Politics & Media
Feb 15, 2010, 04:41AM

The Unrealized Prince

Barack Obama, Niccolo Machiavelli, and how the latter can help the former's presidency.

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Niccolo Machiavelli, the Italian courtier, was arguably the world’s first political consultant. His bloodless, calculating volume, The Prince, written more than six centuries ago as an exercise in flattery to the Magnificent Lorenzo de’ Medici, survives as the masterwork on how to seize and hold power. In it, Machiavelli lays down a set of historical principles for conquest as well as survival and success that apply as much today as when they were formulated. The guidelines for control have been applied to war as well as love and, yes, even legislative strategy.

The White House is no different from a Medici palace, a little less opulent, perhaps, but still nonetheless filled with plots, schemes and intrigue. Herewith, then, is a sampler of Machiavelli’s 15th Century survival kit as applied to America’s first black president and those wonderful Jacks and Jills who inhabit Capitol Hill, which when not snowbound is fogbound. All italicized quotations are from the Bantam Classic translation by Daniel Donno.

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Anyone who conquers such territories and wishes to hold on to them must do two things: the first is to extinguish the ruling family; the second is to alter neither the laws nor the taxes.

Machiavelli had beheading in mind. Nonetheless, President Obama decapitated the Republicans, and several Democrats along the way, after a Democratic dry spell of eight years. He promised no new taxes, but lower health care costs and a brand new economy with clean air and cheap energy. Simply put, Obama has had his ass handed to him several times on very complex issues by the vengeful Republican minority as well as his own undisciplined Democrats. He has resisted tax cuts, the GOP’s cure-all, and was forced to make painful decisions on two wars, but in the long run was undone by a halting economy that he had nothing to do with. And he altered very few laws because Republicans refused to adopt many of his proposals. But in the long view, Obama may come out on top. Republicans actually did Obama a favor by allowing him to play to his voter base on television, which they may not repeat. He pushed through a stimulus program, though some say was too little, too late, and altered neither taxes nor laws because he was unable or unwilling to exercise power. Thus, he may not wish, or be able, to hold on to the territories he has conquered for another four years. It may be concluded, therefore, that Obama failed to completely extinguish the ruling family of Republicans.

He who causes another to become powerful ruins himself, for he brings such a power into being either by design or by force, and both of these elements are suspect to the one whom he has made powerful.

Translation: A smart politician never allows a second power center to develop. Power is the appearance of having power. Of the big three in Washington, Obama is the apparent loser in the short view along with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and, perhaps, many others. But in the long term he might still rise to the top of the heap. His legislation to reform health care has become the fulcrum for a power struggle. It allowed House Minority Leader John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to dominate the debate, Boehner the health industry ally and McConnell exercising the old Republican ju-jitsu just for the hell of it. Republicans have learned that if they push Obama he won’t push back. Obama even went so far as to court members of Congress on Capitol Hill, boosting their egos as well as their appearance of control. Obama casually let power slip away by refusing to exercise it in the name and claim of bipartisanship. Lawmakers cherish being summoned to the President’s office and being cajoled for their vote. Obama should have conducted such business in his own oval office, not in Congress’ territory. And in others, Obama may have unnecessarily given rise to prospective challengers in 2012. It is another story in 2010 when even Obama’s allies appear to be deserting him to save their own skins as is the nature of politics.

I say, therefore, that the degree of difficulty which a newly risen prince in a newly founded state encounters will depend upon the degree of ability he possesses. And since his rise from private citizen to prince presupposes either ability or good fortune, it would appear that one or the other of these factors will in part reduce his difficulties.

Obama was both lucky and smart—lucky to have had Sen. John McCain and Sarah Palin as opponents, and smart to have run a tactically flawless campaign. Yet Obama, for all of his mesomorphic charm and his 50,000 kilowatt smile, has had difficulty shifting from campaign mode to presidential grandeur. Obama’s photo-op looks, however, fail to transcend bruising headlines, and his television omnipresence zings over the heads of critics on the left, right and middle and fails to connect with his voter base that elected him. His difficulties derive from a divided-government hot house, but diminish greatly on the road. His White House problems might eventually be a benefit among voters and reverse the downslide.

Injuries must be committed all at once so that, being savored less, they will arouse less resentment. Benefits, on the other hand, should be bestowed little by little so as to be more fully savored.

Patronage is a system of rewards and punishments. So, too, are the gee-gaws that inform the budget, such as earmarks. Of special importance are the favors to members of Congress, as well as bank bailouts and auto industry subsidies, which are dribbled out piecemeal over the term of office. Reviewing them is shorthand for determining who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. Having the president’s private-line phone number isn’t a bad perk, either. Therefore, it would have been wise and expedient for Obama to hold up Sen. Joseph Leiberman as an example of deceit and treachery on the health care issue by stripping him of his subcommittee chairmanship and eliminating him from the Democratic caucus. Thus, others would have learned from the lesson that the White House will tolerate no insubordination.

