Union University

Union University Department of Political Science

Department of Political Science



Obama's Machiavellian moves?

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Nov 26, 2008

                In Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, he lays down the principles that wise leaders should follow to stay in power and to achieve their goals. And I think that if we look at how Senate Democrats kept Joe Lieberman (I-CT) as Chair of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee while House Democrats replaced John Dingell (D-MI) with Henry Waxman (D-CA) as Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, we see Barack Obama practicing the art of politics at a high level.

                First, let’s look at the Senate Democratic decision to keep Lieberman as Chair of the Homeland Security Committee. It was clear that the Democrats were upset at Lieberman for not just campaigning for John McCain but for personally attacking Obama. His comment at the Republican Convention that “Senator Barack Obama is a gifted and eloquent young man who I think can do great things for our country in the years ahead. But my friends, eloquence is no substitute for a record, not in these tough times for America” especially irked Democrats. Several Democratic Senators publicly spoke of punishing Lieberman for this by kicking him out of the Democratic Caucus and removing his committee chairmanship. Even Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) expressed his anger at Lieberman indicating that retribution would occur.
                And after the election, Democrats talked of kicking Lieberman out of the caucus. In steps President-Elect Barack Obama. He personally calls Senate Democratic Leader Reid and tells him that he does not want Lieberman kicked out of the caucus. Immediately, Obama reinforces his post-partisan credentials and indicates that he wants to work with everyone to enact his goal. Obama also fulfills two principles of Machiavelli. First, be kind only if it suits your purpose. Second, a ruler should appear to be good.
                Being kind to Lieberman clearly suits his purpose and is good politics. Obama knows that to pass anything in the Senate, you need 60 votes. After the 2008 elections, Democrats have 58 seats (including two independents who caucus with the Democrats) with two Senate seats outstanding (MN recount and GA runoff). If Obama wants to transform American politics as he says, he needs every vote that he can get, including Lieberman’s who votes with Democrats about 85% of the time. Why should Obama run off someone who supports Democrats so much, including his major plans for energy independence, global warming, universal health care, and card check?
                The major disagreement that Lieberman has with Obama is over Iraq. But with the Status of Forces agreement that Bush signed with the Maliki government, the discussion over when and how the US will leave Iraq is over. The US military will be out by 2011 as Obama proposed. Moreover, Joe Lieberman now owes a major debt to Obama that he will be sure to collect in the future. On top of that, the positive publicity for Obama makes people feel more comfortable with him and keeps his approval high and positive media stories rolling.
                It’s the House decision to replace Dingell with Waxman, though, which shows his cunning. In chapter 6, Machiavelli says “It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” Turning a center right country toward a more progressive direction is exactly what Obama wants to do and he realizes that it will be difficult and he needs people who support his policy goals in key positions in the congress. That is why you have to be careful what you do because as Machiavelli says in chapter 19, a prince should avoid being hated and despised.
                To involve himself in a race between two liberals in the House over a committee chair is dangerous, especially when most presumed Dingell would win and he is one of the most respected political tacticians and strategists in the House. Making an enemy of Dingell, even if he lost the committee chairmanship, would be dangerous. Yet, control of the House Energy and Commerce Committee is key to enacting Obama’s agenda. And while Dingell and Waxman do not differ much, Dingell is more friendly to business and wants to protect business from oppressive environmental regulations. Waxman is committed to doing what is necessary to stop global warming.
                That is why even though Obama did not orchestrate the challenge (Waxman has been planning for years to take over the committee), he signaled his support for Waxman in two key ways. First, the weekend before the Democrats would choose the chair of the committee, Obama announced the appointment of Phil Schiliro as his congressional liaison. Why is that significant? Well, Schiliro is the long time chief of staff to Henry Waxman. Second, the day before the Democratic Steering Committee met to choose their nominee for the chairmanship, Obama delivered a surprise video tape message to the Bi-Partisan Governors Global Climate Summit vowing quick action on global warming. What is the major difference between Dingell and Waxman? You guessed it, global warming and converting the US to a green economy. I do not doubt for an instant that Waxman’s whip team did not mention that to undecided members on the Steering Committee and in the caucus who would vote on the chairmanship. And political science clearly shows that members take cues from important people when voting. Since Waxman is close to Speaker Pelosi and her chief lieutenant ran Waxman’s campaign, it is clear that she favored Waxman. Add that to Obama’s quiet endorsement and Waxman pulled out a surprise victory in the caucus vote.
                Now, I will admit that I am drawing conclusions based on Obama’s expressed desire to transform America, the timing of his announcements, and his expressed policy goals but I imagine that in time, we will find that Obama played a quiet role in Waxman’s victory just like President-Elect John F. Kennedy played a quiet role in helping Speaker Sam Rayburn expand the House Rules Committee in 1961 to prevent conservative Democrats from blocking his agenda. And Obama’s move should pay off.  Obama has a committee chair more committed to his programs and who is in debt to Obama for his victory. That makes his job that much easier.
                Regardless, Republicans underestimate Obama at their own peril. Because even if he was not involved, politicians in DC thinks that he was. And that makes him powerful. Machievelli would be proud.