Obama’s Incredible ‘Referent Power’
Comments In T.S. Eliot’s drama "Murder in the Cathedral," kowtowing knights who overhear England’s Henry II vent frustration with Thomas Becket decide to please the king by killing the archbishop.
Confronted with the scandalous murder, Henry is forced to deny involvement and punish his knights. Secretly, he is quite happy to be rid of the pesky archbishop.
Time will tell if the Obama White House will be directly tied to the incompetence and obfuscation surrounding the Benghazi terrorist attack, or the IRS’ virtual political-enemies list, or the Justice Department’s seizure of Associated Press phone records.
Yet the common theme of these Washington scandals may be the degree to which they reveal President Obama’s incredible "referent power."
We tend to think of presidential power primarily in terms of carrots and sticks, according to Baylor University political science professor Curt Nichols. "This focuses us upon the formal powers a president has to reward and punish," he said.
Sometimes, we think of power in terms of "following the leader," Nichols said, which focuses on a president’s formal power as the nation’s chief executive, the free world’s symbolic leader and his political party’s de facto head. "Furthermore, we know that ‘knowledge is power,’ which focuses us on the power a president has in exploiting his personal reputation as an expert in an area."
But presidents also wield power by influencing those who deeply admire, strongly identify with or highly respect them. This is referent power, which focuses on ability to exploit others’ trust.
Celebrities — with no formal power and little expertise — wield influence through referent power; some people feel so close to and trustful of celebrities that they act upon their perceptions of what a celebrity wants them to do.
"To be clear, referent power does not work through order, command or threat," Nichols explained. "Instead, it works through suggestion and the creativity of the fawning admirer."
We don’t know yet how involved the White House was in today’s scandals. Yet, at a minimum, they suggest a government — from the State Department to the CIA, the military leadership, the IRS and Justice — filled with sycophants under the sway of Obama’s referent power.
Since Obama was elected president, the political right has been ridiculed for questioning his choice of people to fill administrative posts, creation of a quasi-Cabinet of policy "czars" to skirt Senate confirmation, heavy-handed executive orders, bullying of Supreme Court justices during a State of the Union address, unconstitutional recess appointments and use of the presidency as a celebrity magnet to enhance his image.
The knee-jerk press reaction against the right was to blame any criticism of Obama on racial prejudice, thereby widening the country’s racial divide and projecting an us-against-them narrative.
Thus, many journalists became negligent watchdogs while accepting abuse from an administration that scolded them if they came close to criticizing Obama.
When journalists fawn over presidents and don’t question them, Washington’s political minions, bureaucrats and presidential confidants begin to believe in a president’s referent power, then become its guardians.
And all political power can eventually corrupt and destabilize, unless checked by the press, the public or other political forces.
The job of the press is to carefully put the pieces back together, without malice, and uncover what our government has done to its own people. It is not to take presidential spokespersons and surrogates at face value when they insist neither they nor Obama knew anything about a scandal.
Many of us in the press have dealt with this administration at every level possible. Trust me, we all know about its megalomaniacal need for control.
Investigations take time. Answers will be slow in coming.
So, the question for today is simply this: Will Obama’s fawning media admirers awaken to the degree to which they have been held under the sway of the president’s referent power?
Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at [email protected]