Opinion

Mark Leonard

To see Obama’s legacy, look to Europe

Mark Leonard
Feb 19, 2014 17:04 UTC

This week the 39-year-old former mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, was invited by his party to form a government in Rome. If he succeeds, he will be Italy’s youngest-ever prime minister. Renzi has never had a job in central government or even been a member of parliament. His governing record in Florence is paper-thin. But lack of experience was not a setback in his quest for the top job in Italian politics. It was, in fact, his main qualification.

Renzi’s rapid ascent shows how completely Barack Obama has changed the global political playbook. Although the U.S. president is often accused by his detractors of being European in style, the reality is that it is European politics that are being “Obamafied.” In the UK, and you can see the youthful Labour Party leader Ed Miliband painstakingly mirroring Obama’s campaign tactics. A new generation of center-left leaders in Europe is trying to replicate Obama’s three laws of politics.

The starting point is Obama’s first law: Have no political past. It’s not just that every first-term senator thinks he can be president. Now that senator realizes that in this anti-elitist age his chances of success will diminish in line with his growing experience. Part of Miliband’s appeal to his party was that he was not his more experienced brother, the former Foreign Secretary David Miliband, whose closeness to Prime Minister Tony Blair and refusal to disavow the Iraq war cost him crucial votes in the leadership election.

Obama’s second law of politics: Create a new electorate. Renzi’s election to the head of the Democratic Party (PD) in Italy was a reaction against the old-school PD leader Pier-Luigi Bersani, who relied on traditional constituencies at the expense of younger voters. When he took over the leadership of the party this week, Renzi called for the old guard of Italian politics to be “scrapped” and reveled in the nickname “demolition man.”

“This is not the end of the left, it is the end for a group of the left’s political leaders,” said Renzi upon his election as party leader. The same was true for 44 year-old Miliband, who won election as Labour Party leader in 2010 on the promise of generational change.

The State of the Union and the end of persuasion

Mark Leonard
Feb 13, 2013 23:32 UTC

Children grow up learning that politics is the “art of persuasion.” Ideas, arguments and facts can clash through debate and lead to policy choices. Although Barack Obama’s prodigious oratorical skills recall politicians of centuries past, the purpose of his rhetoric is different. His goal is not to change minds but to identify all the people who already agree with him and painstakingly craft a governing majority out of their atomized preferences.

With his State of the Union address, President Obama combined the two most powerful tactics of modern politics – big speeches and big data – to spur political action.

President Bill Clinton’s aides once talked about a “permanent campaign,” but that seems laconic compared to Obama’s fusion of campaigning and governing. The group Organizing for America held  a conference call with Obama’s supporters after the speech, and Obama set  off on a three-city tour to North Carolina, Georgia and Illinois, all states that have Republican governors. The point of this flanking campaign is not to change minds but to mobilize voters.

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