Thursday, November 6, 2008

Expectations for Barack Obama

If Barack Obama and his team are serious about managing the expectations of the electorate, even with Inauguration Day a little over two month away, then, on the basis of the exchanges currently flying around on the pages of Truthdig, they are going to have to begin with those progressives who are already grousing about betrayal. Thus, for example, we can now read alarmist cries about Obama's "imperialist bent," which would not have been out of place in old Maoist propaganda tracts. Perhaps the progressives are afraid to confront just how close the kinship between politics and power is.

To do this we would do well to go back to Max Weber's "Politics as a Vocation" lecture. Weber begins with the proposition "that a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory." Within this premise he then defines "politics" as "striving to share power or striving to influence the distribution of power, either among states or among groups within a state." Thus, at the end of the day, any "head of state" has to make decisions about exercising power (i.e. physical force legitimately used) and the effectiveness of those decisions will depend on effective "power resource management." This may sound abstract and cold-blooded; but it can still serve as a lens through which we can few such things as the human dimension of values, be they progressive or regressive.

From this point of view, all questions of agenda are secondary to whether or not Obama will be able to assemble a team that will enable his own "effective power resource management." Unless he has such effective management skills, all questions about what he does with his power are academic. From this point of view, the crucial flaw of the Bush Administration is that they were so gung ho on amassing power (a key observation in David Bromwich’s piece on Dick Cheney in the latest New York Review) that little thought was given to exercising it effectively. If Obama can function effectively in the world of Weber-based abstractions, I have more hope for the future than I had with a President who could never seem to get beyond a faith-based concrete opposition of good against evil.

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