Archive for the ‘Presidents’ Category

Unconventional Wisdom


By Gil Troy, New York Times, 8-27-12

With fewer Americans interested in party conventions and television executives providing less prime time coverage, the calls to “just scrap ’em” are mounting.  This summer, CBS announced it preferred broadcasting a rerun of “Hawaii Five-0” to convention speeches, while Chris Wallace of Fox News toasted the good old days when “real business got done.”

Primary voters, not convention delegates, select the presidential nominees. The nominees announce their running mates before the conventions begin. Nearly everyone seems to agree: these party parleys risk irrelevance.

But the conventional wisdom about conventions is wrong. Conventions still count. They help define the candidates, frame the debate, command attention and inject some communal moments into an increasingly atomized political process.

Maintaining traditional rituals is an important, unappreciated element of the campaign as a whole, a key part of its legitimizing function. The way we mobilize citizens, build candidate credibility and reaffirm party identity in two parallel rituals — despite all the partisan enmity — helps explain America’s quicksilver shift from vicious campaigns to peaceful, often rapturous, inaugurations. These familiar political ceremonies broadcast a reassuring continuity and stability even as candidates promise change, and partisans warn of disaster if they lose.

Since the 1830s, these matching, deliciously democratic rites have shaped campaigns, enhancing the dialogue between candidates and voters. Until Andrew Jackson’s democratizing revolution, “King Caucus” reigned, as Congressional leaders picked party nominees secretly. The conventions reflected nineteenth-century Americans’ emergence as partisans and not just voters. Popular party politics became the first great American national pastime. Then as now, convention delegates were both mediators and validators, conveying messages to candidates from their constituents, while bathing the candidates in populist love with hoopla and huzzahs.

True, conventions were once kingmakers, selecting the party’s nominee, often to the people’s surprise — and occasionally to party elites’ chagrin.  Originally, delegates chosen by local party leaders convened in elaborately festooned halls, like the “Wigwam” in Chicago, where Abraham Lincoln was nominated by the Republican Party in 1860. Back then, nominations and even the basic character of the party were up for grabs, as local political bosses squabbled over the platform while choosing the party’s “standard bearers” – the campaign’s military metaphors announced the party’s commitment to mobilizing manpower while maintaining discipline.

More power-hungry than idea driven, the bosses were angling for “spoils” and protecting turf, not just advancing policy positions. And the defining convention cliché — when delegates from the “great state” of LouWHEEziana or CaliFOURRRnia or wherever else praised their home bases effusively — affirmed regional sensibilities while uniting an increasingly centralized polity.

Ticket to the 1928 Democratic National Convention, held in Houston, Texas.Library of CongressTicket to the 1928 Democratic National Convention, held in Houston, Texas.

Seeking a “balanced ticket” to reflect both parties’ traditional self-image as broad, umbrella coalitions, conventions often produced awkward shotgun marriages. The Republicans in 1904 paired the staid William McKinley with the bombastic Theodore Roosevelt. The Democrats in 1928 mismatched the Northern Catholic city slicker Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York with a “favorite son” candidate from Lonoke, Ark., Senator Joseph T. Robinson.

Divided and disputatious, conventions frequently deadlocked. In 1928, the Democrats took 103 ballots to nominate a candidate. Sometimes, the stalemates reflected the party’s fragmented politics, producing “dark horses” — unexpected, inoffensive compromise choices — such as the Democrat James Knox Polk in 1844 and the Republican James A. Garfield in 1880. Sometimes, great ideological divisions were at play. In 1852, the Whigs, splintering over slavery, nominated the antislavery General Winfield Scott on the 53rd ballot, even as the platform appeased Southerners by endorsing states rights. Antislavery Whigs supported their nominee while “spitting upon the platform” in Horace Greeley’s memorable phrase. Twelve years later, during the Civil War, when the nominee George McClellan reversed the pacifist Democratic convention’s priorities by saying “the Union is the one condition of peace,” vice presidential nominee George H. Pendleton was so furious that McClellan would not end the war unconditionally, he boycotted his running mate’s campaign events.

Originally, nominees rarely attended the conventions, and never addressed the delegates once chosen. Believing a candidate’s reluctance and passivity reflected his virtue and suitability, the party offered the nomination by mail, which the nominee accepted with a formal reply. In 1848, Zachary Taylor’s acceptance was delayed for weeks because the notification committee’s invitation, sent postage due, languished in the Dead Letter office. The thrifty Taylor only accepted letters with prepaid postage.

By 1852, Scott used a new invention — the telegraph — to accept immediately, becoming the first nominee to address a convention directly, albeit remotely. When the rival Democrats chose Franklin Pierce after 49 ballots, the notification committee’s visit to him created a tradition of sending a party delegation to make the offer in person.

Pierce kept quiet that day. The post-convention notification ceremony later grew into a spectacle, as large delegations representing the diverse party interests visited the nominee, who, increasingly, endorsed the party and the platform with a full speech. By 1892, the Democratic financier and strategist William C. Whitney rented out Madison Square Garden so that the ex-president Grover Cleveland, seeking a comeback, could accept in front of 20,000 people.  Democrats rejoiced that this ceremony “indicated that the candidates were in touch with the people.” Republicans mocked Cleveland as “Jumbo” the circus elephant playing Coney Island.

Even before they could be transmitted live, dramatic convention moments united Americans. After William Jennings Bryan’s electric “Cross of Gold” speech in 1896, the once-obscure 36-year-old Nebraska Congressman became a national celebrity.  From then on, his wife recalled, they lost their privacy: “The public had invaded our lives.”

