Tag Archives: Barack Obama

American Incentives

It is too early  for me to claim vindication for this post.  Given the high expectations that President Obama came to power with, and the enormity of the task before him, it was inevitable that his first 100 days would disappoint. But I want to make a point about he American political system that many people do not appreciate. The point is that:

The American political system tends to overpromise, but underdeliver change.

Why? Because of the preponderance of  direct elections. Presidential candidates have to win many direct elections before they come to power.  To win direct elections, you have to establish yourself as your own man even if you are in the same party as the incumbent.  In other democracies, handpicked successors tend to gain the organizational backing of the ruling party. In the US, because of the unique organization of parties, there is very little to gain. Even if the incumbent was hugely popular, 8 years of him would have wearied the voters, and his successor needs to be wary of promising 4 more years of the same.  George W Bush was, to put it mildly, not very popular in November 2008, which is why you had both candidates promising change, but similar dynamics would have applied even in 1988, when George Bush was running to succeed Reagan.

So why would it be difficult to deliver change? Because of direct elections again. Both the President and Congressmen are directly elected. Neither is beholden to  the other branch. In a Parliamentary system, a popular Prime Minister would be able to handpick his legislators – in fact, he would have to, because otherwise there would be a chance that he would get dislodged despite his popularity. In the US presidential system, there is

a) structurally no way for  a President to pick his legislators

b) no need for a President to do the same and

c) a risk if he attempted it, because the unpopularity of some legislators may drag him down.

For these reasons, a President, even if he is elected on a mandate for change, will find it difficult to push his legislative agenda through.

None of these explains Obama’s failure so far. That is another story.

Virgina Postrel Echoes Me

On Barack Obama

Obama’s glamour also accounts for some of his campaign’s other stumbles. Plenty of candidates attract supporters who disagree with them on some issues. Obama is unusual, however. He attracts supporters who not only disagree with his stated positions but assume he does too. They project their own views onto him and figure he is just saying what other, less discerning voters want to hear. So when Obama’s chief economic adviser supposedly told a Canadian official that, contrary to campaign rhetoric, the candidate didn’t want to revise NAFTA, reporters found the story credible. After all, nobody that thoughtful and sophisticated could really oppose free trade.

Unlike Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan, the two glamorous presidents who shaped 20th-century American politics, Obama has left his political philosophy a mystery. His call for “a broad majority of Americans—Democrats, Republicans, and independents of goodwill—who are re-engaged in the project of national renewal” is not a statement of principles. It’s an invitation to the audience to entertain their own fantasies of what national renewal would look like

Like any candidate, Obama of course has position papers on specific issues. But even well-informed observers disagree about whether he represents the extreme left wing of the Democratic party or something more market-oriented and centrist. As the NAFTA flap demonstrates, his supporters can’t even decide what the candidate really thinks about free trade. His glamour makes it easy to imagine that a President Obama would dissolve differences, abolish hard choices, and achieve political consensus—or that he’s a stealth candidate who will translate his vague platform into a mandate for whatever policies you the voter happen to support. (The Peril of Obama)

The link may not stay valid for long, but Postrel is using “glamour” in its  original sense, when it meant “Magic spell”. (That also accounts for the odd spelling of the word – odd, that is, if you are an American.)

Barack Obama and Rajiv Gandhi

I have not been following the ups and downs of the American primaries very closely because there isn’t much profit to be had from it.  I am sure that the internal workings of the US presidential elections are as interesting as those of the Nutrimatic Drink Dispenser,  but the result will be the same.  So I am only dimly aware of the Barack Obama phenomenon (and before you ask, I was completely uninterested in the Ron Paul phenomenon.)  But from what I understand, he is like the Rajiv Gandhi of 1984.

There are many reasons why the dynastic system finds favour with people. A minor one among these is that every generation a new scion of the ruling family descends on the scene and makes a bid for a top post. Chances are, he will be a relatively young person among more senior contenders. Youth always attracts people – they associate it with freshness. They also instinctively associate it with a rapid rise, achievement and talent, even when they should know better.  Because this person is  from the ruling family, chances are that he has not had to fight his way to the top, has not had to make ugly compromises and does not have a history that gives some people a reason to hate him. His “clean past” is an empty vessel into which people can pour their hopes and aspirations, whatever they are, however unrealistic they are. So it was with the Rajiv Gandhi of 1984. With absolutely no basis in his track record, nay with no track record  people had decided that he was the one who would lead the country into the 21st century. The dream took around 2 years to end.

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