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Archive for July, 2008

Why Moderates Make The Best Presidents

July 14, 2008, 89.3 KPCC

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Larry Mantle talks with author and historian Gil Troy about his new book, “Leading from the Center,” which presents evidence why the best American Presidents were able to avoid partisan extremes and work to lead from a more centrist point of view.

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A Kennedyesque future may await Obama
He could do for black Americans what JFK did for Irish Catholics

By LISA VAN DUSEN

London Free Press, 7-27-08

McGill University history professor and presidential historian Gil Troy, who is spending the summer as a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, compares the cultural impact for African-Americans of Obama occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to what John F. Kennedy’s arrival in the White House did for America’s Irish Catholics.

“The Kennedys’ moving into the White House in 1961 was a cultural bombshell. You had this beautiful, glamourous young couple with small adorable children plus the Kennedy mythology behind it. For Irish Catholics, it meant, ‘we made it.'”

For Obama, Troy says, that pride may be tempered by the weight of enormous expectations.

“There will be, as there always is, a downturn after the initial honeymoon, and it will be a test of the African-American community as to whether they can deal with him being treated like anybody else.”

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Video: Latest : Obama in Europe : Canada AM: Gil Troy, U.S. presidential historian, on Barack’s whirlwind tour

U.S. presidential hopeful Barack Obama arrived in Berlin on Thursday as part of a whirlwind international tour to raise his diplomatic profile.

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Macleans, Megapundit, July 23, 2003

“There’s a fine line between pragmatism and cynicism,” L. Ian MacDonald writes in the Montreal Gazette, and Barack Obama “runs a risk of crossing it” with his pronounced lurch to the centre of the political spectrum—particularly since he has so many gosh-darned earnest supporters on the leftmost flanks of the Democratic Party. But he, and McGill University history professor Gil Troy, suggest the centrist Obama is, in fact, the real Obama. So in other words, he’s not betraying his supporters now—he betrayed them months ago!

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HNN, July 23, 2003

Historians are trained to bristle at the term “unprecedented.” We watch journalists hyperventilate and hype stories as we acknowledge we have seen it all before with a world-weary sigh. But Barack Obama’s whirlwind world tour is certainly un… usual. True, senators travel all the time, jetting around the world with more zeal than Phineas Fogg or the Harlem Globetrotters. (Memo to the under-thirty crowd, for Phineas Fogg check out “Around the World in Eighty Days,” for Harlem Globetrotters check out any old geezer who grew up in the Seventies). True, John McCain himself has visited Iraq and just last month made a foreign policy speech in Ottawa, the capital of that country to the north of the United States. But to appreciate the um, out-of-the-box nature of Obama’s trip, consider his trip in broader historical perspective – and check out the amazing coverage he received.

Thinking historically, let us remember that it was not until the twentieth century that a president in office actually traveled abroad. In 1906 Theodore Roosevelt visited Central America to supervise the construction of the Panama Canal. In December, 1918, when Woodrow Wilson traveled to Paris for World War I peace negotiations, he stayed abroad for all but ten days of the next six months, returning to Washington in July 1919. More recently, it would have been inconceivable during the 1944 election, at the height of World War II, for the Republican nominee Thomas E. Dewey to drop by Winston Churchill or Josef Stalin for a quick chat while campaigning against Franklin D. Roosevelt. And in October, 1952, Dwight Eisenhower generated coast-to-coast headlines with a simple, dramatic, promise of an intention to travel, proclaiming, “I shall go to Korea.”

The Eisenhower pledge is worth remembering because, like Barack Obama’s Middle East and European tour, it was all about stagecraft more than statesmanship. When the great hero of World War II promised to go to Korea, he was playing to Americans’ hopes that his presence would magically solve the Far Eastern mess. In this case, the alchemy is supposed to have a reverse flow: Democrats are hoping that by not making a mess of it, the drama of overseas travel will burnish Barack Obama’s foreign policy credentials – and boost his standing as a leader.

