Monday, March 25, 2013

Two presidents on popular sovereignty

Last week, Andrew Sullivan rather arrestingly juxtaposed George Washington's warning against a nation indulging "passionate affection" for another nation and Obama's declaration in his speech upon arrival in Israel that "our alliance is eternal, it is forever – lanetzach.”

So now we know that Obama laid on the schmaltz as precondition to challenging Israelis a day later to secure their own future by offering justice to the Palestinians. In that challenge, Gershom Gorenberg sees a vital fusion of  venue and message:
The first breakthrough was in method: Obama started by negotiating with the Israeli public. The choice of venue, an auditorium full of university students rather than the Knesset, was not a glitch, as many people thought beforehand. The venue was the message: The politicians have been too slow, so I'm stepping around them to talk to normal Israelis first.
That appeal directly to popular sovereignty suggests another presidential pairing across the centuries.  First, consider Obama's understanding of bottom-up sovereignty in the Jerusalem speech:

Four years ago, I stood in Cairo in front of an audience of young people. Politically, religiously, they must seem a world away. But the things they want – they're not so different from you. The ability to make their own decisions; to get an education and a good job; to worship God in their own way; to get married and have a family. The same is true of the young Palestinians that I met in Ramallah this morning, and of young Palestinians who yearn for a better life in Gaza.

That is where peace begins – not just in the plans of leaders, but in the hearts of people; not just in a carefully designed process, but in the daily connections that take place among those who live together in this land, and in this sacred city of Jerusalem. Speaking as a politician, I can promise you this: political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must create the change that you want to see.
Compare Lincoln, addressing a crowd in Indianapolis while en route to take up the presidency of a nation on the verge of civil war:
I will only say to the salvation of the Union there needs but one single thing, the hearts of a people like yours.

The people, when they rise in mass in behalf of the Union, and the liberties of their country, truly may it be said. "The gates of hell cannot prevail against them." In all trying positions in which I shall be placed, and, doubtless, I shall be placed in many such, my reliance will be placed upon you and the people of the United States; and I wish you to remember, now and forever, that it is your business, and not mine; that if the union of these States, and the liberties of this people shall be lost, it is but little to any one man of 52 years of age, but a great deal to the thirty millions of people who inhabit these United States, and to their posterity in all coming time. It is your business to rise up and preserve the Union, and liberty for yourselves, and not for me.

I desire they should be constitutionally per-formed. I, as already intimated, am but an accidental instrument, temporary, and to serve but for a limited time, and I appeal to you again to constantly bear in mind that with you, and not with politicians, not with Presidents, not with office-seekers, but with you, is the question -- Shall the Union and shall the liberties of this country be preserved to the latest generations?  
And again,  Obama at the DNC last fall:
As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and  frustrating but necessary work of self-government.

So you see, the election four years ago wasn't about me. It was about you.  My fellow citizens - you were the change.

You're the reason there's a little girl with a heart disorder in Phoenix who'll  get the surgery she needs because an insurance company can't limit her  coverage. You did that.

You're the reason a young man in Colorado who never thought he'd be able to  afford his dream of earning a medical degree is about to get that chance.  You made that possible...

If you turn away now - if you buy into the cynicism that the change we fought for isn't possible.well, change will not happen. If you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference, then other voices will fill the void: lobbyists and special interests; the people with the $10 million checks who are trying to buy this election and those who are making it harder for you to vote; Washington politicians who want to decide who you can marry, or control health care choices that women should make for themselves.

Only you can make sure that doesn't happen. Only you have the power to move us forward.
I've noted before that Obama's understanding of bottom-up sovereignty is rooted in his experience as a community organizer, the early work experience in which, as he recently recalled to his young supporters, "I became a man." But his understanding of political process is just as surely rooted in Lincoln's -- he's made no bones about that:
Lincoln is a president I turn to often. From time to time, I’ll walk over to the Lincoln Bedroom and reread the handwritten Gettysburg Address encased in glass, or reflect on the Emancipation Proclamation, which hangs in the Oval Office, or pull a volume of his writings from the library in search of lessons to draw.

It's important to note that Obama does not bid to sway public opinion so much as to tap it, focus it, galvanize it. Like Lincoln, he trusts the people to make the right decisions on the big stuff.  He may, however, as  Ezra Klein warned last fall, be wrong about the power of popular opinion to move elected officials. His "balanced approach" to deficit reduction is far more popular than the Republicans' cuts-only approach, but national opinion does not look likely to move House GOP members off their no-new-taxes fundamentalism.  I don't think that Obama has been under the naive impression that he could sway public opinion. But he may prove almost equally naive in apparently assuming that by marshaling public opinion that's already on his side he can budge the GOP.   Calling on citizens to call their Congressional reps is no substitute for good negotiation.

Leverage, afforded by the expiration of appropriations, debt limits, and tax cuts, matters more in the short term at least than opinion polls.  Perhaps constituent pressure as the sequestration cuts bite will tip the balance back Obama's way. But it's at least equally likely that the damage and pain wrought by the cuts will manifest themselves too gradually and too diffusely to generate the requisite pressure.

p.s. Gorenberg's understanding of the dynamics of Obama's appeal to Israelis is incomparable. Do read it.

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