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State of the Union: Obama’s not the only elected leader whose power is waning

Institutional flaws have held the President back

It was, I felt, a rather subdued Barack Obama who delivered his State of the Union address on Tuesday evening, though he  had some good news to tell: deficit down, jobs up, more energy home-produced  than imported for the first time in 20  years, and more than a decade of war  coming to a close.

Yet the consensus only grows that Obama is a weak President who has failed to live up to his many high-flown promises. Personally, I think that judgement is too harsh. But one of those ingenious polymaths who contemplate the world in the round offers a rational explanation for the difficulties facing many democratic leaders today. 

Speaking about his latest book, The  End of Power, the Venezuelan-born writer and academic, Moisés Naim, pointed out that the vast majority of democratic  leaders find their capacity to act constrained by tiny majorities, the exigencies of  coalition or having to share power – as Obama must – with a legislature  of a different hue.

Naim believes it is easier to win and lose power today than it has ever been but far harder to use it. And while this may be how electorates like it, the consequence is that their leaders find themselves “tied down like Gulliver by the Lilliputians”.

It will be little consolation to Obama to see himself as a hostage of his time. But it might permit a more benevolent view of his presidency if – until democracies devise new rules, as Naim suggests they will – the blame for his predicament is sought less in any personal flaw than in the failure of our institutions to adapt to a new age.