I will conclude by saying only that the good will of the people is vital to a prince; otherwise he will be helpless in times of adversity … Therefore a wise prince must provide in such a way that, in whatever circumstances, the citizens will always be in need of him and of his government. Then they will always be loyal to him.

Obama claims to be a man of many mandates: a mandate for change, a mandate for health care reform and a mandate for climate change legislation. Yet the nation and the budget address many individual constituencies which, if properly delivered, add up to one large constituency. Think of the budget as legal walk-around money, able to inveigle voters through programs and support, and it’s simple to see why people become dependent on government and presidents. Loyalty and the dispensing of favors translate into winning elections. Yet Obama has been punked by the polls. People are disappointed in his feckless leadership, with very good reason.

Hence, it is necessary that a prince who is interested in his survival learn to be other than good, making use of this capacity or refraining from it according to need.

Decoded: Don’t get mad, get even. Obama has displayed a short fuse on occasion, but he has yet to show a penchant for administering a well-aimed stiletto not in the back but right up front in the chest.

Therefore, it is better to have a name for miserliness, which breeds disgrace without hatred, than, in pursuing a name for liberality, to resort to rapacity, which breeds both disgrace and hatred.

Obama, wrongly described as progressive (liberal) in a nation that’s dead-center, claims he has a mandate for miserliness (see mandate above.) He’s vowed to cut spending (which nobody believes), downsize government and avoid new taxes, for the present at least. Obama is actually taking reducing government spending seriously, or so he says, while at the same time raising the debt limit by $2 trillion. Hardly a showcase for liberalism, and certainly not rapacious in the pursuit of generosity, Obama and his family are the Huxtables of American politics: He’s likeable enough, that is, except for the 20 percent of the population who, in polls, say they dislike him because he’s black.

Here a question arises: whether it is better to be loved than feared, or the reverse. The answer is, of course, that it would be best to be both loved and feared.

Say what? Obama is an egghead and a charmer, perhaps more liked than loved, and surely not feared. He thinks like a legislator, which he was for a few years, instead of a decision-maker and shaper of policy, which a president should be. As a member of the U.S. Senate, he was one of 100, able to shuck and jive, bob and weave, walk the halls virtually unbothered. As president, he’s one-of-one, living in a shark tank, accountable for every word, thought and deed. Less basketball and more hardball would cure the problem.

Hence a prince ought to be a fox in recognizing snares and a lion in driving off wolves.

There are no such animals in the White House unless they’re in the toy chest of First Daughters Malia and Sasha. There are only Harvard Barack and Chicago Barack. Obama has demonstrated that he is neither lion nor fox. His muted roar scares no one and he is constantly out-foxed by Republicans and even some in his own party of Democrats. And frisky First Dog Bo, like his master, is more bark than bite.

It follows, then, that a wise prince cannot and should not keep his pledge when it is against his interest to do so and when his reasons for making the pledge are no longer operative.

Hey, Barack. In politics, it’s no sin to change your mind, as you have several times on health care and Gitmo. And it’s even okay to fib a little. Just don’t get caught. The princeling, in this case Obama, should refrain from discussing what action he’ll take on legislation pending before the Congress. The Obama Administration, including President Barack himself, suffers from logorrhea on this point. He and his spokesmen should say only that a decision will be made when the bill reaches his desk, therefore avoiding influencing legislation and ticking off legislators with untimely statements. The Obama administration’s hallmark: Too many people talking too much and not sticking to the party line, of which the problem is that there seems to be none.

Princes should delegate unpopular duties to others while dispensing all favors directly themselves.

Simply put, the president delivers the good news, and subordinates announce the bad. Thus, a good example of an abuse of this fundamental principle of governance is Obama’s decision to personally choose where the terrorist trials will be held.

In addition to all this, at the appropriate time of year, he ought to keep the people occupied with festivals and spectacles … [and he should occasionally assemble the people] thus giving proof of his affability and munificence, yet never failing to bear the dignity of his position in mind, for this must never be lacking.

Obama is master of the permanent campaign. Lacking the bread to do much else, Obama at least has the wit to put on a good circus. He’s a regular talking head on television as if he’s glued to a teleprompter. And the effervescent Michelle is available to serve as chair of whatever worthy event, most recently the slimming down of America’s youth. And if his first session with Congress weren’t spectacle enough, President Barack even put on a roadshow, taking government directly to the people and away from Capitol Hill Republicans, with many town hall meetings in America’s Palookavilles. It will not escape most citizens that this is otherwise known as feigning populism.

