OP-EDS & REVIEWS
I agree with three of Allan Lichtman’s four “simple rules” suggesting how Barack Obama could be another Franklin D. Roosevelt. Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, among others, also knew to “Strike Early.” Americans’ desire to see their new president succeed gives an administration a great launching pad. “Bringing the People With You” is essential in a democracy. Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill described Americans’ insistence in 1981 that he give Ronald Reagan a chance to succeed. “Thinking Big and Broadly” is the example FDR set, and other successes such as John Kennedy followed. I lost Professor Lichtman on his fourth rule “Don’t Govern from the Middle.” In fact, Obama should lead from the center – but as a muscular moderate not a spineless centrist.
Lichtman builds his case against moderation by mentioning a grab bag of mediocre presidents. Actually, the greatest presidents including FDR led from the center. Being a muscular moderate entails having core principles, thinking big, but mastering the art of compromise too. Franklin Roosevelt understood that, as did the other president whom Lichtman identifies as a success, Ronald Reagan.
To understand Roosevelt as a moderate we have to recall the historian’s favorite text – context. When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in March, 1933, America’s prospects looked bleak, radicals demanded revolution. “Mr. President, if your program succeeds, you’ll be the greatest president in American history,” an admirer told Roosevelt. “If it fails, you will be the worst one.” Roosevelt responded: “If it fails, I’ll be the last one.” Against that backdrop, Roosevelt’s reforms were pioneering but temperate. He preserved private property. He restored American capitalism. The American welfare state he created was a stretch considering America’s past, but a far cry from European varieties, let alone the Soviet model so many American intellectuals desired.
In the historian Richard Hofstadter’s apt metaphor, FDR was a nimble quarterback, always scrambling but usually remaining within America’s constitutional boundaries. Perhaps Roosevelt’s greatest failure – his attempt during his second term to pack the Supreme Court – resulted from running out of bounds. The Court-packing scheme – adding up to six new justices for each justice over seventy – failed because Roosevelt overestimated his own power and the American people’s appetite for revolution. This miscalculation set back the New Deal – but taught FDR a valuable lesson. When World War II broke out in Europe, Roosevelt was a model muscular moderate – advancing forward in an important direction, toward intervention, but always staying half a step ahead of the American people, rather than outrunning them.
Similarly, Ronald Reagan proceeded more cautiously than conservatives hoped and liberals feared. From the start of his administration, Reagan demonstrated that he was not the president of the Republican Party or its conservative wing but president of the United States. The Reagan Library has many files filled with letters from conservatives blasting Reagan for being too accommodating. Reagan’s Cabinet, filled as it was with moderates like Alexander Haig and Malcolm Baldridge, let alone Rockefeller Republicans like Richard Schweiker, infuriated conservatives.
One of the few ideologues Reagan appointed to a high position, his Office of Management and Budget Director David Stockman, would write a kiss-and-tell book, “The Triumph of Politics,” complaining that the so-called Reagan Revolution was headed by an amiable former actor more interested in being popular than storming the big government Bastille. Ultimately, the Reagan Revolution slowed the rate of growth of government – but it preserved the New Deal status quo. Stockman’s glum conclusion was that American government was more “Madisonian,” fragmented, temperate, incrementalist, than he had hoped.
This moderation provides essential ballast in a democratic system. America remains a center-right nation – and a country of pragmatists wary of revolution. Even the American Revolution itself was a relatively mild, reasonable affair – compared to the French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutionary bloodbaths. In his victory speech, Barack Obama acknowledged the tens of millions who did not vote for him, whose support he will need to succeed. George W. Bush presidency should be remembered as a cautionary tale warning against the Karl Rove strategy of mobilizing the base and neglecting the center.
When President Bush struck early, thinking big and broadly, one Democratic senator proposed minor changes to Bush’s controversial tax cuts. The senator promised that with those compromises, “I guarantee you’ll get seventy votes out of the Senate.” Rove replied, “We don’t want seventy votes. We want fifty-one.” This polarizing take-no-prisoners attitude alienated many and derailed Bush’s presidency. The writer who recounted that anecdote was Barack Obama himself, in “The Audacity of Hope.” Obama then wrote: “Genuine bipartisanship … assumes an honest process of give-and-take, and that the quality of the compromise is measured by how well it serves some agreed-upon goal, whether better schools or lower deficit.” This is a great description of what muscular moderation is all about – and what Barack Obama needs to remember as he reads about FDR’s presidency – and plans to lead from the center in an Obama administration.