presidency, he opted for a hierarchical White House organization with a strong chief of staff, a format usually favored by GOP presidents and by his predecessor George W. Bush. This style of organization facilitated the persistent pursuit of the president’s goals.
Though at times personally constructive for the president, Obama’s directive and clarifying presidency increased the ideological and partisan distance between Democrats and Republicans both nationally and in Minnesota. Analyst Lee Drutman recently noted that due to strongly partisan voting patterns in Congress and consistent partisan positioning among voters, the US has now reached a period of “peak polarization.”
In Minnesota, those partisan differences appeared in the largely unproductive 2016 state legislative session, when pressing issues regarding transportation, bonding and taxation led to partisan impasses. In Washington, Obama’s public castigation of Republicans as deluded opponents, coupled with his distant relations with Congress, has resulted in stalemates comparable to those in Minnesota.
The intense polarization appears in bare-knuckle rhetorical exchanges between 2016’s GOP and Democratic presidential candidates. Obama despairs of America’s divisions, but has contributed to them through his governing style.
This article appeared in Politics in Minnesota (print) and website, June 15, 2016 and is republished with permission.