For this is a general rule that never fails: a prince who is not wise himself cannot be wisely counseled, unless by chance he should have a sole counselor by whom he is ruled in all matters.

A smart politician keeps those around him off balance. He never allows a single member too much influence or an inordinate amount of face time. Obama appears to be his own closest counselor, both a blessing and a curse, often displaying intellectual supremacy instead of patience and reason. If a single counselor other than himself exists, it is this consideration: In politics, pillow talk is a powerful weapon.

But I surely think that it is better to be impetuous than to be cautious, for fortune is a woman and in order to be mastered she must be jogged and beaten. And it may be noted that she submits more readily to boldness than to cold calculation.

Block that metaphor. Coarse but nonetheless true, a legislative body occasionally needs to be whipped into submission by the gentle arts of persuasion and patronage and, occasionally when necessary, outright threats and political force.

Above all, a prince should treat his subjects in such a way that no event, whether good or bad, will cause him to alter his conduct.

Voters become suspicious of politicians who waffle or change character abruptly, as Obama has done recently, especially on health care and his attempted shift from professor in-chief to national folklorist. As Machiavelli would say, in his 15th century Florentine dialect, bipartisanship is baloney. When you have power, use it. Obama and the Capitol Hill Democrats are now lamenting the loss of their Senate super majority of a filibuster proof 60 votes. For if the truth be told, they didn’t know how to use the super majority of Democrats when they had it.

… many believe that, when occasion serves, a wise prince will cunningly provoke opposition and then, by routing it, increase his own stature.

Creating a problem only to solve it was a characteristic of many presidents, such as FDR, LBJ, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. When outrage reached the appropriate pitch, they would dispatch a problem only to quietly recede, leaving the populace swooning over the achievement. A good example is Roosevelt’s attempt to pack the Supreme Court. Johnson, personally unpopular but feared on Capitol Hill, enacted Great Society programs, for which he was praised, but left the funding of them to Nixon.

Johnson supported voting rights legislation, for which he was praised and damned, while warning Democrats they would never carry the South again because of it. Nixon, personally loathed, achieved posthumous recognition as the last liberal president. And the priapic Clinton emerged heroic after forcing a showdown with House Speaker Newt Gingrich over shutting down the government over a budget dispute. And Clinton is beloved for his foundation work among poor nations around the world. Each of these men won greater stature which enabled them to force their will on the Congress. The closest Obama has come to engaging a problem was to fire the White House legal counsel for gumming up the closing of Gitmo, which, to this day, remains open.

Mr. President, you’ve created a problem with health care, now solve it and you will not only be beloved but respected and revered. It’s called leadership.

  • Entertaining article but would be lost on the rookie Obama. They may call you a dreamer, Sir, and now you're about the only one.

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  • Right, it would be lost on the rookie Obama. A rookie who enacted the largest tax cut in American history through the stimulus package, which is so chock full of other policy victories (something Machiavelli would have suggested he spread out), including quietly landmark education reform, as well desperately needed retooling of the regulatory agencies the Bush Administration callously left to rot. Yes, he used a lot of political capital getting that package through Congress. But look at what it did? Stopped the hemorrhaging economy, added four points of growth, put down payments on overhauls of green tech and the digitization of health care, etc etc. It's pretty hard to believe a general straight shooter like the author would succumb to of-the-moment beltway hand wringing and myopic admonishment. Yes, health care is in the muck—some of it his own doing, some of it not—but to use this issue as some sort of perfect umbrella definition for what has been, so far, by nearly every relevant and relative measurement, a successful first year, is simply baffling.

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  • I hope, for Obama's sake, that all his supporters remain as loyal as you. Yes, the stimulus was at least a minor accomplishment because it spread around money (although the majority to Democratic-favored projects) and made Americans feel like the President was doing something to make things less terrible. Economists differ, aside from Paul Krugman, who blasted Obama for being a skinflint on the stimulus, but in reality a lot of the spending didn't hit the broad side of the barn. And really, if Obama's first year was successful, I don't think the likes of Evan Bayh, to note just the latest defection, would've decided not to seek a reelection he'd probably have won.

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  • Since when has Bayh been an indicator or anything other than his own desire to be the leader of something? New Dems, Blue Dogs, etc. Every time that guy tries to lead something it fails. No, it's not great for Dems that he's leaving, but he certainly wasn't a consistent vote, and to cast his leaving as a something doom and gloomy for Obama is a stretch.

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  • "...made Americans feel like the President was doing something to make things less terrible." That was refreshing, wasn't it?

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  • Bayh has been a leader: two terms as governor of Indiana, two terms as a senator from that usually Republican state. And his defection is a big deal for Dems, at least for now. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/16/us/politics/16bayh.html?hp

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  • Er, defection? Disappointing/shocking, perhaps, but I don't see any indication he's running as a Republican for anything.

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