Niccolò Machiavelli, pictured at right, lived in Florence, Italy, during the 15th and 16th centuries. He held an administrative position in government there. Yet he developed far more than a superficial, bureaucratic attitude toward his post. He became a sharply perceptive observer of power politics and, even more so, a dispassionate student of the subject. He had no interest in moralizing about the ways in which a ruler should use his power. Idealism was no part of his aim as a writer. On the contrary, he described how things are in government, and did so in a calm, detached manner. In his treatise, The Prince, it is as if Machiavelli pulls back the curtain separating political appearances from their corresponding realities. One must at times take a deep breath to continue reading. This is a political philosopher who came to grips with the shadow side of human nature, saw its manifestations in the mechanisms of power, and wrote about these realities in a way that was remarkably clear-eyed and honest.
What do you suspect Machiavelli might say about our own prince, Mr. Obama? As we know, he's one who ignores the law as he wishes. Examine his actions, for instance, on immigration and healthcare. He's sought to change immigration law administratively, with his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which is simply his own version of the Dream Act, a bill that could not pass Congress. Our prince has also claimed the “executive authority” to re-write portions of the Affordable Care Act by unilaterally delaying the employer mandate for a year. These actions may or may not be constitutional, but they are without doubt a slap in the face of Congress. They're insulting both to the members of the institution and to the people they represent. Our prince's actions have therefore engendered suspicion, hostility, and hatred.
Machiavelli might have a word of wisdom for Mr. Obama regarding his treatment of Congressmen and their constituents: “The prince must . . . avoid those things which will make him hated or despised.” And again: “[O]ne of the most potent remedies that a prince has against conspiracies, is that of not being hated by the mass of the people; for whoever conspires always believes that he will satisfy the people by the death of their prince. . . .” Assassins like John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, and James Earl Ray were hateful men, who all thought that they would be embraced as heroes. Because Mr. Obama has been a controversial, polarizing figure, and deeply despised like few American presidents, the security surrounding him is heavy as it should be.
Let me be clear here. I know that other presidents have had abysmally low approval ratings. But I'm referring to a disposition far more visceral than mere numbers reflected in job ratings. Mr. Obama provokes a virulent rage of which his perceived incompetence is only one element. He's widely viewed by many as a pretender and liar, who has little respect for traditional American culture and its values.
But you say, “Wait a second. This man has a reformer’s heart and is attempting to reconstruct a system that's broken. He should be given credit for that. Furthermore, reformers can always expect a powerful backlash.” Machiavelli issued a solemn warning to a prince bent upon reform: “It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favour; and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.” Reformers may expect a backlash proportionate in power to how broad and far-reaching the changes are that are made. Immigration and healthcare are hot-button issues, sure to provoke defenders of the old order like few other issues will and, at the same time, to deplete a prince's reservoir of political capital.
The thin ice over which Mr. Obama is skating with Congress and a growing mass of the citizenry is only the beginning of his problems. He has recently been insulted on the world stage by Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Bashar Assad of Syria. Our prince, as we know, drew an ill-advised “red line” in the Arab sands concerning the use of chemical weaponry and has since cowered in the face of its consequences. He looks to many like a pusillanimous panty-waist, who lacks the support of even his own countrymen. Thanks to sheer fortuity, or to what conservative political commentator Andrea Tantaros has crudely, but forthrightly, termed John Kerry’s “brain fart,” the prospect of a negotiated settlement of the Syrian crisis has apparently spared Mr. Obama from having to act as commander in chief and from being harshly rebuffed by Congress. Yet Putin is obviously directing the international play and, in doing so, is aggregating additional power to himself. Whether Assad is ever divested of chemical weapons seems a longshot. His security in office seems likewise strengthened.
Once again Machiavelli’s words remain painfully relevant. He writes, “[The prince] is rendered despicable by being thought changeable, frivolous, effeminate, timid, and irresolute. . . .” There have certainly been a number of tragic international mistakes by men who have occupied the presidency, but their sins have been bold ones. There was nothing "changeable, frivolous, effeminate, timid, and irresolute" about Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, or the Bushes. Mr. Obama most closely resembles Jimmy Carter. The American public saw the latter as incompetent and sophomoric perhaps, but never as a liar or, for that matter, a sissy.
Mr. Obama is perhaps best described, in the international world of power politics, as an abject weakling. He is, in the opinion of Mr. Clinton, a rank “amateur,” drowning in a job that exceeds his knowledge and experience. Neither the right nor the left, if the truth be known, respects him. He’s traversed the world apologizing to tyrants and thugs for the actions of America, a nation he’s sworn to lead. He has sought to be loved and admired by America's poor and the Third World. This, according to Machiavelli, is another glaring error in judgment. For a prince, “it is much safer to be feared than loved . . . . [as] men have less scruple in offending one who makes himself loved than one who makes himself feared; for love is held by a chain of obligation which, men being selfish, is broken whenever it serves their purpose; but fear is maintained by a dread of punishment which never fails.”
Birds of prey are circling the White House. How could they not? Terrible events appear sure to result. Mr. Obama is no longer feared, if he ever was. Nor is he loved. So how best may we describe his status?
In 2007, Tom Brokaw and Charlie Rose, two men of a liberal cast of mind, were discussing this prince-to-be, and each acknowledged, almost ludicrously considering their fervent support of him, that not much was known of this candidate in terms of how he viewed the world and which advisers had his ear. Although they were far too politically correct to admit it, they along with others who voted for him were buying “a pig and a poke.” They liked the idea of an African-American occupying the Oval Office. How could he be bad when he sounded so good? Anyone, after all, was better than the inarticulate, strutting “cowboy” from Texas.
Who Mr. Obama was is now clear to most people whose eyes are at least half-open. He’s a political neophyte and something of an international laughingstock. He's an embarrassment to patriots with the smallest grain of toughness in their thought. Our prince is certainly a glib talker, but one suited more to the pulpit in an African-American church or to "the civil rights racket" than to national and international diplomacy.
Not only will Mr. Obama pay for the miserable impression he's making, but I fear that you and I will as well.
September 15, 2013