In the twentieth century, the proliferation of primaries increasingly shifted the focus from the convention delegates to the people. Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to fly to Chicago and accept the nomination in person in 1932 was a twofer: it illustrated his vigor despite his polio and it signaled his readiness to offer a daring “New Deal.”  Functioning more as coronation ceremonies than anointments, conventions now climaxed with acceptance speeches. Especially with the televising of the conventions starting in 1948, the Republican and Democratic gatherings became more about what the candidate stood for than who the nominee would be.

In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt, trying to recapture the presidency, championed direct primaries to bypass the party bosses who opposed him. The major issue, Roosevelt said, is “the right of the people to rule.” While these primaries were “beauty contests” sporadically reflecting voter appeal, candidates began arriving at conventions with established national reputations and independent power bases.

These blows to the conventions — and party bosses — boosted democracy. The spread of Republican and Democratic primaries, especially after the party reforms of the 1960s, popularized the nomination process. The drama of conventions now stemmed from what politicians said and did rather than which presidential aspirant lost or won. The Democrats’ divisive, disruptive conventions in 1968 and 1972 helped elect Richard Nixon to the presidency, twice. In 1968, Hubert Humphrey could not recover from the generational conflict that erupted in riots between mostly Democratic working class Chicago cops and mostly Democratic radical student protestors. The botched convention helped him lose the presidency by a slim margin.

Four years later, the convention defined George McGovern as the candidate of “amnesty, abortion, and acid.” As one McGovern supporter put it later, “we should have had a coat-and-tie rule,” as many of the 50 million viewers at home saw too many long-haired hippies in tie-died T-shirts on the convention floor. McGovern became the first candidate since polling began to drop by two points rather than enjoy a “convention bump.”

In 1992, Pat Buchanan’s alienating, shrill call for “religious” and “cultural” war to “take back our country” taught Republicans the political dangers of convention extremism. By contrast, that year, Bill Clinton tapped into the convention’s contemporary power as a forum for communicating with the masses, strolling toward Madison Square Garden with his wife and daughter in tow, as part of an image makeover that helped him find his way.

Like the Olympics opening ceremony they always follow, these televised party carnivals forge party solidarity and launch the campaign, but they can still make or break candidacies. We could do without them because like the Olympics they are often overblown and self-important, but we would miss them (and we’d miss complaining about them too).

The conventions are part of the real action. Try explaining George Bush’s turnaround victory in 1988 without his convention call for a “kinder, gentler nation,” or George W. Bush’s surprisingly narrow 2004 victory without his joke that his “swagger” was merely considered walking in Texas, or Barack Obama’s entire career without his 2004 Democratic convention keynote speech proclaiming that “we worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states.”

Maintaining a democratic dialogue with 300 million citizens is hard. Using this traditional medium — resounding with history and the echoes of earlier speeches, incorporating the battles resolved and the triumphs achieved — roots the often stressful election in America’s proud and ongoing democratic heritage. The mirror image convention rituals of the seemingly hostile parties eloquently broadcast a message of commonality even amid the many policy differences.

Ultimately, these dueling conventions remind us that presidential campaigning is not just about choosing a winner, or debating the national future. It is also, like every good national ritual, about binding a community together through symbols and stories and reaffirming our joint past, common ties and shared fate.

Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University, is the editor, with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Fred Israel, of “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008,” fourth edition. His most recent book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism,” will be published this fall.

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By Gil Troy, The Montreal Gazette, 8-8-12

Gil Troy, an American who is professor of history at McGill University, is the editor, with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Fred Israel, of History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008, fourth edition.

Gil Troy, an American who is professor of history at McGill University, is the editor, with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Fred Israel, of History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008, fourth edition.

Photograph by: unknown

With Americans reeling from the “Joker’s” movie massacre in Colorado and the Sikh temple slaughter in Wisconsin, the disconnect between what they are thinking about and what their presidential candidates are talking about has grown.

During this nasty nadir in the election cycle, the campaigns paused briefly as the nation grieved over the Colorado shootings. President Barack Obama visited Aurora and gave the nation the defining image of young Stephanie Davies pressing her fingers over her best friend Allie Young’s neck wound amid the gunfire, refusing Allie’s pleas to flee, saving Allie’s life.

After the Wisconsin murders, Obama said he was “deeply saddened,” while Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney joined in “mourning” the dead. But there was something missing in Obama’s and Romney’s remarks. Their words, while heartfelt, lacked the resonance of the greatest presidential responses to tragedy, which focused Americans on the particular loss, provided a renewed sense of purpose and blazed a trail toward transcendence from anguish.

Obama’s Allie-Stephanie tale did capture the extraordinary heroism of ordinary people that often emerges in such situations. It illustrated his message that what matters most is “how we choose to treat one another and how we love one another.” But nothing Obama said matched Abraham Lincoln’s characterization of the Civil War as “this mighty scourge of war” or Franklin Roosevelt’s description of the Pearl Harbor attack as “a day which will live in infamy.”

Lincoln and Roosevelt, among other presidential orators, understood they could not simply mourn. They had to motivate, they had to propel a huge, complicated and newly fragile country forward. Lincoln, at Gettysburg, spoke of “unfinished work” and “a new birth of freedom.” Roosevelt, who conjured the “warm courage of national unity” to fight the Great Depression, swore to avenge American deaths from Japanese treachery.

