Unrelenting Soft Power: the Secret to Obama’s Poised Leadership

Lead by example. It’s a simple idea, and one that tends to be fully realized only by those who are most able. You lead by demonstrating the best qualities, because you are able to — 1. because you have them; 2. because you are in a position to do so; 3. because you are confident both of your ability to embody these qualities and of the qualities themselves, their virtue and their efficacy.

Soft power works, because one is able to use the social force of virtue —rooted in actual qualities and demonstrable value to those concerned— and because one shows proof of being closer to shared goals than the other party, leading the other party to follow one’s lead.

Obama has demonstrated an incredible ability for a victorious politician: forgiveness. His magnanimity is, whether he intends it to be or not, an exceedingly valuable asset to him, not just in terms of public image, but because he wields power through it, and that leverage is not missed by those he is negotiating with. Imagine the awe his show of mercy to Joe Lieberman must inspire in the vigilant eyes of the fallen leaders of the Republican party’s aspirational one-party government.

They were terrified of letting one inch slip to their opponents; this man is strong enough to be generous, politically. That means he can win favor with enemies, listen to a bewildering array of intelligent concepts and proposals, and rely on his judgment, not the maneuverings of party minions, to select, adopt and enact the best and most effective. This is the position leaders of all kinds most aspire to be in, and he is reminding them from day one that he is already there.

Is it “soft power” or “3d diplomacy” —diplomacy, development, defense—, is it “smart power”, or “principled pragmatism”? There is really no need to put a label on it, because for the sake of historical argument, we can call it the Obama way: push your friend and rivals alike to adopt bold new ideas that focus on solutions in stead of ideology; be courageous enough to tackle all of the toughest issues at once; use the levers of power to your advantage, but listen to dissent and allow for crafted solutions that broaden support for your strategy.

This is the kind of unrelenting soft power that has allowed Barack Obama to continue winning an historically broad base of support, even as he takes positions that other presidents would have seen as controversial, and battles Congress for leadership in the game of national policy rhetoric.

As in the campaign, Obama’s style of governing owes much to his prowess at framing the debate within a vocabulary rooted in his ideas. Everyone is speaking his language, so inevitably, the final verdict will be rooted in his principles, even if he has to give up some ground to get the most salient projects passed.

Much has been made of his “capitulating” on renewal of the assault weapons ban… the problem is, it wasn’t his ban, it wasn’t a priority to begin with, and Congress (unbelievably) is unwilling to pass it. Despite a severe rash of mass killings and spreading gun violence, despite evidenced that American gun-shop owners have been ferrying high-powered assault weapons to Mexican drug cartels, Congress is afraid of the gun lobby.

It is not for a president with major reforms ahead to pick a fight in which his allies are few and the public’s view of the issue is so severely skewed by relentless propaganda from a commercially-interested lobby. Every time the GOP leadership comes out in support of weapons that kill children, it gets harder for them to sustain any credibility, and the question of a “fight” on gun control seems to dim.

There may come a time, but using power wisely means letting people have their say, and for now, Congress says gun control will be a political bloodbath. Obama has been very adroit, throughout his rise, at letting hostile opponents sabotage themselves, letting John McCain make nitwit pronouncements on economic policy for instance, letting the Republicans propose a pointless tax-cut-for-the-wealthy budget even as they claim they are now suddenly populist.

With each round of renewed idiocy in the sort of attack levied against him, his pragmatist agenda and his personal standing are elevated. His political capital expands as his political enemies squander their own credibility in unfounded or illogical attacks. His “record budget” is adequately explained when the Republicans produce a faux budget with just as large a deficit, but no plans for recovery, and Obama announces a deliberative process to find record spending cuts, pointing out that Bush’s spending was even higher, he just excluded the wars from his budget.

It is hard for the Republican party to grasp how this kind of exercise of authority works: using moral authority to support solution-oriented policies, instead of the bully pulpit to ram ideological concessions down people’s throats; using carefully worded policy-speak to re-frame the entire scope of debate on a given issue, forcing even opponents into a debate within one’s vocabulary, i.e. winning the debate before it begins; listening to one’s opponents, even harvesting workable ideas from their agenda, but using those ideas to bolster one’s own position.

It is incomprehensible to seasoned Washington strategists that Obama is not using his high approval ratings and his bold agenda to bludgeon beleaguered Republicans to death in a campaign of character assassination and scorched-earth attacks. But Obama’s special quality of governing from balance and confidence is rooted in his belief that while the others may waste their energy on such games, actually governing effectively will always beat them. He intends to “lap” the Republicans over and over again, by getting things done, and so far, it has worked to an historic degree.

Know your enemy’s flaws, and avoid exhibiting them yourself. He is well aware of how toxic the Republican party’s vicious blood-and-guts politicking has been; he has seen Gingrich and DeLay go down in infamy; Rove’s name is synonymous with “liar” and Cheney is seen as a man so obsessed with strength that no principle and no ethics can contain his ambition.

You will notice that Obama exhibits none of these qualities, because he understands them to be a waste of time. If one wants to achieve important improvements to the quality of life of real people, the work is hard and the negotiations may be bitter, but open combat with one’s most bitter rivals is not an effective way to get there.

Obama’s way of relentlessly releasing new ideas and making much needed policy changes, always in line with his promises of reform oriented toward expanding transparency and ridding government of entrenched monied interests, has left the Republican party reeling. They keep waiting for something they can attack him for, on an all-day everyday basis, for weeks, and the struggle has left them looking like the party of “zero ideas” as one of their own recently confessed.

If we are to understand the “preternatural calm” or the legendary poise that was so often spoken of during the campaign, we have to take seriously Obama’s frequent admission that the campaign “was never about me”, that he was in it because the people needed someone to work for them. His focus is not on accumulating wealth and power, or is it on serving interests that have built him into an institution over several decades: it’s on doing the work he promised to do, and answering to the many millions who made his power base so genuinely grassroots.

Government of the people, by the people and for the people: Obama is qualified to use his own ideas and his own principles to effect this sort of government, because he was wide open about his policy proposals and his agenda from day one. He announced his bold reform initiatives over two years ago. His ideas were unpacked and deconstructed in the public eye, and he won sweeping support from voters to carry out his agenda. His soft-power strategy is far from weak; it is the manifestation of a deep reserve of political strength and commitment to effective reform.

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