Obama, sans famille politique

12 April 2019

One thing that’s long struck me as an American about French politics is the formation of relatively durable cliques, or familles politiques, around certain high-profile politicians: sometimes presidents, but perhaps even more often prime ministers or other important members of the government. French politicians may be juppéistes or sarkozystes, rocardiens or strauss-kahniens, but Americans don’t typically talk about their politicians this way. Of course, politics everywhere involves building personal networks, which often function by doling out patronage and loyalty. And many politicians will naturally develop inner circles of trusted advisors who will themselves go on to their own political careers. But in France, there’s something about belonging to one of these circles—something very personal in the relationship to the patriarchal figure, like belonging to an actual family—that sticks with someone for quite a long time. Only some time into his premiership, for example, is the juppéiste Edouard Philippe apparently beginning to form a family of his own. And though Macron’s inner circle has given rise to at least one major scandal, the president is clearly very invested in making sure his people create a foothold in Paris in the 2020 municipal race.


Looking at some of the recent travails of former US President Barack Obama and the people around him, the contrast with this way of building a political legacy could not be starker. Obama has never shown much of a taste for consolidating power around himself. Since the GOP’s electoral victories in 2016, he has been frequently criticized for Obama failing to keep the grassroots movement of his 2008 campaign mobilized throughout his presidency, or how under his watch the Democrats lost a historic number of legislative and executive seats across the country. His belief in compromise with political opponents appears to be sincere, something that has repeatedly frustrated advocates for a firmer left-wing approach for the Democratic Party. Obama, in short, is no Machiavellian, and to the extent that forming a political family serves as a tactic for maximizing one’s political influence, whether in office or after leaving it, this appears to have little appeal for him.


Looking at the recent careers of Obama’s entourage, I think, reveals an even deeper divergence. If becoming a loyal member of a famille politique is a way for young French politicians to launch their own careers, it is striking how few of the people around Obama have become or remained prominent politicians themselves. One notable exception, former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, will soon be leaving his position as Chicago’s mayor after an election that many have interpreted as a repudiation of his legacy. Another chief of staff, Bill Daley, failed to make the runoff in the election to replace Emanuel, suggesting that even in the former president’s home city—a city known for its politics of patronage—membership in Obama’s inner circle is not the vehicle to political power it might have once seemed. Former HUD secretary and San Antonio mayor Julián Castro has entered the 2020 race, but so far appears to be unlikely to rise to the top of the pack.


The Obama White House seems to have sent far more of its prominent alumni into private life. Some have entered or returned to the world of punditry, from the veteran political consultant David Axelrod or the staffers who went on to host the popular Pod Save America podcast. Ben Rhodes wrote a best-selling memoir of his years in the White House. Others have gone into private business, notably in Silicon Valley—the tech hub was already known as a “revolving door” for Obama staffers during his presidency, and more recently high-profile advisors like Valerie Jarrett have taken on board positions at companies like Lyft. Former Attorney General Eric Holder has returned to the law firm where he was in practice prior to public service. Adjacent to this milieu are those that have launched themselves into the world of “social impact investing” and entrepreneurial philanthropy, like former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who preferred to remain a managing partner at the Emerson Collective rather than jump back into Chicago politics.


As for Obama himself, his main day job appears to be building his (privately funded) center in Chicago’s Jackson Park. He has occasionally given his opinion on recent developments in the Trump Administration, but in keeping with post-presidential decorum, has only done so sparingly and modestly. Rather than attempt to groom a successor, Obama’s interventions into recent and upcoming elections have been very detached. His approach seems to be to identify moderate Democratic candidates whose rhetoric and biographies somewhat match his own. After his clear favorite, former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, ruled out running in 2020, many commentators have honed in on some of the former president’s favorable remarks about Pete Buttigeig. The Rhodes Scholar, marine veteran, gay mayor of South Bend, Indiana, the story goes, might be the next relatively unknown Midwest politician to rise out of nowhere to unify the country with his inspiring speeches and rolled-up sleeves (sorry, Beto). If the current media frenzy over Buttigeig is to be believed, Obama may end up favoring him even over closer allies like Castro or even his former vice-president Joe Biden. The important point appears to be precisely that even if this prediction plays out, Buttigeig does come, so to speak, from nowhere. Even if Obama’s “endorsement” of someone like him were to pay off, picking winners from afar is quite different from cultivating new political talent from within his own ranks.