Finding a national purpose is hard enough; greatness comes from transcendence, soaring beyond the trauma. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address promised: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.” Lyndon Johnson laced his eloquence after John Kennedy’s assassination with inspiring idealism, seeking to create an America where “the strong can be just in the use of strength, and the just can be strong in the defence of justice.” And Bill Clinton, after the Oklahoma City terrorist bombings, showed that great presidential oratory often fuses the national with the theological, saying: “Those who are lost now belong to God. Some day we will be with them. But until that happens, their legacy must be our lives.”

A shooting at a mall and even a loner attacking a temple cannot be compared proportionately with wars, presidential assassinations, or mass terrorist attacks. Individual crimes, no matter how heinous, are not national assaults. And following the hasty attempt to politicize the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz., in 2011, when many reporters and Democrats wrongly blamed another crazed gunman’s sins on the red-blue political divide, politicians need to tread cautiously. But since the two shootings, millions of Americans have been going beyond the individual stories to ask broader, deeper, more disturbing questions.

And instinctively, in this secular age of the media-magnified presidency, they look to America’s pastor-in-chief or pastor-in-chief-to-be to minister to their wounded souls and provide the kind of transforming sermon many of their parents and grandparents once received from preachers.

Just as Obama, in 2008, used the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy to address the country’s tortured history of race relations, Americans need a candidate this year to address America’s values crisis. Americans need a leader to push the conversation beyond the left-right divide. Character questions should not be political but they can be shaped constructively by wise politicians. With Wall Street exposed and Joe Paterno deposed, with the economy flagging and political credibility sagging, Americans want a conversation about culture and belief and values that does not degenerate into debates about gay marriage or abortion rights.

The common revulsion at the Colorado and Wisconsin crimes, along with many Americans’ growing fears that somehow these latest mass murderers from among us reflect something institutionally and ideologically broken, are building blocks for a national conversation. All Americans — all moderns — need “warm courage” to improve ourselves and our respective nations. Americans need a leader. And if done right, we will honour the victims.

Gil Troy, an American who is professor of history at McGill University, is the editor, with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Fred Israel, of History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008, fourth edition.

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By Gil Troy, New York Times, 6-26-12

In running for re-election, Barack Obama commands the most powerful democratic platform in world history and the greatest backdrop, the White House. A seemingly casual announcement in a TV interview can trigger a political earthquake, as Obama did when he endorsed gay marriage. But the president’s magnificent residence can also be what Harry Truman called the Great White Jail.

Presidents are handcuffed by their power. Presidential statements can crash financial markets or start wars. The dignity of the presidency also inhibits, even in today’s brutal political environment. Obama’s campaign ad attacking Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital made some Democrats squirm as Republicans labeled the president “another gut-punching politician from Washington.”

The ambivalence about presidents politicking goes back to the nation’s founding. George Washington liked “going on tour,” getting “huzzahed” north and south – but, reflecting his contemporaries’ distaste for democracy, he avoided explicit political talk. When the less popular President Martin Van Buren toured before his 1840 re-election campaign, his fellow Democrats feted him. Nevertheless, the new partisanship polarizing American politics had Whig Party critics denouncing Van Buren’s activities as “undignified” and “insulting,” while mocking “His Majesty, King Martin the First.”

A cartoon depicted the obstacles facing President Martin Van Buren's reelection effort in 1840. Weighed down by a bundle labeled "Sub Treasury," Van Buren followed the lead of Andrew Jackson toward the White House.

Library of Congress

A cartoon depicted the obstacles facing President Martin Van Buren’s reelection effort in 1840. Weighed down by a bundle labeled “Sub Treasury,” Van Buren followed the lead of Andrew Jackson toward the White House.

In 1864, Abraham Lincoln said he was too busy to campaign for reelection — a common presidential posture. Still, “Honest Abe” was a crafty pol, who was “too busy looking after the election to think of anything else,” according to his treasury secretary, William Pitt Fessenden.

This posture of presidential passivity persisted, even after William Jennings Bryan’s 18,000 mile 1896 stumping tour ended the charade for challengers, who now campaigned openly and vigorously. The hyperkinetic President Theodore Roosevelt chafed under the restrictions in 1904, comparing it to “lying still under shell fire” when he was a Rough Rider. Still, T.R. understood that no matter what he did his election would be a “referendum on Roosevelt,” as one aide said.

The impression of energetic politicking Theodore Roosevelt conveyed — even while he felt constrained — propelled presidents more explicitly into politics. In the 1930s and 1940s, Franklin D. Roosevelt perfected the presidential techniques of campaigning by governing and scoring political points by pretending to be nonpolitical. Roosevelt showered voters with governmental goodies while parrying reporters’ political questions by saying “I don’t know nothin’ about politics.” Critics wondered how to criticize him as he saved starving children. Opponents “could only talk,” the Times columnist Arthur Krock marveled, as Roosevelt announced new initiatives in his campaign addresses. “The president acted.”

Unfortunately, F.D.R.’s act reinforced the traditional impression that politicking besmirched the president. Even while presiding over his party as adeptly as he presided over the nation, even while understanding how to sell policies not just develop them, Roosevelt disrespected the democratic dialogue. He treated the sacred act of soliciting voters’ support as a profane act of crass self-promotion.

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson, despite being a Roosevelt protégé, could not keep up the charade of acting presidential for long. “Get in your cars and come to the speakin’,” he yelled as he motorcaded – and showered farm aid, disaster relief, food stamps and pay raises on the communities he visited.

