Obama and the Age of Auctoritas

by brian boru

In Classical Rome it was known as auctoritas. A statesman’s accumulation of prestige, respect and authority.  And, it was the key to power.

America is not so far removed from its Roman counterpart.  Neither are her politicians.  To wield power here, 2,000 years hence – to do it consistently and effectively – an American must possess auctoritas just as surely as his Latin counterpart did centuries ago.

Teddy Roosevelt certainly did and he used it – in the ‘speak softly and carry a big stick’ kind of way.  Other of America’s transformational leaders had it too.  Nothing gets transformed without it.

In Rome, it was built up over all the years of manhood. A manhood that for many of the Roman ruling class included participation and leadership in the military, in the law, in religion and in politics.  A man would be assessed through all the stages of his life and pass from  one to the other as a matter of his auctoritas.

As a young man, was he industrious and serious in his studies? When he entered the military, was he a good soldier – courageous in battle? When he was given command, did he win his battles? Was he as generous to allies as he was merciless to enemies?

When in the Forum’s courts, was he scholarly – better prepared than his adversary? Was he zealous in defense and passionate in prosecution?

In the Senate, was he a skillful tactician capable of stealth political maneuvering? When confrontation was required did he engage his adversary directly and did he beat him?

Was he an accomplished orator and communicator, capable of galvanizing Rome’s masses by his speeches and through his propaganda?

In life, when boldness was required was he bold and otherwise was he stoic?

Great Romans – Pompey, Cicero, Caesar and Cato, were all men of manifest auctoritas. But, even they knew that standing and prestige were in no way permanent.  Enemies from without and demons from within could conspire to weaken them. A lost campaign in Gaul, a bungled case in the Forum, a humiliation in the Senate, or a personal scandal would do much to damage their stature and their influence. So it was that throughout their lives they remained jealous defenders of their auctoritas.


Factions and tribal interests existed in Rome, but there were no political parties. Romans sought out leaders much more for who they were than for what they stood for. Adrian Goldsworthy notes in Life of a Colossus, “Only rarely did they [candidates] advocate specific policies, although commenting on issues of current importance was more common. In the main, voters looked for a more capable individual who once elected could do whatever the State required.”

And today? What is it that motivates us to vote for and support a candidate? Of course, political parties and policy positions are  important but ultimately we judge a leader based on perceived capability – the sum of the person. The rational and visceral at once. We are less ideological than practical. Identify the problems that exist in the State and address them using whatever acceptable means.  Fight for the common good.

Four years ago America elected Barack Obama who, while young, appeared to all a man of auctoritas beyond his years. An industrious man, a scholar, an accomplished orator and a capable general in the political sense. He also seemed not so much a ‘compromiser’ then as a pragmatist. He would surely identify practical solutions for the nation and use all of his considerable power to implement them.  Perhaps, after many decades, America had found its statesman leader again.


Having beaten his adversaries into a crying heap, the new president was at the height of power in January of 2009. But rather than capitalize on victory, Mr. Obama went eerily quiet, sent his troops home and abandoned the political battlefield to radical misfits now re-branded as teabaggers. It was opportunity lost.

Obama would squander the laurels of victory. Squander by not responding to scurrilous and incessant personal attack, by not creating a new progressive populist narrative and by not assuring his enemies remained in their heap . Squander by not zealously defending the middle-class or passionately prosecuting Wall Street criminals. Squander by signing into law a watered down health care bill eclipsed only in flaccidity by sodden financial reform. Squander by not fighting for a jobs agenda and an increased stimulus until too late. Squander by not exercising his constitutional authority in the debt ceiling crisis.

Abandoning the political battlefield in 2009  allowed the president’s enemies to paint ‘Obamacare’ and all of his subsequent agenda as the work of a devious socialist.  No one was there to rebut them, never mind, take to the offense.  That vacuum led to a fabulous electoral drubbing in 2010.

The president has seemed to retreat in the face inferior numbers at almost every instance with the vague promise of future victory. One conjures an unflattering comparison to Gen. McClellan. He has eschewed pragmatic problem solving in favor of craven ‘compromise’. Compromise not with a rational partner but with an unbalanced, dangerous ideology.

In Rome, the most important element in auctoritas was one’s record on the battlefield followed closely by one’s passion in defense of an ideal. Mr. Obama’s has policy victories, but we rarely hear about them.  We hear plenty about his policy failures or, at least, perceived failures.  His record on the battlefield of ideas is not encouraging.  The trickle-down, god agenda could have been snuffed out in 2008 but it lives stronger than ever today.  What of a progressive narrative?  It was OWS finally leading the administration to some form of opposition messaging – not the other way around.  Political malpractice of the highest order.

Slow, lurching movement forward from the president –  stalls and ponderous retrogress. His troops see incessant maneuvering away from confrontation as retreat, no longer some chess master’s plan for ultimate victory. He must encounter the enemy and beat him on the field – as offensive as he may find that.

He had the ideal opportunity to meet and vanquish his adversary at last week’s debate in Denver.  The ensuing debacle was yet another example of not understanding auctoritas or, if that is too fancy a concept for Obama’s communication team, not understanding the exercise of power and the importance of morale building. With the president leading in the polls and his opponent floundering, this was the time to fight for all of us and for himself, to expose his enemies’ lies, to show passion and command.  Instead, he and his team did none of that.   They maneuvered away from the needed confrontation – to do again what was done after his election in 2009 – disappear. Maddening!

Did it matter that Mitt Romney was distorting, lying and flip-flopping? No. Not when the president acted more Caesar’s eunuch than Caesar. We are ultimately Romans too – we find it hard to rally around balless impotence.

The president’s political essence  fades. His supporters no longer admire him as they once did and his enemies no longer fear him as they should. The latter being as dangerous as the former is bitter.  Speaking softly and carrying a little stick accomplishes precisely nothing and the chess playing has become ponderous.

We near the point where the wine turns to vinegar and can never be turned back. What ever happened to that fine vintage of hope and change?

This was to be the Age of Obama.  Might it still be?  Only if he understands the Age of Auctoritas.  One can only hope.



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