Midway through the trip, the magic seems to be working. Most important of all, Obama has avoided a major gaffe. But beyond the avoidance of the negative, the level of coverage has been iconic, not just presidential. Even before delivery, his Berlin speech was being compared with John Kennedy’s “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” and Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear down this wall” – two of the most influential presidential addresses in history. The three-network-news anchor honor guard accompanying Obama guaranteed Pope-level coverage. This trip has proved once again that not only is Obama’s candidacy the most exciting political story of the decade, but that the election remains all-Obama-all-the-time; this election is Obama’s to win or lose.

There are two, contradictory, lessons one hopes Obama will draw from his excellent adventures. His foreign policy needs more nuance and more passion. The simplistic sloganeering the campaign trail demands simply does not fit the Middle Eastern realities. Only a fanatic could visit Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel without realizing just how messy and multi-dimensional each conflict is. Seeing each of those situations should be humbling for a potential president, reminding him of Dwight Eisenhower’s warning to John Kennedy that the easy decisions are made outside the Oval Office, only the impossible problems end up on the president’s desk.

At the same time, Obama risks being too cool, too detached, especially on core issues such as the fight against terrorism. He says the right thing, as he did after the heinous bulldozer attack in central Jerusalem, just blocks from his hotel; but many listeners are never sure how deeply he cares about the issue. This latest Palestinian terror attack, executed by an East Jerusalem resident with Israeli papers, may give Barack Obama what we could term his John Kennedy-Joschka Fischer wake-up call. John Kennedy only realized the depths of poverty in America when he visited Appalachia during the 1960 West Virginia primary. Joschka Fischer was the German foreign minister who was visiting Israel in June 2002, when a suicide bomber murdered 21 young Israeli revelers outside the Dolphinarium disco. Fischer also had teenager children and had recently jogged right in front of that site. He subsequently referred to that moment as “ the terrible terror attack on the kids in the Dolphinarium” and was much more passionate in denouncing Palestinian terrorism.

Both Kennedy and Fischer were intellectuals in politics. Each was “cool,” and not afraid of nuance, but also not afraid of passion. Obama could do well by emulating both – and showing that, in the wake of what he has learned and experienced, he will be a muscular moderate as leader, rooted in principles, angry when core values are assailed, but nimble and adaptable to the changing conditions of a chaotic world.

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Barack Obama’s mad rush toward the middle
The Democrat is following a well-trod path to moderation on the political stage

L. IAN MACDONALD, The Montreal Gazette, Wednesday, July 23, 2008

…There’s a fine line between pragmatism and cynicism, and Obama runs a risk of crossing it, especially since he started out as the candidate of hope and change.

But Gil Troy, for one, perceives that Obama is returning to his centrist origins, as well as heeding the rules of post-primary positioning.

Troy, a McGill University history professor and presidential scholar, has just brought out a timely book in the U.S. on the subject of centrism in American politics, entitled Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

“When you read Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope, or when you hear his 2004 speech to the Democratic convention,” Troy says, “that’s a much more centrist vision than what we saw in the primaries.”

From Washington, where he’s a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Centre, Troy adds: “I look at it less as pandering that someone needs to do than as someone being what he’s always been.”

In Troy’s centrist all-star lineup, Obama could fit right in with 20th-century presidents who usually found the common middle ground – Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. It was Reagan who named the first woman, Sandra Day O’Connor, to the Supreme Court.

“To the frustration of his core supporters,” writes Troy, “Reagan repeatedly compromised, caring more about national unity, relative political calm and his own popularity.”

Troy defines the “Great American Centre” as having “a long proud history of offering a muscular moderation, not a mushy middle.”

Obama also seems to be on what Troy describes in his book as “this search for the centre, this majoritarian stance, (which) may be the quintessential democratic quest.”

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JPost, July 20, 2008

 

A JPost.com exclusive blog 

Barack Obama and John McCain clashed over foreign policy last week – or did they? While some headlines emphasized the two candidates’ differences, proclaiming “McCain Slams Obama on Iraq Surge,” the two also agreed on many important fundamentals – as well as key policies.

Their points of overlap demonstrate that both are patriots, both are “anti-terror,” both seek an American victory in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The fact that the previous sentence needs to be written, of course, illustrates the absurd extremes to which so many partisan critics take the polarizing discourse about the candidates.

