Legitimation Crisis of Barack Obama’s Presidency
President Obama and everyone else in the White House would be wise to read Jugen Habermas’ classic philosophical text, Legitimation Crisis in order to confront obstructionists and the veiled racism that pervades the body politic of today. For, in three years we will not hesitate to vote Obama out of office as he will have been fully formed and painted as an illegitimate president, cast aside in political discussions as irrelevant. What the Republicans have been doing has been a textbook hit job and the White House has been walking right into it.
For those of you who are not quite sure what this cerebral, thick, dense, post WWII German philosopher wrote about in his text (and did I mention he was pretty cerebral?) I will attempt to break it down. Jugern Habermas published Legitimation Crisis in 1975 approaching the end of the cold war. His theories have been lauded for years, at times bubbling up into contemporary discourse, though more often than not, left behind for the stuff of ivory towers. For those of you out there who haven’t picked up his work lately I will sum it up.
Habermas believed that society was divided up into three distinct spheres of influence: The Government, the Economy, and the Public. These three parts of society, this big picture thinker believed, all influenced each other and must be kept in relative balance in order for society to function. The government taxes the people and in return the people receive benefits, attain loans, employment, and security from the banks and the people then invest in the businesses. The government provides guidance and regulations for the banks; accomplishing two goals 1) it forces while the banks provide job growth and outlays for the government, in turn the government to be legitimated as taking care of the public. The key to his theory was that when one of these three groups is perceived as illegitimate, it suffers a—wait for it— legitimation crisis.
Over the past three years and change we have had a legitimation crisis inside of the financial industry. With massive amounts of cash, jobs, loans and financial backing disappearing overnight the public has lost faith and confidence in the financial system. Wracked with debt, a disappearing middle class and a boom and bust recession filled for past thirty years, in which we have had at least one recession after another, the public bore the brunt of a financial crisis which has doubled unemployment and caused homeowners to find themselves underwater. The Obama administration was quick to shore up confidence in the economy, recovery acts and TARP money notwithstanding, to do nothing for the arm of the financial sector would have de-legitimated the government by continuing to let the financial industry implode. The administration’s next concrete move was to do the one thing left undone in the New Deal legislation of the great depression: health care. In the midst of the great recession they sought to shore up the legitimization of the populace, by crafting a legislation which sought to the biggest support to millions of Americans. Substantive change. Regardless of what policy, what legislation would be passed—it would have meant that the Obama administration did what no other president had been able to do and with it would have come the prize of a populace who legitimated his presidency. However, to date, what we have is in fact the de-legitimation of the Obama administration by every aspect of the opposition. They are playing their cards in the exact way which would allow the maximum exploitation of Habermas’ theories: deny the populace everything—deny them health care, deny them jobs, deny them administrative oversight of every branch of government and eventually the population will delegitimize the president. The population will have no choice but to rid itself of the evil it knows.
Don’t get me wrong—this is nothing new. We all remember that in the beginning of W’s presidency he also suffered from a legitimation crisis. As a president who did not receive the majority of the population’s votes and attained office after a supreme court ruling, George W. Bush suffered a great challenge in having a population support him. It didn’t help that he was playing golf all the time. 9/11 legitimized W and the rest is history. We realized who our president was, after he stood on a pile of rubble with a bullhorn. Now, we can look back and reflect on a context of wars, and a failed economy but the political capital spent was gained on that tragic day in our history.
The right has played this game very well whether it is the affirmed leadership or the out there far right populace: false birth certificate, socialist, witch doctor and all the rest— to the leadership which has undermined all substantive appointments, held the country by the throat in the debt ceiling crisis and moved a state of the union address just cause our conclusion must be this: the right has no interest in affirming his authority as the President of the United States. The Republican party has its pulse on the extreme right and while the congressmen, the senators do not ever go so far as to out and out say it—they do not consider him the President. It is essentially their silence that provides the greatest support to this theory.
Take, for example the 2010 state of the union given in the Virginia state house, a ploy to give Republicans a rise to the occasion—there is an alternate reality (as Stephen Colbert pointed out) of a white male, at home in the state house of Virginia ready and waiting to lead this country. Take the obstructionist clamoring of moderate democrats coupled with the nearly unbreakable Republican minority: their reaction to every piece of legislation is that there is no middle ground: he is illegitimate. There is no compromise for the sake of passing bills with some support from moderates on both sides of the aisle. Take the rabid race bating talk show hosts that are unchecked by the Republican party, never an argument against them, why? He is illegitimate.
Back to Jabermas. The result of grinding the entire political system to a halt is to de-legitimize government as a whole and the big winner in that systematic take down is, of course, the party that believes that government is the problem: The GOP.
Obama, therefore, has a few options. One, to give up completely on playing by the rules of political engagement, forget conciliatory tones—call them on their refusal to lead. Two, give benefits directly to the people with the hope that these benefits end up paying for their legitimation. Three attempt to have the economic arm de-legitimize the party out of power (perhaps likely to happen if said campaign contributions flow against the right).
I believe the more interesting question though is why is this being done to Barack Obama? Why is this great legitimation crisis occurring at all? To me, the answer is race. Lest we forget that the politics in the United States has always had a shaky relationship to race, to sex too, to sexual identity, to class but today we have as president a man of half African descent, half white, born of little means and no legacy of Skull and Bones and Ivy league board rooms. What is game changing about Barack Obama is that he is, without question, the most inspiring politician to ever be elected to office to date. He allows the mental roadblocks of every man, woman and child to be erased along with the internal oppression holding them back from achieving their ultimate dreams. Born of little means—you can still be president, heck run for congress. Born of two parents from different parts of the world? Run for senate! Gay and living in Arizona on a dude ranch? Heck, run for president. What is at stake in this new American psyche is the possibility that anyone can. It isn’t “Yes We Can!” it is, “Yes, I Can TOO!” What is at stake here is the most vital tool inside of the tool box of oppression: history. If a leader of his background is to succeed it provides a clear and comprehsive shattering of the myth that the only person worthy on a dollar bill is a white man.
Let’s be clear though, I’m not talking just about Republicans, I’m talking about Democrats who also have something to lose by Barack Obama being successful. Do you think Massachusetts liberals have something to lose for having a biracial man from Chicago by way of Hawaii the heir to the Kennedy mantel? You don’t have to answer that, I just saw Scott Brown was sworn in. He is illegitimate. He is not our president. He will be an asterisk in the white house, another post reconstruction phenomenon. That is what is at stake.
The left must fight, now more than ever for this president—not because his policies are the most extreme (because they aren’t) and not because his direction is the clearest (because they ain’t) but because the system of de-legitimizing him as our president allows us to set back the entire movement of equality a good fifty years. Getting Barack Obama elected was truly only the first step in order to change our government and change the American psyche. The hard part is to change the entire system and hold all of our elected officials to the same belief that yes—all of us can