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Why Obama Must Treat DOMA with Care

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he reflects on Presidents Obama and Bush. See his previous OUPblogs here.

Presidents array themselves along a continuum with two extremes: either they are crusaders for their cause or merely defenders of the faith. Either they attempt to transform the landscape of America politics, or they attempt to modify it in incremental steps. To cite the titles of the autobiographies of the current and last presidents: either presidents declare the “audacity of hope” or they affirm a “charge to keep.” If President Obama is the liberal crusader, President George Bush was the conservative defender.

The strategies of presidential leadership differ for the crusader and the defender, but President Obama appears to be misreading the nature of his mandate. Conciliation works for the defender; it can be ruinous to the would-be crusader.

The crusader must have his base with him, all fired up and ready to go. For to go to places unseen, the crusader must have the visionaries, even the crazy ones, on his side. The defender, conversely, must pay homage to partisans on the other side of the aisle because incremental change requires assistance from people, including political rivals, invested in the status quo. Moderate politics require moderate friends.

The irony is that President George Bush, a self-proclaimed defender – spent too much time pandering to his right-wing base, and Barack Obama – a self-proclaimed crusader, is spending a lot of time appeasing his political rivals. Their political strategies were out of sync, and perhaps even inconsistent with their political goals.

Take the issue of gay rights for President Obama. The President is trying so hard to prove to his socially conservative political rivals that he is no liberal wacko that he has reversed his previous support for a full repeal of The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). What he may not have realized is that it may be politically efficacious for a defender to ignore his base, but the costs to the crusader for alienating his base are far graver. Bipartisanship is not symmetrically rewarding in all leadership contexts.

Consider the example of President Bill Clinton, a “third-way” Democrat. He ended welfare as we knew it, and on affirmative action he said “mend it, don’t end it.” Much to Labor’s chagrin, he even passed NAFTA. Bill Clinton was no crusader. And if the Democratic base wanted a deal-making, favor-swapping politico, they would have nominated a second Clinton last year.
The crusader rides on a cloud of ideological purity. Without the zealotry and idolatry of the base, the crusader is nothing; his magic extinguished. And this is happening right now to Barack Obama.

The people who gave the man his luster are also uniquely enpowered to take it away. (It is a mistake to think that Sean Hannity or Michael Steele have this power.) Obama campaigned on changing the world, and his base can and will crush him for failing to deliver on his audacity. The Justice Department’s clumsy defense of DOMA via the case law recourse of incest and pedophilia may be a small matter in the administration’s scheme of things, but it is a big and repugnant deal to the base – the people who matter for a crusading president.

This is a pattern in the Obama administration: for the promise to pull troops out of Iraq there was the concomitant promise of more in Afghanistan, for the release of the OLC “torture memos,” operatives of harsh interrogation techniques were also offered immunity, in return for the administration’s defense of DOMA, Obama promised to extend benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees. This is incremental, transactional, and defensive leadership. Defenders balance; but crusaders are mandated to press on. Incremental leadership works for presidents mandated to keep a charge, but not for one who flaunted his audacity. There are distinct and higher expectations for a crusader-to-be; and if President Obama is to live up to his hype, then bear the crusader’s cross he must.

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