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Lasciate che Obama sia Obama!


"Let Reagan be Reagan!" That was the slogan of Ronald Reagan's conservative followers. They were afraid that their leader's sharp ideological thrust was being blunted by timidity and moderation. The shrewder among them were also aware that, while a president of the United States is very powerful, he is not omnipotent.

Now, in the interval between Barack Obama's election and his inauguration, there is a deep yearning, in America and abroad, for Obama to be Obama.


Let him be the apostle of change he has always claimed to be. Let him sweep away the miasma of foreign and domestic disasters that persuaded so many Americans to vote for him. Let him end the war in Iraq, close Guantánamo and fire the torturers, but let him also end the growing inequality of American life.


Many would go further, and hope, too, that he will end the deregulation and the dismantling of the powers of government to protect the people that have led so directly to the economic crisis.


At the same time there is an awareness that Obama will not be able to do all that his supporters expect of him, or indeed all that he would like to do.


Even the strongest of presidents have complained of the limitations on presidential power. "Every president", said Lyndon B Johnson, "has to establish with the various sectors of the country what I would call ‘the right to govern'". On another occasion he put it more bluntly. "The only power I've got is nuclear, and I can't use that!"


Franklin D Roosevelt, the most effective president in the last century, expressed his frustration with the bureaucracies who nominally served him. "To change anything in the N-a-a-v-y", he drawled, "is like punching a featherbed!".


So it seems timely to take a look at the specific constraints that will bind Obama so that he may not "be Obama", as so many want him to be.


The limits of power


There are obvious financial and economic constraints imposed by the economic crisis. Obama has said that the economy will be his first priority. Whatever strategy or mix of strategies he adopts to make the recession as shallow and as short-lived as possible, resources for bold initiatives are bound to be limited.


There are, too, the constraints imposed by his own personality. Barack Obama is an unusually complicated man. He is indeed in many ways a radical. He is also a conservative. Three values, in particular, that are massively important to him are at the heart of what has been historically the conservative personality.


He is a religious man: not a Muslim, as some in his family were, and as his enemies pretend, but a Christian, one who has chosen the Christian faith consciously and as a mature adult.


He is a patriot and an American exceptionalist. Like other great American radicals before him, from Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King, the motivation to which he constantly appeals is the idea that in America, more than elsewhere, higher standards of political and social morality must be observed. Good for him: at the same time he will not instinctively look for political ideas abroad.


As he shows in the charming affection he shows to his wife and his daughters, he has the strong sense of family that is natural to a man whose family, though loyal and affectionate, was in several respects dysfunctional.


So we should not expect him to be driven by an instinctive wish to overturn the applecart. He is sincere when he says he wants change. He will not want to try to change everything.


Like every politician, and especially every politician who has captured his party's nomination not as the beneficiary of a long-earned legitimacy but as an insurgent, Obama is constrained by the ideas and values of the immediate circle of his supporters and advisers. To be sure, because he has raised so much money in small amounts, often over the internet from hundreds of thousands of donors, he is not in hock to big business and special interests. But he has made friends and incurred obligations on his astonishingly brief rise to the top.


He will do much for African-Americans and also for Hispanic-Americans. But he is hardly their prisoner. In Illinois, the traditional "race men" neither liked nor trusted him. Even the Reverend Jesse Jackson, a more substantial figure than envious black members of the Illinois legislature, was even recorded in a moment of un-Christian annoyance uttering an earthy insult directed against him.


More restricting, perhaps, are the feelings of a group that supported him less enthusiastically than African-Americans: working-class, or "blue-collar" voters. Obama will be under pressure to adopt at least some protectionist measures to calm the fears of industrial workers who have lost their jobs or are afraid of losing them to foreign competition.


One reason, among several, why he has been talking to Hillary Clinton about a job in his administration - perhaps as secretary of state - is to buckle to himself two groups she was more successful at reaching out to in the campaign than he was: blue-collar workers, and women.


