Saturday, September 19, 2009

Tony Blair and the Limits of Charisma

When Barack Obama gave his victory speech on November 4, 2009, he must have felt a lot like Tony Blair giving his victory speech on May 1, 1997.

As Michael Cockwell notes in Tony Blair: The Inside Story, Blair, like Obama, came to power amidst the corruption and incompetence of his political opposition. For Obama it was George W Bush and the Republican party. For Tony Blair it was John Major and the Conservative party of Britain.

Like Obama, Blair came to power with a tremendous mandate. Blair came to power with a Parliamentary majority greater than 200 seats. Obama came to the White House with a massive majority in the House of Representatives and a nearly filibuster-proof Senate.

Yet, just as Obama managed to break promises made about issues such as Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay, Blair's government quickly tarnished itself with a scandal over an exemption given to a Formula One race to Britain's laws forbidding the sponsorship of sporting events by tobacco companies.

Like Obama, Blair came to power with a gifted corps of media advisors, led by Press Secretary Alasdair Campbell. But like Obama, Blair found his ability to manage the media hampered by the modern 24-hour news cycle.

While Obama came to power with the resounding support of comedians such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, Blair had enjoyed the support -- to the extent that he agreed to appear in Labour party TV spots -- of Stephen Fry.

Just like Barack Obama, Tony Blair was hailed as a "destiny" candidate. He was treated as if he were destined to be Prime Minister, just as many media commentators came to treat Barack Obama as if he were destined to be President (this even despite the alleged inevitability of Hillary Clinton!).

Yet like Obama, Blair quickly found his ability to push through his policies to be rather limited. As Obama struggles to gain traction for his health care policies, Blair stumbled over the construction of the Millenium Dome.

Just as Obama must imagine his health care reform to be integral to his legacy, Blair consiered the Millenium Dome to be centraa to his legacy -- to the extent that he even spoke of it as a "legacy" to the British media.

Like Barack Obama, the experiences of Tony Blair show how quickly the lustre can wear off of even those leaders hailed as "destined" for high office. It's a lesson that a great many prospective leaders -- regardless of however charismatic they may be -- can stand to learn.

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