And let it be noted that there is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful in its success, than to set up as a leader in the introduction of changes. For he who innovates will have for his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new.
—Niccoló Machiavelli, The Prince (1532)
Keep yo’ enemies close … watch yo’ homies.
Niccoló Machiavelli wrote a letter to Lorenzo II de Medici, in which he presented his realist (some would say cynical) treatise on government, which was published later as The Prince. The theories of government presented in the book were abhorrent to the church, the ruling power at the time, and they earned Machiavelli the dubious distinction of having his name become synonymous with underhanded, duplicitous, conniving behavior, particularly in politics.
More than 450 years later, Makaveli (Tupac Shakur) promoted ideas that many regarded as shocking, and he found himself in deep trouble with the authorities of his time. What the two men shared across the centuries was an insistence on analyzing the world as it is not as it ought to be. That is a particularly useful and necessary skill in these times of endless analysis.
Machiavelli’s letter was intended to demonstrate his suitability for employment in de Medici’s court. Unlike Machiavelli, I have a job. So this missive is not an attempt to gain employment, but it’s intended as an honest reflection on the first 100 days of President Obama’s administration. Like both Machiavelli and Makaveli, I insist on describing the administration as it is, not as we hope (or feared) it to be.
The president’s final judgment will be on how he handles the economy. Despite the wars, the torture scandal, Southern governors, once again, musing about secession and the resurgence of a violent, extreme right wing (who are actively recruiting in the military), it’ll be the economy that will decide his success or failure.
While critics bemoan the fact that Obama has been able to “solve” the worst post-war recession in his three short months, we now have enough information to begin an assessment of the amazing flurry of policy proposals and economic initiatives that have emerged from the administration in that time.
President Obama has had to address several areas of economic concern at once. The most critical is the inherited recession that he is now attempting to address through his economic stimulus plan and his first proposed budget. The meltdown in the financial sector is another grave component of the economic crisis, and the White House has settled on a variety of initiatives and bailouts to address that part of the problem. Finally, the enormous size of the nation’s debt is provoking substantial unease in the world’s capitals—particularly Beijing.
There are some stellar components of the president’s plan. In particular, the budget is a masterwork that, if passed, would dramatically aid the economic recovery, lay the foundation for national investment in the future and progressively transform government policies so that the nation becomes both more humane and productive. The budget is probably the single initiative that best represents the aspirations of the Americans who elected President Obama.
The administration has been considerably less adept at managing the financial sector crisis. On several occasions, the White House appeared either slow or inept, and in this area the president has not always been served well by his advisers. He would be wise to follow Makaveli’s advice. “Watch yo homies.”
Wall Street reacted negatively to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s vague initial presentation of the administration’s plan to bring the financial sector back to health. The administration badly underestimated the depth of anger that Americans felt toward the CEOs and corporate managers such as those at AIG who speculated the world’s economy into disaster and now seem intent on looting the Treasury. Europeans were particularly irked at the administration, complaining correctly that there needed to be much stronger regulation of global financial institutions.
Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao also expressed official and blunt uneasiness over the state of U.S. securities and its overall economy. China owns a vast amount of U.S. Treasury securities. Obama assured him that his U.S investments are safe and played up the long-term prospects for the American economy. Chinese leaders, however, as do many European leaders, believe that much greater regulation of the U.S. financial sector is necessary for global economic stability. When it comes to the financial sector, the president has not been served well by his advisers.
As Machiavelli would have predicted, such a broad program of economic transformation has provoked a firestorm of opposition from conservative politicians and pundits. A handful of the most conservative governors, many with large economically devastated black populations, threatened to reject the parts of the stimulus package that provided additional aid for the unemployed and for education. Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina compared the U.S. under Obama to Zimbabwe, while Texas Gov. Rick Perry entertained “discussions” of Texas seceding from the Union.
In states ranging from South Carolina to Louisiana, black legislators and their allies (who in some states included Republican legislators) fought for the aid that was so desperately needed for their states’ citizens. Pundits such as Rush Limbaugh openly hoped the president would fail, while others, such as Fox News talk show host Glenn Beck, speculated about the coming “civil war” in a divided nation.
Progressive Americans must try to disprove Machiavelli’s contention that there will only be “lukewarm” support from the majority of Americans who stand to benefit from the president’s budget and stimulus initiatives. Mass political mobilization is necessary not only to counteract this torrent of right-wing mania, but more importantly to also aid the enacting of the best parts of the president’s economic program.
The success of the president’s domestic policy, however, is also tied to how well he manages foreign policy challenges. In particular, whether the president is compared to the extraordinarily successful Franklin D. Roosevelt or to Lyndon B. Johnson, depends on whether Obama’s version of the war on terror becomes his D-Day or his Vietnam.
Michael C. Dawson is the John D. MacArthur Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.