One constraint on the power of every president, especially underestimated outside the United States, is the power of Congress. Obama's coat-tails, as they say, were quite long. Democrats will have a more substantial majority in the House of Representatives than speaker Nancy Pelosi has been able to count on since the mid-term elections of 2006.


In the Senate, the new president will have fifty-seven or fifty-eight votes (depending whether the comedian Al Franken can win a seat in Minnesota that is still undecided). To apply the cloture rule and end debate, you need sixty votes. On many issues, Obama will be able to win the handful of Republican votes he needs to pass legislation he wants. But not on all.
Party loyalty and party organisation in the United States are not so mechanistic that a president, even one with an arithmetical majority in both houses of Congress, can count on getting what he wants. Here he will run into the most important constraints of all.


Between ideal and reality


There are issues where the will of the American people, especially as organised by long-established and well-funded lobbies, sets rather tight limits on what a president can do. Two examples are healthcare reform and Israel.


Barack Obama is committed to reform of the American healthcare system, and in particular of access to it. Poll data suggest that a large proportion of the American population wants reform. Hillary Clinton is if anything even more committed. Public opinion, however, shies away from a national healthcare system. Some kind of universal health insurance, with exceptions allowing those who are content with their existing health policies, is the most that could pass Congress (see Lawrence R Jacobs & James A Morone, "American sickness: diagnosis and cure", 16 October 2007).


The situation with regard to Israel is somewhat similar. A lot of prejudiced nonsense is written around the world about the "Jewish lobby" in American politics. A majority of American Jews vote the Democratic ticket, and Jews are at least as strongly represented on the left as on the neo-conservative right.


Still, over at least three decades, the American people have been persuaded that Israel is America's staunchest and even its most democratic ally (a questionable proposition, but one widely held in the United States). Jewish organisations, especially the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), have worked very hard to raise money for congressmen's election campaigns and to keep them briefed on the Israeli view of middle-east politics.


As a consequence, while it will be a key goal for the Obama administration to make progress towards peace between Israel and the Palestinians, there are in practice quite strict constraints on how far or how fast it is likely to move (see John C Hulsman, "Memo to Obama: the middle east needs you", 9 November 2008).


This applies even more to America's relations with Iraq, Iran and Pakistan. Senator Obama came out early and clearly against the Iraq war. But he did so in part because he saw it as a foolish distraction from what he has continued to insist was the more urgent and legitimate task of fighting Islamist extremism in Afghanistan and in its last redoubt in the tribal areas of Pakistan. As a result, one of the first and most dangerous crises the Obama administration will face will be over Pakistan.


As a candidate, Obama continued to insist (including in a speech at the Aipac conference in June 2008) that Iran must not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. At the same time, he has said he would be willing to talk directly to the Iranian government about the issue. He has also insisted that the Taliban must be defeated in Afghanistan, and that he is willing to enter Pakistan territory, with military force if necessary, to eliminate al-Qaida leaders.


What he can do


The president-elect has said repeatedly that before anything else he will focus his energies on attempting to reduce the duration and the severity of the economic crisis. Wisely, he has given few hints as to how he would go about that. He has however insisted that help should be directed, far more than has been done by the Bush administration, towards regular citizens struggling to keep their homes and their jobs, as opposed to the Wall Street investment firms from which the Bush administration has recruited both its economic philosophy and the personnel with which it is trying to cope with the crisis. Obama is unusually free from obligations to the mirror-glass towers of finance capitalism. But he is not an opponent of capitalism as a system.


All these constraints are superimposed on the institutional isolation of the presidency as it has evolved in the American constitutional system of separated powers, the isolation that doomed even such titans as Roosevelt and Johnson to frustration.


We can expect a serious, progressive administration. It is committed to ending the uglier aspects of the Bush administration's foreign policy and to trying to save the country from the worst economic consequences of the conservative ascendancy. We should not, however, expect miracles. We must hope that Obama can swim. He will not be able to walk on water.