Eight years later, Richard Nixon took Roosevelt’s public prudishness and private ruthlessness to such extremes that he ruined his presidency. In 1972, President Nixon said that he would win re-election simply by “doing my job.” White House staffers froze out reporters who dared treat Nixon as a candidate, even as he privately called the campaign “a fight to the death.”

The Watergate revelations made all politicians look crooked. Nixon’s defense that every president acted ruthlessly resonated with the post-1960’s adversary culture epitomized by the hypercritical news media. Conflict-oriented stories emphasized politicians’ moral failings and the brutality of American politics.

The Watergate debacle prompted a new presidential primness. Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter each followed a “Rose Garden strategy” while running for re-election, obscuring their political calculations in moralistic claims that the nation needed them working in the White House. This return to a nineteenth-century delicacy culminated in Michael Dukakis’s 1988 campaign. Dismissed by one reporter as “just a brain in the jar,” the bloodless Massachusetts technocrat who was not even yet president was so busy declaiming what was and wasn’t “worthy of a presidential campaign,” he blew a 20-point summertime lead.

As both candidate and president, Bill Clinton combated the growing perception that the Democrats had become the party of high-minded, long-winded, weak-chinned wimps who could not take a political punch. Clinton combined a Rooseveltian charm and duplicity with a shameless Nixonian ruthlessness that reassured Democrats after so many Reagan-era losses. “I find it appalling that a lot of well-established people don’t understand how important political skills are to governing,” James Carville, Clinton’s chief strategist, complained. If you don’t win, “you are never going to get anything done.”

Even before he became President, Barack Obama struggled with these mixed messages. In 2008, some aides welcomed stories that this high-minded philosopher-politician could be the tough Chicago pol when necessary. Now, Obama’s supporters are using the recent backlash against his Bain ads to emphasize that Obama “didn’t survive and triumph in battles with Chicago politicians, some of whom resembled dockside thugs, because he’s made of cotton candy,” as the Democratic consultant Donna Brazile wrote recently.

Obama’s image is a hologram, sometimes hovering above the fray, sometimes plunging into the political muck. With his Dream Act-like executive order halting the deportation of illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children, Obama is campaigning by governing as F.D.R. did, approaching the shamelessness of L.B.J. and the desperation of Clinton, banking on Americans’ appetite for presidential remorselessness. No president can govern effectively without being a consummate politician, which includes knowing how to sell yourself, push your agenda, trim, spin, compromise, build coalitions, punish enemies and trash opposing ideas.

While presidents also need to act proportionately and be statesmen-like, the presidential primness that began with George Washington was antidemocratic, reflecting the founders’ fears of mob rule. In our more democratic era, we still should fear demagogues while cherishing popular politics. The challenge is particularly difficult these days when politics seems so poisonous and presidents shrewdly seek insulation from the toxicity.

Treating politics as disreputable demeans democracy. The expanded involvement of voters in politics and the increased pressure on presidents to communicate with voters are among America’s greatest democratic achievements of the last two centuries. Political skills in the White House are like guns in Dodge City. You want your guys to have them but worry when the bad guys wield them. Perhaps it’s time to resurrect the 1964 complaint of the historian James MacGregor Burns, as the White House yet again becomes a “round-the-clock, round-the-year campaign headquarters.”

Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University, is the editor, with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Fred Israel, of “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008,” fourth edition.

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Culture Warriors Don’t Win

By Gil Troy, NYT, 4-27-12

Campaign Stops - Strong Opinions on the 2012 Election

Ronald Reagan campaigned for governor on Nov. 5, 1966 in<br /><br /> Hawthorne, Calif.,
Associated Press Ronald Reagan campaigning for governor on Nov. 5, 1966 in Hawthorne, Calif.

Mitt Romney’s apparent nomination proves that Republican voters are more pragmatic and centrist than their reputation suggests. The Republican candidates this year fought a classic political battle. Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul campaigned as purists, echoing Henry Clay’s famous expression from 1844, “I’d rather be right than president.” The realist Romney updated the belief of nineteenth-century partisans that a candidate’s most important ability is what they called his “availability,” as in “his ability to avail” – and prevail.

Gingrich and Santorum frequently justified their extremism by invoking the modern Republican demigod, Ronald Reagan. Gingrich is just now giving up on campaigning as a “Reagan conservative” against Romney, the “Massachusetts moderate.” In March, Santorum visited a Reaganite holy site – the Jelly Belly factory in Fairfield, Calif., which produced Reagan’s favorite jelly beans. “They’re asking you, people of principle, to compromise your principles and to be for someone who is less corely convicted than Ronald Reagan because we need to win,” Santorum said. He had a pragmatic argument too: “Every time we run someone that the moderate establishment of the Republican Party said we need to win, we lose.”

Santorum’s diction – corely convicted? – is as flawed as his historical memory. Republican voters have rejected culture wars and fanaticism in presidential campaigns repeatedly – they know culture warriors don’t win. Despite the talk about the rightward lurch of their party, a majority of Republicans have learned Reagan’s central political lesson. A Republican candidate can only win by wooing the center, and a president must govern as a national leader, not a factional chief or a cultural crusader.

Even when it began in the 1850s as an ideological anti-slavery breakaway group, the Republican Party favored more “available” nominees. The first Republican nominee, John C. Frémont, was most famous as “The Pathfinder.” In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was the compromise candidate, defeating the zealots Salmon P. Chase and William Henry Seward. Lincoln’s strategy was “to give no offence to others – leave them in a mood to come to us, if they shall be compelled to give up their first love.” He even made his acceptance letter “sufficiently brief to do no harm.”