Appropriately, Israel was not a central thrust of either speech. But the fundamental equation remains operative – what is good for America in this election will be good for Israel. And if the winning candidate sticks to the vision articulated in either of the two speeches, America, and Israel, will be all right.

Characteristically – and in fairness, due to the setting – Obama’s speech at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Building in Washington was more sweeping, more visionary, more programmatic. McCain’s response at a town hall meeting was more focused, more hands-on, more strategic.

Obama built his speech by remembering America’s Cold War containment policy, embracing George Marshall’s faith in “judgment,” mixing what we now call “hard” and “soft” power.

Before finishing with an inspirational return to his history lesson, Obama demonstrated his commitment to righting the wrongs of the Bush years with a deft combination of self-sacrifice, selflessness, muscle-flexing and nation-building – in the United States and abroad. He sees foreign policy – like domestic policy – as a vehicle for national renewal, for encouraging Americans to work together and build a national sense of mission and community, while defending their nation and improving the world.

Less loftily, Obama proclaimed “five goals essential to making America safer: ending the war in Iraq responsibly; finishing the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban; securing all nuclear weapons and materials from terrorists and rogue states; achieving true energy security; and rebuilding our alliances to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”

Obviously, the rhetoric of a campaign speech does not necessarily anticipate a president’s track record in the Oval Office. But the bulk of Obama’s speech would be thoroughly acceptable to most Ronald Reagan Republicans. In particular, both Obama and McCain agreed about the need to beef up the American troop presence in Afghanistan.

In response, John McCain focused part of his stump speech in New Mexico on Obama, Afghanistan, and Iraq, rather than delivering a more formal foreign policy address.

Highlighting the contrast between the young, eloquent, intellectual visionary and the wizened warrior, McCain came out swinging, “I know how to win wars. I know how to win wars,” McCain told his Albuquerque audience. “And if I’m elected President, I will turn around the war in Afghanistan, just as we have turned around the war in Iraq, with a comprehensive strategy for victory, I know how to do that.”

Sharpening his elbows, McCain said: “In wartime, judgment and experience matter. In a time of war, the commander in chief doesn’t get a learning curve.”

And more directly, he mocked his opponent, reading two Obama quotations, one back in January 2007 doubting the surge would work, and a second one a year later, acknowledging that more troops in Iraq led to more stability. “My friends, flip-floppers all over the world are enraged,” McCain chuckled.

In fact, both candidates are converging, not only about Afghanistan. Both understand that in the wake of the Bush presidency, America needs to experience an economic, diplomatic, and ideological renewal. Obama is more explicit about that – but McCain rides heavily on the fact that he was calling for what became the “surge” while George W. Bush was still blindly defending “Rummy” – Donald Rumsfeld – and pooh-poohing reports of chaos in Baghdad.

And even on Iraq, Obama is cautiously, cleverly, and responsibly, narrowing the gap between his policies and McCain’s. Obama still talks about giving the military “a new mission on my first day in office: ending this war” – an interesting choice of words considering that the traditional goal of most militaries is to win the war not just end it.

Still, analysts noted that Obama’s sixteen month timetable, now is set to begin on Inauguration Day – six months from now, and he spoke about a “residual” force remaining. Clearly, as the possibility that he just might become Commander-in-Chief grows, Obama is realizing that his rhetoric and his postures may have serious life-and-death implications.

This convergence in a campaign is good. It is not just the gravitational pull to the center we often see after primaries. It is not just the “oh, boy, I might be president” flight from irresponsibility. It is also precisely what the American people want. A Washington Post poll this week found that 78 percent of those surveyed, “said it is more important for a candidate to adjust positions to changing circumstances than to stick to his original stands (18 percent prioritize consistency).”

By this poll, more than three-quarters of the American people are more mature than most reporters and bloggers, partisans and pols. The challenge is for the candidates to show they can campaign vigorously, disagree passionately on some issues, while still reassuring the American people they understand that they both share many common values, common dreams, and common-sense policies.

Support for Israel remains a part of this consensus. Judging by this week’s exchange, as well as the more Israel-focused AIPAC speeches, the hysterical claims that Obama is going to abandon the Jewish State, or that McCain is going to so blindly support Israel there will be no constraints are both overstated.

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