Our Fearless Politics

For now, fear is gone from Washington. What will happen when it returns?

President George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki

When George Bush ducked shoes hurled at him Sunday at a press conference in Baghdad, it wasn’t his only recent experience with defiance. Last week he urged his fellow Republicans to back a $14 billion bailout of the car industry, and they ignored him. We’re all familiar with the powerlessness of a lame duck president. But usually there aren’t events that so clearly celebrate it. Bush came into office boasting that he knew how to use the political capital of the presidency. Now he’s showing us what it looks like to be completely without political capital.

No one is afraid of the big bad W. In fact, the threat level in all of Washington is generally low. Fear, which has always played an important role in focusing the minds of politicians, has dissipated, even as an ever-souring economy and turmoil in South Asia give us all more to be afraid of. Even fear itself, which has been used to justify so much public policy, just isn’t what it used to be. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid warned Republicans who voted against the auto bailout that they would be responsible for tanking the stock market the next day. The Dow closed up 64 points Friday.

Some of this is to be expected. In addition to Bush’s twilight status, members of the House are as far from an election as they can be, which makes them less fearful of voters. But there are also factors unique to the new landscape.

Democrats, giddy after years in the wilderness, have big majorities in the House and the Senate—and the freedom that comes with emergency. First they’ll shape $1 trillion in stimulus spending. Then, they’ll take on Barack Obama’s bold public-works programs, health care reform, and energy legislation. Republicans, battered and bruised, have nothing to lose and therefore fear no one. With no clear leader and competing theories for how to rescue the GOP, everyone is acting out.

In less than 40 days, there will be a new sheriff in town. But Obama has promised that hope rather than fear will rule the city. But not only did Obama run his campaign on hope; he also ran against fear as the justifying language of public policy. Michelle Obama articulated it most succinctly: “I am tired of being afraid. I am tired of living in a country where every decision that we’ve made over the last 10 years wasn’t for something but it was because people told us that we had to fear something.”

Obama shows no signs of using his popularity to bend people to his will. His temperament is more of a persuader than an arm twister. Drawing on his experience as a community organizer, he will look to build bonds and buy-ins and bridges, not pressure reluctant allies into a forced march. His initial moves all point in this direction: He has put Republicans in his Cabinet and sought their counsel, and asked his aides to do the same. His chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, known for his toughness, is receiving praise—even from Republicans—for being approachable. Having run on hope, Obama plans to govern on it as well.

This will be a departure from his predecessors. Lyndon Johnson used the whole palette of emotions to set the tone for his presidency—guilt, affection, and ambition—but fear was his most powerful weapon. “I never trust a man unless I have his pecker in my pocket,” he once said. When Ronald Reagan fired air traffic controllers in his first term, he increased his leverage because it showed he wasn’t afraid to act. When George W. Bush came into office, he preached bipartisan cooperation, but it soon became clear that he was willing to punish those who deviated from the administration line. Because he tried to use fear so aggressively, he was immediately singed: Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont bucked at being pressured by the White House and left the party, giving Democrats control of the Senate.

Washington veterans, intimately familiar with the immutable laws of politics, assume that Obama’s new approach won’t last. Eventually, they think, he’ll come up against an immovable object and he’ll have to start putting actual heat on his opponents—or pressure on his allies.

And there are already signs that niceness won’t cut it. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell * didn’t support the car bailout despite presidential pressure—from a fellow Republican no less—and the threat of getting blamed for further endangering the economy and ruining American car manufacturers. He’s not the kind of fellow who is going to cave to Obama. Moreover, Republicans can’t just agree with Obama all the time, or party activists will get even more cranky. Soon enough, Republicans will stop producing flaccid attacks that only help Obama and start to redefine themselves, and that will mean clashes. Sometimes that will lead to clashes meant purely for public show.

Obama may have to stop following the guidance in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, says one Democratic veteran, and start heeding something closer to Machiavelli’s advice that “since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.”

Obama’s most powerful weapon is that he comes into office with an enormous mandate. An astounding 67 percent of respondents in a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll say they have positive feelings about him (45 percent say very positive)—a jump of 10 points from pre-election surveys. And the public is patient. Despite some recent press coverage, there is no revolt in the left wing of his party. Obama will be feared in Washington because he is loved in the country. “It’s like gunboat diplomacy,” one Washington veteran told me. Opponents surrender or give up the fight because they don’t want to risk being on the wrong side of public opinion.

The question for Obama is not likely to be whether he uses fear to govern but how he does. Maybe he will choose to obliterate Republican opposition by shaming them by name and turning the public against them. But that carries a risk. His popularity is based, in large part, on the promise that he’ll make good on his pledge to be a post-partisan change agent. If he looks like too much of a partisan—or aides look too rough acting on his behalf—he’ll damage his brand. That’s why he barely inserted himself into the Georgia Senate race or the ongoing recount battle in the Minnesota Senate race.

The first inklings about Obama’s new approach will appear shortly after he’s inaugurated. He will almost certainly be presented with a stimulus package within the first days of his administration. Working out the details of a $1 trillion package rushed through Congress will require the kind of serious deal-making and maneuvering that new presidents usually don’t have to engage in so soon. Obama faces risks no matter what he does—the risk of failing to implement his policies if he doesn’t knock some heads or the risk of tarnishing his standing if he does. It could be paralyzing—but only if he gives in to fear.

Correction, Dec. 15, 2008: This article originally misidentified Mitch McConnell as the Senate majority leader. He is the minority leader. (Return to the corrected sentence.)