There has been a more substance-oriented counter-tradition, epitomized by Grover Cleveland’s challenge, “What is the use of being elected or re-elected, unless you stand for something?” But the need to appeal broadly to America’s diverse electorate has usually prevailed. American voters’ weakness for popular icons over articulate ideologues ultimately frustrated even Henry Clay, the conscience of the Whig Party. As the Mexican War hero Zachary Taylor, who had never even voted for president before, conquered his party in 1848, Clay, well aware that Americans loved turning soldiers into presidents, moaned, “I have thought that I might yet be able to capture or to slay a Mexican.”

In the twentieth century, Ronald Reagan delivered his best lines as a culture warrior, including the grand slam — “A hippie is someone who looks like Tarzan, walks like Jane and smells like Cheetah” – while governing California, not while he was running for president. Reagan won in 1980 by moving beyond Barry Goldwater’s cranky conservatism, which had triggered the Democratic landslide of 1964.

Reagan’s conservatism with a smiley face emphasized economic issues. Within weeks of his inauguration in 1981, conservatives were complaining that Reagan’s Cabinet was too moderate. Their cry — “Let Reagan be Reagan” — demanded a more ideological and confrontational “corely convicted” leadership. But in compromising and popularizing, Reagan was being Reagan.

Nevertheless, conservatives revered Reagan because they never doubted his essential conservative identity. In Puritan terms, Reagan had a “covenant of grace” with conservatives, not a “covenant of works.” His salvation came from sharing core beliefs not engaging in particular acts.

Since Reagan, conservative ideologues like Santorum have inspired voters, disrupted primaries, enraged Democrats, alienated independents, but lost. In 1988, the evangelical preacher Pat Robertson surged in Iowa, then faltered. In 1992, Pat Buchanan was only popular enough to hurt President Bush, not to win. This pattern has held, with flareups of varying incandescence from Alan Keyes to Gary Bauer to Mike Huckabee. George W. Bush did not run as the conservative ideologue many saw when he governed but as the Romneyesque “compassionate conservative” whom many on the right at first mistrusted.

Winning candidates need a broad national reach. The appeal of the culture warrior is far more limited than the Tea Party crowd claims. If Americans actually embraced Rick Santorum’s worldview, the rates of premarital sex, abortion, births to single mothers, divorce, and same-sex relationships would be much lower, especially in the “red states.” But these are not “blue state” phenomena or liberal Democratic behaviors.

Most Americans are not ready to jettison traditional moral strictures even as many live non-traditional lives. Especially in this election, with no particularly pressing social or cultural issue demanding the attention of voters, Santorum’s sanctimony functioned as a form of identity politics, telegraphing membership in a self-selected club of the “virtuous,” while churning divisive emotions.

Romney should be wary because culture warriors can sabotage presidential campaigns. When, at the Republican National Convention in 1992, Pat Buchanan declared a “religious war,” a “cultural war,” a war “for the soul of America,” it was President Bush who suffered. Karl Rove blamed the 2000 electoral deadlock on millions of evangelical voters who stayed home because harsh conservative attacks on George W. Bush made them doubt his ideological purity.

Romney also has to worry because when smartphones and Facebook make everyone a reporter and modern journalists can shamelessly eavesdrop at Palm Beach fundraisers, it gets harder to reconcile primary-driven genuflection toward the right with more moderate inclinations. Both Republican conservatives and liberal Democrats will resurrect his most extreme statements as he veers toward the center. But in recalibrating, he will be behaving like most nominees. As one Republican Party founder, the passionate, wild-bearded Gideon Welles, advised his ambitious friend Franklin Pierce in 1852, when Welles was an anti-slavery Jacksonian Democrat: “Be the candidate of all.”

In 1984, Reagan’s chief of staff, James Baker, offered a recipe for victory that was more apple pie than red meat: “Crime, Education, Economics – Unity.” Reagan understood that Americans had complex feelings about many issues. He knew that a presidential campaign was not a Christian camp meeting. His covenant of grace gave the conservatives a popular victory they never would have achieved otherwise. And it taught Republicans (and Democrats) that even in primary season, winning the center and the swing voter remains the candidate’s central mission; political purity is useless if you lose.

Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University, is the editor, with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Fred Israel, of “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008,” fourth edition.

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By Gil Troy, The Montreal Gazette, 8-11-11

U.S. President Barack Obama is smart, eloquent and talented, but inexperienced as an executive. While he still needs more management experience, the presidency is not the right place for on-the-job training.

U.S. President Barack Obama is smart, eloquent and talented, but inexperienced as an executive. While he still needs more management experience, the presidency is not the right place for on-the-job training.

Photograph by: Alex Wong, Getty Images

The downgrading of America’s credit rating just days after the debt-ceiling fight ended – followed by wild stock market gyrations – risks branding Barack Obama’s presidency as a historic failure. The S & P analysts made it clear that they were passing political judgment on the United States, not just making an economic assessment. While Republicans clearly share the blame for U.S. political gridlock, Obama shoulders most of the burden as the person in charge.

The perception of American paralysis reflects deep ideological divisions in the country as well as disturbing management failures in the Oval Office. Barack Obama is smart, eloquent and talented, but inexperienced as an executive. As a community organizer, an academic and a senator on the state and national levels, he has led but not managed. The presidency is an executive position and not a place for on-the-job training, especially during times of economic catastrophe.

