Barack Obama is not our first charismatic president. John F. Kennedy comes to mind, as do Bill Clinton and Franklin Roosevelt.
If we are to believe Fouad Ajami, President Obama stands alone in basing his presidency on nothing but charisma. It is about him and nothing but him.
Surely, Ronald Reagan had charisma. But, that is where the comparison between Reagan and Obama ends.
During his first campaign, Mr. Obama had paid tribute to Ronald Reagan as a "transformational" president and hinted that he aspired to a presidency of that kind. But the Reagan presidency was about America, and never about Ronald Reagan. Reagan was never a scold or a narcissist. He stood in awe of America, and of its capacity for renewal. There was forgiveness in Reagan, right alongside the belief in the things that mattered about America—free people charting their own path.
A charismatic leader moves people emotionally. He induces them to take leave of their rational faculties. He calls on them to believe in him and to stake their hopes on him. It’s a magic moment, like what happens at a rock concert when everyone is moving in unison to the rhythm. It feels like transcendence; it feels like melting into the crowd.
But what happens when the magic wears off? Ajami analyzes the current state of the Obama presidency:
Rule by personal charisma has met its proper fate. The spell has been broken, and the magician stands exposed. We need no pollsters to tell us of the loss of faith in Mr. Obama's policies—and, more significantly, in the man himself. Charisma is like that. Crowds come together and they project their needs onto an imagined redeemer. The redeemer leaves the crowd to its imagination: For as long as the charismatic moment lasts—a year, an era—the redeemer is above and beyond judgment. He glides through crises, he knits together groups of varied, often clashing, interests. Always there is that magical moment, and its beauty, as a reference point.
Ironically, a man whose charisma promised to bring us all together, to make, of many, one… has turned out to be one of America’s most polarizing leaders.
A nemesis awaited the promise of this new presidency: Mr. Obama would turn out to be among the most polarizing of American leaders. No, it wasn't his race, as Harry Reid would contend, that stirred up the opposition to him. It was his exalted views of himself, and his mission. The sharp lines were sharp between those who raised his banners and those who objected to his policies.
It might also be true that Obama believes in dividing the nation against itself, diving the body politic into good and evil,and in fighting a Holy War against those he despises.
By all appearances, Obama has governed by the law of the dialectic: sharpen conflict, avoid negotiated compromise. It’s more about heat than light.
Believing, beyond reason, that his charisma could transform the country, Obama did not care, or did not know how to do the dirty work of governing:
A leader who set out to remake the health-care system in the country, a sixth of the national economy, on a razor-thin majority with no support whatsoever from the opposition party, misunderstood the nature of democratic politics. An election victory is the beginning of things, not the culmination. With Air Force One and the other prerogatives of office come the need for compromise, and for the disputations of democracy. A president who sought consensus would have never left his agenda on Capitol Hill in the hands of Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi.
As has often been noted, Obama is so insecure that he surrounds himself with people who know less and are less competent than he is. It was a daunting challenge, but he seems to have succeeded. Anything to maintain the illusion that he is the best and the brightest:
No advisers of stature can question his policies; the price of access in the Obama court is quiescence before the leader's will. The imperial presidency is in full bloom.
There are no stars in the Obama cabinet today, men and women of independent stature and outlook. It was after a walk on the White House grounds with his chief of staff, Denis McDonough, that Mr. Obama called off the attacks on the Syrian regime that he had threatened. If he had taken that walk with Henry Kissinger or George Shultz, one of those skilled statesmen might have explained to him the consequences of so abject a retreat. But Mr. Obama needs no sage advice, he rules through political handlers.
First among whom is a Chicago real estate developer named Valerie Jarrett. Ajami does not quite say it—he hints—but how did someone who had no experience with government, who did not know the rules or the players, become the behind-the-scenes power in the Obama presidency?