Jan. 28 (Bloomberg) -- Every superhero needs an archenemy. President Barack Obama has yet to find one.
“It’s always helpful to have a villain,” said Joe Gaylord, a Republican strategist who helped fashion the rise of Newt Gingrich in the 1990s. “If you don’t have one, you should create one.”
Enemies can be useful and at times essential because they provide contrasts that help a president frame arguments for a sweeping program or even a call to war. Theodore Roosevelt railed against the “malefactors of great wealth,” Franklin Roosevelt assailed “unscrupulous money changers,” Ronald Reagan belittled government, which he said “does not solve problems; it subsidizes them,” and Bill Clinton stared down Gingrich.
â€œAs the president would go about the business of saving the country, there needs to be somebody, or something that stands in the way,â€
So far, some candidates have auditioned for the role of Obama’s foil, none very successfully.
Congressional Republicans are challenging Obama’s economic agenda. House Minority Leader John Boehner questioned how the funding for family planning contained in a proposed $825 billion stimulus package -- which the Ohio Republican called “hundreds of millions of dollars on contraceptives” -- would help the economy.
Big Spending Plan
While Boehner, 59, may be considering taking on the role of Obamaâ€™s nemesis, he and other Republicans arenâ€™t questioning the need for a massive spending plan as much as the details of its execution. In addition, the administration has signaled its willingness to compromise, with Obama leaning on congressional Democrats to remove the family-planning provision from the measure.
The Republican National Committee is consumed by an internal debate about how to counter Obama’s ascendancy. Senator John McCain, Obama’s vanquished presidential opponent, is dividing his criticism between the new president and his Senate colleagues.
“Right now, he’s pretty much enemy-less, which is kind of unusual for someone who survived a presidential campaign,” said Ed Rollins, Reagan’s campaign manager in 1984.
Early rumblings from Democratic-leaning constituencies have so far been muted.
Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization of Women, blasted Obama for not stocking his Cabinet with enough women, only to later temper her criticism.
In his own party, Obama co-opted his chief rival by naming Hillary Clinton, 61, as secretary of state. Liberal activists seem willing to extend him time before finding fault with his approach.
Such leeway may initially give Obama, 47, flexibility on policy. Still, he may need an ideological or partisan foe to give his White House the polar magnetism that defines many successful presidencies.
Obama’s “message will become sharper if a clear enemy to the American Dream, other than ourselves, is identified,” Lehane said.
Obama doesn’t seem eager to create a nemesis. On Jan. 9, he said there will be “no pride of authorship” in writing a stimulus package aimed at saving or creating 4 million jobs. He met with congressional Republicans yesterday to sell his plan.
This collegiality may become a problem, Rollins said.
“Obama doesn’t have a bogeyman,” he said. “You need to be able to pit yourself off against someone who everyday is not viewed as reasonable by the public, or particularly likeable by the public.”
Past presidents have been reinvigorated by the emergence of an adversary, either in their own party, the opposition, or abroad. Clinton regained his footing by taking on Gingrich when he was House speaker.
“Gingrich helped bring Clinton back,” Rollins said. Later, former House Majority leader “Tom DeLay did the same,” he said.
In an interview, DeLay said Democrats were ultimately successful in their efforts “to demonize me.”
Still, he counseled Obama not to be in too much of a hurry to find a nemesis.
“He may need a foil later, but not for the next year or so,” DeLay said. Obama can draw on his 13 million volunteers, and other lines of political capital, to neutralize any potential opponents, he said.
“With Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff, they are going to knock down any opposition quickly,” he said.
Obama may be able to fill his enemy quotient by railing against his predecessor, President George W. Bush, a tactic he rode to the White House and used in his inaugural address.
That tactic has been successful in the past.
“The Democrats ran against Herbert Hoover for 50 years,” Gaylord said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Hans Nichols in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org