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Has President Obama Been Reading The Prince?

January 24, 2011

In advance of Tuesday’s State of the Union address political pundits have been speculating about what agenda President Obama will present for his next two years in office. The general consensus seems to be that he will move “more broadly toward the political center, to independent voters and business owners and executives alienated by the expansion of government and the partisan legislative fights of the past two years.” (J. Calmes and J. Zeleny, “Obama to Press Centrist Agenda,” New York Times, January 23, 2011, A1) Ironically, this change in strategy is not a sudden revelation. On the contrary, it has its roots in political theories expounded by Machiavelli five centuries ago.

President Obama seems to understand Machiavelli’s primary argument that “it is much safer to be feared than loved….” No matter what he does, he will not make conservatives and Republicans love him. The best he can do is to defuse their hatred of him. Machiavelli believed that, other than interfering with “the women” of his citizens, the leader will only be hated “if [he] seize[s] the[ir] property….” (All references in the text are to Machiavelli, “The Prince,” in Modern Political Thought:Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche, 2nd Ed., edited by David Wootton, p.36) To avoid this Machiavelli urged the leader to “encourage his citizens by making [certain that] they are not discouraged from investing in business for fear of losing their profits in taxes….” (46) President Obama had been criticized for being a socialist, seeking to redistribute wealth through overtaxing and spending. Hence, following Machiavelli’s advice, President Obama not only signed into law an extension of across the board tax cuts which benefit the wealthy, as demanded by the conservative opposition, but recently added to his staff and advisers business leaders whose presence assures conservatives that he is favorably disposed to capitalism.

At the same time, the President has slowly healed his rift with his liberal base. The President, by disillusioning his liberal base earlier in his term of office, followed Machiavelli’s advice that a leader should, upon taking office, “make a list of all the crimes you have to commit and do them all at once…. One should do good, on the other hand, little by little, so people can fully appreciate it.”(23) Recent steps President Obama has undertaken in support of the liberal agenda, including repeal of the ban on gays in the military and the ratification of the nuclear disarmament START Treaty, have muted the liberal criticism of his earlier failures in the realms of health care, financial reform and foreign policy relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama’s recent actions, undertaken to avoid the hatred of the political right, while appeasing the desires of the political left, when coupled with his gift for oratory, highlighted by his sermon at the prayer session for Congresswoman Giffords, have raised the President’s image. He no longer is seen as being “erratic, capricious, effeminate, pusillanimous, irresolute,” characteristics which Machiavelli termed, “contemptible.” (38) Instead, his actions “suggest greatness and endurance, strength of character and of purposes.” (38) Whether intentionally or not, President Obama has become a modern day student of Machiavelli. Perhaps we should call him “Obamavelli.”


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