For this week, I thought we’d look a little more closely at one of the big similarities between—so far—every political book. Narrowing our pool of political books to the last five years means that every campaign book has been written under the Obama administration, and the current president is one of the few topics present in every book. Since Obama is the most present example of an American presidency, it would make sense that the candidates use him and his tenure and administration as a backstop to define themselves, but they do so in different ways.
Here’s the rundown:
Ben Carson is the one to mention the president least. There are just three index entries for “Obama, Barack” in the main part of the book. However, he does get some lingering attention in the book’s introduction. And well he should: part of Carson’s meteoric rise to fame was Obama’s reaction to Carson’s 2013 National Prayer Breakfast speech. Carson begins with saying that the event organizers were “somewhat concerned that I might say something that would offend the president” (x), although he never set out to offend anyone. He then compares the welcome reception under the Clinton and Obama administrations, in favor of the Clinton one (x). The transcript of the speech goes on for a few pages, then wraps up. The first comment after the end of the speech is “Many have commented that the president appeared to be uncomfortable during my speech, but I was not paying particular attention to him or his reactions, as my comments were really directed more at the American people than the people on the dais” (xxv). This encapsulates Ben Carson’s strategy and appeal. The focus is on the ‘American People,’ addressed in a religious context. The President stands in as the uncomfortable reaction of the liberal ‘elite,’ ‘media’, or the ‘secular progressives’ that come to stand for so much in the rest of Carson’s book. A conflict is introduced, and yet Carson rises above it. As I have noted elsewhere, even Bernie Sanders does exactly the same thing, using Obama’s reaction to his speech, and the insinuation that Obama scheduled a last-minute press conference to distract from it, as evidence of the Washington Establishment’s discomfort with Sanders’ message.
By contrast, the longest entry for “Obama, Barack” is Hillary Clinton, perhaps for obvious reasons. As a member of the Obama administration as Secretary of State in his first term, Clinton is in the awkward position of necessarily defending most of his positions and also trying to represent her own independence. In the first chapter of the book, “2008: A Team of Rivals,” Clinton runs through her failed 2008 campaign against Obama, then her apparently wholehearted turn toward being just a senator from New York. But then—“I was floored” (15) when he asked. Clinton portrays an extended period of a kind of courtship, where she sought advice, ran through her credentials—conveniently selling them for her future run for the presidency in her own right!—and eventually decided to take the job only because her “highest and best use” (17) was serving as Secretary of State. Most importantly, she is actively courted by the newly-elected president. “Yet my answer was still no. The President-elect again refused to accept that. “I want to get to yes,” he told me. “You’re the best person for the job.” He would not take no for an answer. That impressed me” (18). In a stroke, Clinton sells her foreign policy credentials but also shows that she is a sought-after politician, with even the figure of the most hopeful president of generation begging for her help.
Using the president as a figure of authority is not limited to Clinton’s friendly relationship. Scott Walker also makes some tenuous inferences from Obama’s presence and absence to elevate himself to a national stage. The index entry is telling: Under “Obama, Barack,” there is “failure to campaign against Walker in recall election, 167-173” (275), the pages here in the chapter “P.O.T.U.S. Is M.I.A.” Walker makes the argument that Obama’s absence from the state of Wisconsin during Walker’s recall election, after having made some remarks on the initial battle to pass Act 10 restricting public union rights, was a sign of defeat. Facing an election cycle of his own, Walker argues that Obama couldn’t afford to be seen associated with a cause that he had spoken out on and was going against him. Walker describes this as a “snub” (171), noting that Obama attended three fundraisers in Minnesota and then went to Chicago. While this may seem petulant, it nevertheless places Obama and Walker on a level playing field, and with the points on Walker’s side.
Bush and Paul score some points on Obama in different ways, but still take him mostly as a figurehead for his administration’s policy. As Bush says, “As a policy matter, we find much to commend in President Obama’s action. But he elevated ends over means, bypassing Congress and imposing by executive decree a policy that had been rejected through the legislative branch” (111). Obama is a ‘what-not-to-do’ example, although Bush scores a point for his own manners by being courteous in articulating this failing. Paul also goes after Obama in terms of an abuse of executive power: index entries include “exploding debt under, 279,” “lack of relations with Congress, 223-24,” and “separation of powers, 5-6, 7, 93-94, 223-24” (310). One of Paul’s main points is that if he were president, he would act to curtail executive power as expanded under the Obama and Bush administrations, so this makes sense. But it’s also important to notice that Paul conflates executive overreach with the out-of-touch image of Obama as a Ivy-educated, upper-class elite politician. When discussing schools and school choice, Paul notes that “There are excellent public schools across our country. My boys graduated from a great public high school, Bowling Green High, and I went to great public schools. The president’s girls go to a great private school. There are a lot of choices out there” (127). While, like Bush, this is framed as a neutral comment, it is nevertheless extraordinarily value-laden, painting both the president and Paul in very different but evocative lights in only a few words.
Lastly, Huckabee pulls this trick just as well. In talking about crude rap lyrics, Huckabee cites an interview Obama gave with Glamour magazine in which he said that while he and his daughter had some of the same tastes in rap, they didn’t listen to it together because “some of the language in there would embarrass me—at least while I’m listening to it with her” (40). Huckabee follows this up with sarcasm: “Oh. I see. The important thing is for him not to be embarrassed. (Guess he has enough to be embarrassed about, every night on the news! But I digress.)” (40, emphasis original). With Huckabee, this is again a simple but telling portrait of a cultural adversary, but Huckabee twists the knife by bringing viewers along with him in some cathartic insult. The audience shares in the sarcasm, and the president is reinforced as a buffoonish figure of the enemy.
What does this all mean? Primarily that the sitting president is a figure of power: by drawing on that power, leveling with it, or attacking it, candidates gain legitimacy. The president can act as himself, open to policy critiques, but more often stands for something larger, be it an oppositional group like the ‘Washington Establishment’ or the ‘Liberal Elite.’ Candidates can’t sell themselves as ‘just’ politicians, but have to position themselves in larger cultural narratives. Likewise, they have to build up a giant, even as a clown, to have the chance to become giants in turn.