By Gil Troy, HNN, 1-12-09
A clever graphic in Sunday’s New York Times Week In Review adds some presidential ghosts to last week’s remarkable Oval Office photo of George H.W. Bush, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton standing amiably together, with Jimmy Carter characteristically looking awkward and standoffish. In the article “Welcome, 44, From 43, 42, 41, 40, 39, 32, 16…” the editors added photos of Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Harry Truman to expand the meeting virtually. The text highlighted ways Obama had embraced their respective legacies on the campaign trail or during the transition. Barack Obama is an impressively literate politician with a rich historic imagination. In his book “The Audacity of Hope,” he mentioned other presidents too – and occasionally criticized some of the presidents who appeared in the Times graphic.
Most notably, Thomas Jefferson’s ghost was missing. Obama mentions Jefferson admiringly numerous times in “The Audacity of Hope.” Obama cherishes Jefferson’s commitment to separation of church and state, his willingness to expand the country and America’s governing powers with the Louisiana Purchase despite preferring in principle to keep government small, and his appreciation for an occasional revolutionary breeze blowing through government to shake things up. Jefferson entered office during a highly divisive and unstable period. His inaugural vision saying “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists” was healing and reassuring. This formula of bipartisan unity was essential during America’s first peaceful transition from the governing party to the opposition. Whatever awkwardness George W. Bush and Barack Obama may experience on Inauguration Day will pale compared to the tension between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in 1801. Vice President Jefferson had just defeated his old friend – and boss – in a harsh contest. They only reconciled years later. Finally, Jefferson also confronted sobering challenges overseas and at home, and had to adjust many intellectual and philosophical impulses to the brutal realities.
Harry Truman was a great choice because Obama admires Truman’s boldness and vision in forging a postwar order, in creating powerful, effective international organizations and adapting to an entirely new status quo. Obama liked the way both Truman and Dwight Eisenhower focused the nation on addressing big challenges and launched big government programs when necessary, including NASA and the great Federal Highway under Eisenhower.
Reagan was an essential addition. Interviewed in Reno, Nevada, in January 2008, Obama praised Reagan — as the Times noted – for changing “the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.” Obama wants to be that kind of Reaganesque leader. Obama also learned from Reagan not to rely too much on big government programs, and to value family, faith, and community. Obama respects Reagan as what I call in my book a muscular moderate, understanding the importance of leading from the center.
Obama also hails Clinton for leading from the center, and approved of Clinton’s Third Way attempt to move beyond the 1980s’ polarizing politics. But Clinton is like Obama’s sloppier, more fun-loving, older brother. Obama also fears replicating Clinton’s failures. Obama’s discipline contrasts with Clinton’s appetite for excess. Obama wants to accomplish great things and is wary of Clinton’s ultimate legacy as the woulda, coulda, shoulda kid — a president of tremendous talents but of unrealized potential.
Both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton came into the White House triggering great, what we might now call Obamaesque, hopes – and disappointed millions. Both these Democratic presidencies should serve as cautionary tales for Obama even as he admires Carter’s commitment to human rights, and Clinton’s centrism (along with his extraordinary political skill). In fact, in “Audacity of Hope,” Obama slams Carter for responding to tremendous challenges including the energy crisis and the great inflation with feeble suggestions to lower the thermostat.
Finally, Obama admires George H.W. Bush for skillfully forging a broad worldwide coalition during the first Gulf War — and for his innate decency. Obama sensed Bush’s discomfort amid Republicans’ hyper-partisanship and hopes to inject more of that decency into American politics. Obama’s respect also reflects the general boon in George H.W. Bush’s reputation, as many built up the father to denigrate the son.
Obama loves presidents who embarked on big ambitious, visionary projects: Jefferson founding the University of Virginia and wanting that on his tombstone, Abraham Lincoln not just freeing the slaves but using government to aid laborers and homesteaders, Eisenhower responding to Sputnik by doubling federal aid to education, shaping a generation of engineers and scientists, then presiding over the formation of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA. These to Obama justify his sweeping vision for a grand national energy project, although he tries to avoid sounding like just another Lyndon Johnson Big Government liberal. Obama wants ambitious projects that harness American creativity not big government bureaucracies. He will happily commune with whichever predecessors he needs to define and promote his own grand legacy.