The debt-ceiling fight and the ensuing downgrade proved yet again that few politicians fear the current president. Obama seemingly skipped the section in Machiavelli that teaches “it is much safer to be feared than loved.” America’s president could learn from Canada’s current prime minister how to motivate in a muscular way, just as Stephen Harper could learn from Obama how to lighten a leader’s touch. Obama’s dainty presidency will continue drifting until both Democrats and Republicans, in Congress and in the executive branch, learn that crossing the president has a cost, and that this president, like other strong leaders, will wreak vengeance on errant allies as well as political enemies.

Petulance is not enough. Obama has repeatedly denounced the Republicans as obstructionist. But these displays of presidential pique backfired, legitimizing Tea Party claims to being independent troublemakers. Moreover, Obama’s denunciations risk becoming ritualized, more like the fulminations of a substitute teacher who cannot control the class rather than the commands of the disciplinarian assistant principal who restores order.

Obama has long struggled with this problem of presidential wimpiness. Rahm Emanuel swaggered into the Oval Office as White House chief of staff to be Obama’s enforcer. But years in the House leadership softened Emanuel, making him too deferential to Congress. Congressional Democrats acted with impunity during the two years they enjoyed a majority in both Houses. The result was the health-care bill, a bill so complex because it indulged so many legislative whims it is difficult for the president to explain clearly in popular terms.

Obama’s most successful predecessors cultivated reputations for toughness. Theodore Roosevelt conceptualized the White House as a bully pulpit for national leadership while understanding the need to bully the occasional critic. Franklin Roosevelt’s famous challenge, “Judge me by the enemies I have made,” today sounds like a wartime boast. In fact, Roosevelt made this defiant statement during his 1932 campaign visit to Portland, Ore., vowing to confront greedy public utilities. As president, Roosevelt perfected various techniques for rewarding friends and punishing enemies. He distributed federal goodies like a tyrannical father doles out love, attention and allowance, favouring the districts of loyal legislators such as Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson, whose constituents then prospered.

Conversely, while historians often emphasize Roosevelt’s failure to unseat the conservative Democratic congressmen he opposed in 1938, targeting some kept others in line.

Ronald Reagan, like Obama, was constitutionally unable to bully party members who strayed or opponents who obstructed. But Reagan knew he had to telegraph toughness, especially because many underestimated him as a mere actor and a political amateur. In August 1981, when members of the Air Traffic Controllers’ Union went on strike, Reagan gave the controllers 48 hours to return to work. Two days later, he fired those who continued striking.

“I’ve asked so many leading European financiers when and why they started pumping money into this country,” a British businessman based in Washington said years later, “and they all said the same thing: when Reagan broke the controllers’ strike.”

Obama, like all effective leaders, must remain authentic. Seeking to play the role of the moderate is natural for him, and commendable. But many of America’s most successful presidents understood they had to be muscular moderates, building consensus without playing the patsy.

Political scientist Richard Neustadt characterized the power of the presidency as the power to persuade. In fact, presidential power also comes from the ability to reward and punish, to create careers and destroy others – demanding a ruthlessness in domestic politics that Obama has rarely displayed.

Leaders, even muscular moderates, should be feared, respected and, if possible, as a bonus, loved.

Gil Troy teaches history at McGill University.

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By Gil Troy, 8-4-11

Barack Obama turns fifty today, August 4th.  Both he and his country appear battered these days, as Obama’s White House recuperates from the bruising debt ceiling showdown and the United States remains stuck combating two wars along with one long-lasting recession.  But the progress Obama and America have made since 1961 is extraordinary—and should remind Obama, along with other doubters, that it is premature to count out America.

The United States into which Barack Obama was born in 1961 was deeply segregated due to an endemic, seemingly unchangeable racism, and profoundly scared due to an implacable, seemingly indestructible foe, the Soviet Union.  Just days before young Obama’s birth, on July 25, President John F. Kennedy addressed the nation about the growing showdown in Berlin, warning that the United States would go to war, even nuclear war if necessary, to stop the Soviets from overrunning West Berlin.  Nine days after Obama’s birth, on August 13, the Soviets began building the Wall dividing Berlin which would symbolize the Cold War stalemate for the next three decades.

Obama was also born into a world still shellshocked by World War II and the Holocaust—in Israel, Adolph Eichmann’s trial for crimes against humanity was winding down.  Demographers count Obama as a Baby Boomer, part of the population explosion and surge in family building that began in 1946 when more than 16 million American GIs began demobilizing.  And it is sobering to compare America’s family stability, traditional values, and communal interconnectedness in 1961 with today’s age of disposable relationships, indulgent impulses, and self-involvement.  Still, Obama is not a classic Baby Boomer, like Bill and Hillary Clinton.  He was too young to watch Howdy Doody as a child, too young to draft-dodge or fight in Vietnam, too young to march for civil rights, too young to lie about having been at Woodstock—in 1969 when he was nine.  Instead Obama, and his wife Michelle, watched the Brady Bunch when they were kids—it was Michelle’s favorite show—and came of age politically during Ronald Reagan’s 1980s.

Becoming an adult in the Reagan era—Reagan became president in 1981 when Obama was twenty—Obama learned from liberalism’s excesses in the 1960s.  In his book Audacity of Hope, Obama shows a sensitivity to cultural forces that his politically-obsessed Baby Boomer elders lacked.  He saw the failures of the Great Society, economically, politically, culturally.  He learned the limits of liberalism and Big Government, discovering that politics cannot shape everything, that culture, tradition, patriotism, religion, community matter.  Yet, as a product of the politically correct 1980s—and by the late 1980s Harvard Law School at the height of PC-mania—Obama absorbed a series of assumptions that continue to color his worldview.  Domestically, the intense opposition to Ronald Reagan caricatured the Republican Party as the party of greed, corporate America as more irresponsible than innovative, and white male culture as bitter and bigoted.  Regarding foreign policy, the fights against nuclear proliferation, South African apartheid, and Reagan’s policies in Central America, crystallized biases against American power and in favor of the Third World, even as Reagan’s military resurgence helped bankrupt the Soviet Union, leading to America’s victory in the once-seemingly unwinnable Cold War.

