So we may assume that power is something that Obama was highly motivated to possess.
But something strange happened pretty much as soon has he gained that power he sought: he began to give it away. Not all of it, of course: Obama has used power to achieve a number of goals, and the list of his accomplishments in a year and a half is becoming more impressive all the time. But, as I've been arguing here in various ways --first tentatively, and then with conviction-- Obama COULD have been far more powerful a force on the American political system than he has been. And if one looks at how he's conducted his presidency since he was inaugurated, one discovers a mystery: a man who worked very hard to gain power has seemed, since he acquired it, to have a strangely ambivalent relationship with that power.
The evidence for that ambivalence lies in the ways he's given that power away. I will note three major ways in which he's done so.
First, when it came to the most urgent order of business he faced upon assuming office --the stimulus package-- he assumed a very hands-off posture, handing the task over to Congress along with a few general principles. Instead of asking Congress to work with him to pass HIS bill, he hung back and ended up signing Congress's bill. Aside from the fact that the bill he signed was likely inferior to one that he could have achieved by taking more of a leadership role in the process, what one sees here is that OBAMA GAVE AWAY HIS POWER TO HIS ALLIES. And he has continued to do this with subsequent important legislation, including especially the health care reform bill.
Not every president defers this way to Congressional initiative. Why did Obama?
Second, consider Obama's response to the approach taken to his presidency by the Republican opposition. From the very outset, the Republicans decided that making him fail was their overriding political goal, and they pursued that goal without principle or scruple. No lie, no accusation, no misrepresentation, was off-limits, if the Republicans beileved it would advance their goal of discrediting, weakening, and defeating the president. So how did President Obama respond?
This is the subject on which, more than any other, I've felt called to speak as forcefully as I can. This is the subject which was at the heart of that piece of mine --posted as "If I Could Give President Obama a Message, in 800 Words" at http://www.nonesoblind.org/blog/?p=5190-- that was published in December in the Baltimore Sun as an open letter to the president. For it was here more than any other single place that Obama surrendered power.
By almost completely ignoring and almost completely failing to punish his opposition's atrocious, dishonest, immoral, and destructive conduct, President OBAMA SURRENDERED A HUGE AMOUNT OF HIS POWER TO HIS ENEMIES.
(Hence it is that despite the stimulus having created around two million jobs, the American people don't think it has worked; that despite more than 95 percent of Americans having been given a tax cut by Obama, less than 15 percent believe they've gotten one; that despite the health care bill being an important step forward for a country that's been paying twice as much as anyone else in the world for health care that is less good, the bill has been unpopular.)
He gave away power to his allies. He forfeited power to his enemies. And finally, there's a third way he's surrendered his power: this has been the topic of my recent series on how "Transformational Leadership Requires the Power of Inspiration."
The man who rode to power by connecting with millions of the American people at the feeling level stopped doing so once in office.
Once in a while he'd deliver a speech that showed that he still had his rhetorical gifts. But for the most part, once he was IN power, President Obama cut himself off from the force of the emotional connection that had been the SOURCE of his power.
Why? Why would a man who wanted power strongly enough to drive toward it with a single-minded passion for several years then, once the power was his, manifest this pattern of forfeiting the power that had been handed him?
Within mere weeks of assuming office, all three of these power-surrendering moves on the part of the president had become established as part of his pattern of operation. Why, having achieved the pinnacle of power, did this man --I believe a fine and intelligent man-- undertake a course that would diminish the scope and power of his leadership?
In this piece, it is not my intention to venture any answer to that question. For now, it is enough simply to present the mystery.