The recent debate over Syria has highlighted a clear political dynamic of the Barack Obama administration: the tendency of the opposition Republicans to oppose almost any policy simply because it is associated with Obama. This is certainly not unique, at least in simple terms to the Obama administration. A multitude of American progressives remember the Bush administration more for its foreign policy boondoggles that they stridently opposed than the social policies (like Medicare Part D) that ran counter to a number of conservative political positions. Going back further, one might remember the attacks on Reaganomics, a name similar to Obamacare in terms of its ability to reduce the understanding of a set of policies into a metonymic expression of a president’s worldview rather than a more rote unpacking of the content of said policies.
When critics, politicos, and citizens conflate policies with presidential personas we are in the messy realm where politics and charisma intermix. Max Weber offers a popular and influential understanding of charismatic authority as “resting on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by them
." Weber’s definition acknowledges
a difficult problem for those interested in the study of political authority: a
leader may not be selfsame with “the people” lest the distance that sustains
their authority be abolished.” At the same time, there must be relays of
identification between a leader and “the people,” lest the gap between them
spawn a legitimacy crisis that weakens or even deposes the leader. Charisma is
the bulwark of ether that suggests an unpopular decision by a leader should be
read by the populace as evidence of the leader’s character rather than an
indict of the leader’s judgment. Alternately (or perhaps simultaneously), a
charismatic leader elevates themselves above the people, as a hero of sort,
claiming exceptional status as earned.
Naturally, many thinkers are suspicious of charisma. Some, like Kenneth Burke, find in the charisma of a figure like Adolph Hitler the poisonous medicine of tragic unity, where the leader’s charisma blended with their naturalized affinity with their population in a way that created a nationalist feedback loop. Going back further, Plato worried that too much charisma might ruin the Republic, with the charisma-laden rhetor lying not far away from the demagogic despots who might lead “the people” astray.
The most interesting question about charisma, however, lies not with the rather futile debate about whether or not to ban it from the Republic. As numerous scholars of emotion and affect remind us, “feelings” are intrinsic to our democracy and we cannot banish them from the world of politics without constructing a somewhat tragic relationship to an ideal and emotionally purified politics that never has and never will exist. Instead, as Joshua Gunn suggests in his excellent piece in the Western Journal of Communication on Huey Long, we can understand a leader’s charisma as having at least two possible structures. In one, the leader maintains a kind of distance from the audience, routinely offering them most of what they want while denying at least one important emotion and/or policy item, producing a desire for the leadership of the rhetor even as the relation between speaker and audience remains split. On the other hand, Gunn’s reading of Huey Long implies there may a second rhetorical kind of demagoguery, more prone to rhetorical burnout, where the leader and vox populi merge into one avatar, a fiery figure of populist bluster that offers the intense satisfaction of popular sovereignty but is also left without any rhetorical firehouse to put out the intense burning passion ignited for a pure populism.
In the case of the Obama presidency we see a similar but somewhat opposite dynamic: the flight away from any policy associated with the president regardless of its content, or even its legitimate connection to President Obama. Take, for example, the “Obamaphone” a racist meme circulating extensively in the conservative blogosphere, Based on a short video clip of a black woman flashing a new cell phone and saying “I got an Obamaphone!” the meme circulated to suggest that Obama had created a program for anyone to get a free phone, working in tandem with the argument that Obama secured his electoral majority by promising (in 2008) and delivering (in 2012) “free stuff” to his constituents. The video suggests a racial animus underlying these claims, not unlike the (mostly white) figures who do not benefit from welfare in a 2012 campaign ad put together by Mitt Romney’s campaign team.
A second, more obvious example that came to mind when having a chat with a colleague the other day, is Obamacare. Rather than referring to the bill by either its official name (The Affordable Care Act) or even the shorter acronym (ACA) there is by now a more or less bipartisan consensus that the bill is to be called Obamacare. Despite the fact that hundreds of legislators (and lobbyists and citizens) contributed to the passage of the ACA, media critics and scholars all seem more or less resigned (or is it excited) to define the bill through the Obama administration and vice versa.
A third instance I will not dwell on long, but it is the continued assertion of Obama as central to the political imaginary. Whether found in the hilarious references to Obama in Louis CK’s television show whenever something goes wrong (“Fuckin’ Obama.”), the various anti-Obama iconography popularized by Tea Partiers, or the circulation of racist Obama images in various conservative counterpublics (the “witch doctor” image, for example), the ubiquity of Obama is at once a reflection of American political culture’s fetish for the presidential but the racial element also exceeds that element. (This may be true of most difference that threatens the normatively white and masculine office of the presidency: anyone remember Hilarycare?)
The recent Syria debate suggests again a move by conservatives on the basis of opposition to the president’s authority in and of itself, that is, his charisma. The particularly opportunistic nature of Republican oppositions suggests this. While some, like Rand Paul, may have familial and historical backgrounds that suggest their decisions are more principled and less opportunistic, for a number of rank and file Republicans who supported previous military interventions, its difficult to read this move as anything less to another knee jerk reaction to deny Obama something just because he wants it rather than on serious policy grounds. (Note: I don’t want to be construed as saying the Obama administration is on the side of principle here. It is a depressing fact that foreign policy, much more than domestic policy, tends to reveal similarities rather than differences in the parties. This is in part why the second Iraq war is such an outlier: it was a real moment where party affiliation really mattered on foreign policy, though many Democrats were complicit in authorizing the war).
These opportunistic moves are very short sighted, however. Which of these arguments about the “cult of Obama” will carry over when the Republicans have to campaign against presumptive 2016 nominee Hilary Clinton? Being against Obama on principle is not only nihilistic, it will be counter-productive for the GOP in terms of generating a party identity that can argue its policy differences with the dominant party. The tendency to reduce all Democratic actions into reflections of Obama may hoist the conservatives on their own petard, as they scramble for a set of Hilary-specific charisma attacks rather than carving out meaningful policy differences.