This mishmash of impulses, recoiling from classic Sixties liberalism and the Reagan counter-revolution, explains some of the paradoxes and blindspots in Obama’s presidency so far.  He can infuriate his liberal allies by accepting budget cuts, and by championing moderation, because he saw in 1980, 1984, and 1988 how addictions to liberal orthodoxy killed Democratic presidential prospects.  But by blaming the financial crash on corporate greed and Republican deregulation, without acknowledging Democratic culpability in demanding easy access to mortgages, he could fill his team with Clinton-era retreads who helped trigger the crisis, and, when pressured, resorts to a politics of petulance and finger-pointing that belies his more moderate impulses. In dealing with the world, his PC-politics explain his apologias for America’s alleged sins, his unconscionable preference for an illusory engagement with Mahmound Ahmadinejad rather than bravely endorsing freedom when Iranian dissidents first rebelled, his instinctive sympathy for the Palestinians, his inexplicable dithering on the Syrian file, and his penchant for disappointing American allies.  At the same time, he learned enough from Reagan’s assertiveness, and was traumatized enough a decade ago during September 11th, that he has given the kill order when confronting pirates at sea, intensified the technique of assassination by drone aircraft, reinforced America’s presence in Afghanistan, and hunted down Osama Bin Laden unapologetically.

The poet T.S. Eliot called the years between fifty and seventy “the hardest” because “You are always being asked to do things, and yet you are not decrepit enough to turn them down.”  For the next year and a half, and possibly for the next five and a half years, Barack Obama will be asked to do heroic things, daily, lacking the luxury of refusing most requests.  When he started campaigning for the presidency, had he anticipated how devastated the U.S. economy would be, he would have shorted the market.  Instead, he has had a much tougher slog in office than he ever anticipated.  As he passes his personal milestone, and anticipates his re-election campaign, he should reflect on all the changes America has experienced in his brief lifetime.  In particular, communism’s defeat, and racism’s retreat, along with the dazzling array of technological miracles Americans engineered, should remind him of America’s extraordinary adaptability, steering him toward a more Reaganite faith in the American people and American nationalism, and away from his current, Jimmy Carteresque doubts about Americans and their ability to continue to prosper and to lead the world.

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By Gil Troy, 7-10-11

Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s.

Do the Democrats have a double standard for Obama?

Of course they do.

So did the Republicans for George W. Bush—who tolerated much more idealistic national building and budget-busting spending than they would have from a Democrat.  And so did the Democrats for Bill Clinton—who would have pilloried a Republican president for establishing the kind of sexist atmosphere Clinton created in his White House.  This inconsistency is a fact of partisan life.  As long as most partisans build their party-affiliations into an identity rather than simply a series of policy positions, they will view their leader’s compromises as statesmanlike, not hypocritical, given how confident they are in their opponents’ shortcomings.

Still, the Democratic turnaround this time is particularly whiplash-inducing.  At the heart of the Bushophobia that consumed many Democrats since 2003 lay their disgust for George W. Bush’s national security policies.  Moreover, Barack Obama’s own political identity and great success in defeating Hillary Clinton stemmed from his opposition to the Iraq War—which raised expectations among at least some Democrats that he would be a pacifist, Nobel Peace Prize-winning president.

President Obama’s behavior in prosecuting the war on terror suggests we should rethink our understanding of presidential performance.  Most of us, historians, voters, and especially journalists, focus too much on the Three Ps of partisanship, personality, and promises.  As a result, we expect a revolution when there is a party turnover in the White House, and a fresh, young politician calls for “Change We Can Believe In.”  We forget the constitutional checks and balances which fragment power, making dramatic change more difficult in the American system.  And we forget that the world looks very different when you sit in the Oval Office as opposed to when you dream about winning the keys to it.

My uncle learned during half a century in the advertising business that, in America, “the one constant is change.”  But as citizens and observers, we should spend more time examining the presidency through a lens emphasizing convergence not divergence among administrations.  The many cosmetic changes sometimes mask the necessary—and unfortunate—continuities.  In Ronald Reagan’s administration, David Stockman was the most famous cabinet member frustrated by this convergence.  In Bill Clinton’s administration, Robert Reich played that role.  And under George W. Bush, the mantle was seized by Donald Rumsfeld, who could not impose on the military the sweeping changes he championed.

I confess, one of the best compliments I can give Barack Obama is that he responded to the challenges America faced, rather than sticking to the script he and his fans devised.  His muscular approach to fighting the war on terror does partially vindicate George W. Bush.  But, more importantly, Obama’s actions acknowledge the complicated challenges America faces abroad.  When Obama has approached this tough situation ideologically rather than pragmatically—contemplating  trying Khlalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York, or treating the Ford Hood terrorist as a mere criminal—he has stumbled.  Obama’s use of unmanned drones to hunt down terrorists, his successful pursuit of Osama bin Laden, and his support for some of the aggressive Bush-era initiatives to eliminate domestic threats all reflect realistic judgment.  That’s leadership.  That’s good governance.

