On Jan. 20, George W. Bush will leave office and Americans will breathe a sigh of relief. While national policies will change, there will be a dramatic shift in style. Bush and Barack Obama have different views of presidential power: the imperial presidency will be succeeded by an era of democratic leadership.
While Bush’s autocratic design for the office of the presidency snuck up on most Americans, it was evident in his August 2000 speech accepting the Republican nomination. After attacking his predecessors (“For eight years the Clinton-Gore administration has coasted through prosperity...they had their chance, they have not led.”), Bush self-promoted as a proven leader and person of “character:” “I’ve been where the buck stops in business and in government. I’ve been a chief executive who sets an agenda, sets big goals, and rallies people to believe and achieve them.” Bush promised to run the federal government as if it were a giant corporation. While the notion of electing a “CEO President” seized the imagination of many voters, few considered that corporations are not democratic organizations and corporation presidents rule as autocrats. Even fewer voters realized that Bush had falsified his credentials: He was neither an experienced CEO nor a person with a strong moral foundation, but rather a politician wearing a persona skillfully fabricated by Karl Rove.
Following his controversial 2000 election, George Bush occupied the White House and expanded executive power. After the trauma of 9/11, he put on the cloak of commander-in-chief and used it to justify his imperial designs: abrogation of the intended effect of legislation by the use of “signing statements”; suspension of historic checks and balances in the name of national security; restriction on the use and distribution of intelligence information; and dissolution of the right of habeas corpus and either elemental civil liberties.
After eight disastrous years, it’s become painfully evident that George Bush has not been an effective leader; he has neither reined in the federal bureaucracy nor provided the bold vision he promised. Furthermore, he has not proven to be a person of high moral character; his administration has been characterized by manipulation and deceit. And, his presidency has not been good for American democracy; Bush has weakened the elemental fabric of government—the separation of powers—and demoralized the electorate with his implicit message that individual Americans do not have a role to play in the body politic. He’s run an active presidency at the expense of a passive citizenry.
Considering this background, what kind of president will Barack Obama be? How will he view presidential power? From the onset of his campaign, Obama has had a different view of the role of the president. On Feb. 10, 2007, Obama announced his candidacy by establishing the populist theme that would resonate throughout his campaign: “This campaign can’t only be about me. It must be about us—it must be about what we can do together...This campaign has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, restoring our sense of common purpose, and realizing that few obstacles can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change.” Obama approached the presidency from his background as a community organizer. He saw his role being more of a facilitator than a CEO.
In his Nov. 10, 2007 oration at the Iowa Democratic Party Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner, Obama amplified his elemental theme of “we’re in this together”: “I am not in this race to fulfill some long-held ambitions or because I believe it’s somehow owed to me... The only reason that I’m standing here today is because somebody, somewhere stood up for me when it was risky... And because that somebody stood up, a few more stood up. And then a few thousand stood up. And then a few million stood up. And standing up, with courage and clear purpose, they somehow managed to change the world... I’m running... to keep the American Dream alive for those who still hunger for opportunity, who still thirst for equality.”
In his Aug. 28 acceptance speech Obama added: “Change happens because the American people demand it—because they rise up and insist on new ideas and new leadership, a new politics for a new time.” Finally, on election night, he summarized: “Let us summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other. Let us remember [in the United States], we rise or fall as one nation; as one people.”
America has survived eight years of George Bush, the CEO president, who took his authority from the office of the president and disregarded the wishes of the people. On Jan. 20, we’ll enter the era of Barack Obama, the community-organizer president, who gets his authority from the American people and counts on a renewed sense of citizen participation in our democracy.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.