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Source: Organiser - Weekly      Date: 4/15/2012 3:00:30 PM

Obama’s failures: Overreach or system built?

Dr R Balashankar

$img_titleOverreach: Leadership in the Obama Presidency, George C Edwards, Princeton University Press, Pp 231 (HB), $29.95

Did Obama overreach in trying to effect changes that he was not capable of delivering? Or, for that matter is it impossible for an American President to create opportunities for change.

George C. Edwards III, an acknowledged political scholar in his book Overreach: Leadership in the Obama Presidency says the American “presidents do not succeed by persuading others to support them but rather by recognising and exploiting effectively the opportunities already present in their environments”. In other words, Obama’s failure, like that of Clinton, George W. Bush and FDR, is because he attempted to grab the ball and strike goals instead of attempting to merely convert penalty corners into goals.   

Edwards is emphatic “it is a mistake for presidents to assume they can lead the public.” There is nothing in history to prove that presidents can do that. Presidents having won the long drawn campaign believe that they had the complete backing and support of the public. They presume that the mandate gave them the right to introduce measures that the citizens are not prepared for. “It is natural for a new President, basking in the glow of an electoral victory, to focus on creating, rather than exploiting, opportunities for change.” For instance, the Obama team concluded that the Americans, in the grip of a series of economic crisis, touching on several aspects of life would be desirous of and malleable to change, more governance and harsh measures. But what Obama encountered was partisan-ideological hurdles. And the society was highly polarised.

“It is difficult for the president to focus to public’s attention...The president faces strong competition for the public’s attention from previous commitments of government, congressional initiatives, opposing elites, and the mass media. Equally important, presidents often compete with themselves as they address a range of issues.” An approach of creating opportunities is prone to failure, says Edwards, adding this is a clear case of overreaching. “Failure is one thing, overreach is much more serious” is how he puts it. The advocacy of unpopular policies alienated much of the public, especially in the middle of the ideological and partisan spectrum.

The author recalls the health care reform of the Clinton office. His 1,342-page reform proposal met with resistance and cost him severe political victory. It was not passed. Similar was the fate of Bush’s Social Security Reform. Bush unleashed a massive PR exercise to popularise the move. But it failed to impress both the Congressmen and the public. Franklin D Roosevelt’s court-packing plan, to increase the size of the Supreme Court, in order to fill it with members who would support his New Deal policies, failed at the stage of passage of bill.

Hence Edwards' position that American presidents do not enjoy the clout to change the system. They can at best re-arrange it, freshen it and as the good old saying goes, serve stale wine in new bottle.

George C. Edwards had written a book on this idea two years ago. The Obama presidency has proved him right he says. Obama’s policies on healthcare, unemployment benefit, climate change and finance reform -- all faced obstacles and defeat. So what can an American President do, is the natural question. Exploit opportunities, maintain coalitions, be persistent -- these are some of the options the author suggests.

Edwards, a keen student and scholar of American politics is professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University. He is also the editor of Presidential Studies Quarterly. A valuable addition to the understanding of US polity.

(Princeton University Press, 41, William Street, Princeton, New Jersey 08540)


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