By Gil Troy, HNN, 4-21-09
Countering America’s tradition of moderate, bipartisan presidential leadership is an equally vibrant tradition of moderate masqueraders, partisans obscuring their sharp political elbows with bipartisan rhetoric. In 1968, Richard Nixon now the “New Nixon,” ran to heal his fragmented nation. Six years later, Nixon resigned, his presidency derailed by his partisan overreaction to student protests which triggered the Watergate scandal. In 2000, George W. Bush promised to unite America, only to govern as a divisive president. One hundred days into his presidency, Barack Obama wavers. At his best, he has wooed Republicans, seeking a new, welcoming center for a nation reeling from economic cataclysm, continuing foreign threats and Bush’s tumultuous tenure. At his worst, President Obama has indulged Congressional Democrats and party sensibilities rather than offering the moderate statesmanship America needs.
The First Hundred Days is an artificial benchmark rooted in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Obama’s presidency is unfolding. John Kennedy proved more successful than his first hundred days suggested, marred as it was by the failed Bay of Pigs Cuban invasion; Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush ended their respective presidencies less successfully than each began. Still, a presidential character starts forming. The First Hundred Days launches many story lines that ultimately determine a president’s destiny.
President Obama’s debut has been less bold than he promised and, frankly, confusing. Regarding foreign policy, his rhetoric has veered left but his actions have stayed centrist. Domestically, his rhetoric has been more moderate than his policies.
Obama’s foreign affairs messaging has positioned him as the “unBush.” From apologizing for American “arrogance” in Europe to smiling with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez to denouncing torture, Obama has enraged conservatives. But Obama has not acted like the pushover he sometimes appears to be. He is keeping troops in Iraq. He has intensified the military push in Afghanistan. And he gave the shoot to kill order when Somali pirates held an American hostage.
At its best, Obama’s foreign policy has used George W. Bush as a straw man, to appear to be hitting the oft-mentioned “reset button,” without acting irresponsibly. Obama’s approach to the Durban anti-racism review conference exemplified his strategy. In sending diplomats to preliminary meetings, Obama showed he would engage the world, unlike his predecessor. By nevertheless boycotting because too many delegates from Muslim countries pushed their anti-Israel, anti-Western, and anti-free speech lines, Obama acted properly, but with greater credibility.
Ultimately, Obama must define his foreign policy more clearly. He will have to remind Muslims how many Americans died trying to protect Muslims in Kosovo, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than simply apologizing for Bush’s “war on terror.” And the Obama administration will have to find its moral center, rather than disappointing dissidents worldwide when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says human rights issues will not divide the United States and China. Still, this has been a clever, cautious start for a president with a thin foreign policy resume.
Obama’s greatest challenge has been righting America’s economic ship of state. Watching the confusion among our supposed experts, seeing how many very smart people made such a mess, the President probably is as baffled as the rest of us. Just as it is easy during boom times to forget that a bust may soon come, it is easy to forget downturns are cyclical and fleeting too. Of course, the President lacks the luxury of waiting it out. Obama argues that too little governmental response in the 1930s made matters worse – forgetting that too much governmental intervention in the 1970s was equally harmful.
Rhetorically, Obama has been thoughtful and reasonable. His April 14 speech at Georgetown was a model of moderate leadership. Acknowledging critics left and right, he sounded balanced, systematic and visionary. He invoked the Sermon on the Mount – not to perpetuate squishy liberal sentiments about helping others, but to explain the importance of rebuilding on firm foundations. He affirmed his liberalism by delineating new “pillars that will grow our economy and make this new century another American century,” including “new rules for Wall Street” and new investments in education, renewable energy and technology, and health care. But Obama showed he was a liberal who had learned from Ronald Reagan. He added a fifth pillar, “new savings in our federal budget” and insisted that like a good doctor, the government primarily must do no harm.
Unfortunately, on Capitol Hill and in practice Obama has been less artful. While he watched the Super Bowl with some Republicans, most Republicans resented how Democrats burdened the economic stimulus package with so many items that long lingered on Congressional wish lists. More broadly, Obama is trying to spend his way out of the recession with a classically Keynesian, big government approach. At Georgetown, Obama invoked Bush’s policies to justify his actions as centrist moves – even though conservatives criticized Bush’s big-spending deviation from Reaganite orthodoxy.
Given the economic bewilderment and despair, Obama is angling for a win-win. If the economy is not as broken as the conventional wisdom now suggests, all Obama needs is a recovery before 2012, which would be a very long recession. If the economy revives, he will replicate Ronald Reagan’s position in 1984, declaring a new “morning in America” that validates Obamanomics as he coasts to re-election.
Of course, much history could intrude between now and then, ruining this scenario. But considering the headaches he inherited, Obama is governing in the politically shrewdest way for him – shifting left while speaking reasonably domestically, then sounding more radical than he actually acts in foreign affairs. That strategy mirrors Ronald Reagan’s strategy in shrinking taxes but ultimately negotiating with the Soviet Union. Obama admires Reagan’s ability to transform the country. Clearly, Obama hopes he can do the same – in the opposite direction.