There is much to be said in praise of Obama’s, and America’s, resistance to the famille politique model. Perhaps it makes sense that in a system where the political parties themselves are highly undisciplined and decentralized, there’s less of a tendency to attach oneself to an influential party figure in order to make an entry into politics. And though it might be a naïve American myth that every new congressperson is an entirely free agent, sent to Washington to “shake things up”—whereas anything that stinks of cliques or patronage is part of the “swamp” that needs to be drained—at least this is probably a genuine democratic sentiment. It is also not completely fair to suggest, as I have done, that political operatives transitioning to private life is unambiguously a bad thing: it would be foolish to think that all public offices must be reserved for professional politicians.


The lessons so far from the Obama White House, though, also hint at the fundamental drawbacks of America’s resistance to family-style politics. Even if one doesn’t mind the impression that the president’s inner circle ended up as a launchpad for more private careers than public, it is frustrating, to those who want to see the Democratic Party succeed, to witness Obama’s failure to lay down a durable base of power. Though likely even more so than Obama, Emmanuel Macron embodies the revolving door known in France as pantouflage, he has clearly understood the advantages of this French tradition. If Macron sought to bring members of la société civile into government, he intended to keep at least some of them there. In general I do not think following Macron’s example should figure into the contemporary Democratic Party’s strategy, but it could do worse than to act like people in the business of building a new political family from scratch.


Photo Credit: Obama White House, via Flickr, US Government Work.


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1 Comment

  • Anonymous says:

    Dear Mr. Hamburger:
    You put the most favorable “spin” on the choice of Obama’s circle to leave politics rather than “fight the good fight”, and leave out the financial inducements, which, if a cynical analysis, ought not to be ignored. I have even read (in an article written by an opponent) that the Obamas, with all the financial opportunities that have come their way since he left the presidency, may become like Bill and Hillary Clinton –always keeping their eyes on the dollars.
    Obama is not particularly well-regarded by the African-American community in Chicago, a fact I learned on a trip to Vaux-le-Vicomte a few years ago with a couple from that community who had done very well for themselves out of various government projects, but had little good to say about Obama.
    Political leaders are at their best when they articulate the “raisons d’etre” of the people who they lead. Perhaps the reason the Obama team has dissipated, politically, has more to do with their being unable to bind their electorate to something other than the unique candidacy that was Barak Obama’s.
    Whether this will be true of Emmanuel Macron’s presidency remains to be seen. Certainly Macron would benefit from having a “famille politique” of longer duration than is his at present –hence the appeal to France’s mayors during the “Debat National”.
    I find the argument that it is better to avoid the inevitable cronyism that surrounds political machines unpersuasive: Tammany Hall got a lot done in New York, “Honey Fitz” in Boston, Frank Rizzo in Philadelphia and Chicago Mayor Daley’s machine, however distasteful to reformers, did, too. And, perhaps significantly, the voters identified with these “bosses” and the “bosses” with them.
    Which reminds me of a story recounted in Robert Caro’s book about Robert Moses, “The Power Broker”. Al Smith, the Irish boy from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, came out of the Irish machine and ran as a reformer without losing his common touch. A “progressive” aid, presenting the Governor with one or another reform bill, was asked by Smith, “Who’s against it?”
    The aide answered, “Only the ‘rabble’–”
    To which Smith retorted –“The RABBLE? –Why, that’s ME!”
    No one will ever tell a story like that about Obama, above the fray as he always endeavors to seem.

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