Obama’s challenge, our psychologist friends would suggest, is to “own” this convergence with Bush-era policies, rather than deny it.  By acknowledging the continuities, Obama can then also show how he has put his own, Democratic, civil libertarian, more engagement-oriented, stamp on the policy, thus offering what he believes to be a mature alternative to George Bush and John McCain—while still imposing a reality-check on the too-pacifist, pie-in-the-sky idealists in his own part.

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By Gil Troy, 6-30-11

On December 23, 1796, right after George Washington published his Farewell Address to the nation, the caustic editor Benjamin Franklin Bache, Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, published his farewell to America’s first president.  “If ever a nation was debauched by a man, the American nation has been debauched by Washington,” Bache wrote. “If ever a nation has suffered from the improper influence of a man, the American nation has suffered from the influence of Washington.  If ever a nation was deceived by a man, the American nation has been deceived by Washington.  Let his conduct then be an example to future ages. Let it serve to be a warning that no man may be an idol… let the history of the Federal government instruct mankind, that the masque of patriotism may be worn to conceal the foulest designs against the liberties of the people.”  Nearly 215 years later, on June 30, 2011, one of America’s leading political pundits, Mark Halpern, on live television, assessed President Barack Obama’s press conference performance by saying “I thought he was kind of a d**k” – using the four letter nickname for Richard, which also serves as a slang term for male genitalia.

Let us start with the good news. Then as now, the United States passed what the former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky calls the “public square test.” Having survived the Soviet gulag, Sharansky does not take for granted the freedom citizens in a true democracy like ours have to denounce their rulers publicly without being harmed.  MSNBC suspended Halpern “indefinitely,” from one of his TV talking head gigs. And Halpern faces a wave of public indignation and ridicule but not, thank goodness, the firing squad.

And now, we offer the bad news. Benjamin Franklin Bache was a mean-spirited hatchet man. He loved making trouble and he badly abused the first President of the United States. But his diatribe is poetic, panoramic, and powerfully political. The rhythm is Biblical in its denunciation, and the sweeping condemnation of Washington – with an eye on “future ages” — gets the reader thinking about leadership, patriotism, liberty, celebrity, and posterity. By contrast, Halpern gets us thinking in soundbites and vulgarities. Rather than elevating politics from the street to the salon as Bache did – in all his ugliness – Halpern – like so many others today – reduces us with his potty mouth from the Bully Pulpit to the public toilet.

To me, this issue is less about civility and more about substance. Halpern delivered his comment with a morning anchor’s smile; one imagines Benjamin Franklin Bache writing his passage with spleen and a sneer. Halpern’s “gaffe,” the verbal equivalent of a burp, is the inevitable result of punditry by punchline in an age of infotainment, when commentators feel pressured to entertain rather than enlighten, when it is better to be breezy than boring, when political talk is more about handicapping political horse races than crusading for political ideas.

The word “campaign” originated in the seventeenth century from the French word for open field, campagne.  With contemporary soldiers fighting sustained efforts, often on the wide country terrain, the term quickly acquired its military association. The political connotation emerged in seventeenth-century England to describe a lengthy legislative session. In nineteenth-century America, campaign was part of the barrage of military terms describing electioneering — as the party standard bearer, a war horse tapping into his war chest and hoping not to be a flash-in-the-pan — a cannon that misfires — mobilized the rank-and-file with a rallying cry in battleground states to vanquish their enemies. American politicians needed to conquer the people’s hearts because popular sovereignty has been modern Anglo-American government’s distinguishing anchor since colonial days. As with war, politics can ennoble or demean, but it is often epoch-making, historic. How pathetic it is, that with the entertainment imperative ruling us these days, we frequently experience politics simply as one more distraction, which is what the Halpern putdown was and the ensuing controversy about it in our media echo chamber inevitably will be.

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By Gil Troy and L. Ian MacDonald

Policy Options, March 2011

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By Gil Troy, 2-6-11

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University. He is the author of Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s

As we mark the centennial of Ronald Reagan’s birth, the tug of war over his legacy continues.  Reagan’s popular image—and popularity—have fluctuated as wildly as the stock market.  One way to make sense of this is to think of Ronald Reagan as having nine public lives.

Central to the Reagan legend is this conservative Republican president’s origins as a Hollywood Democrat.  Ronald Reagan was a New Deal Democrat who by the 1950s felt that the Democratic Party had lost its way.  He always insisted:  “Maybe my party changed.  I didn’t.” And yes, Reagan was an actor.  Actually, he never understood how anyone could be in politics without first having been in showbiz.

By 1966, when he ran successfully to become California’s governor, Reagan’s transformation was complete.  During his two terms as governor, and during his triumphal 1980 run for the presidency, Reagan was known as a Conservative Ideologue, beloved by the Right, disdained by the Left.  Although he won in an ABC election, with most Americans choosing Anybody But Carter, Reagan claimed he received a mandate for change.

Reagan started strong in his third incarnation, as the Reagan Revolutionary.  He promised to cut the budget, reduce taxes, trim the bureaucracy, revive America, face down the Soviets.  During his first seven and a half months in office, Reagan secured the largest budget cut in history—some $35 billion in domestic spending from Jimmy Carter’s request—and reduced the personal income tax rate by almost one quarter.  Initially, Democrats were flummoxed.  But by the summer of 1981, with Americans experiencing the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression, Democrats attacked what they now called the “Reagan Recession.”  Getting traction on the “Fairness Issue,” critics attacked the President as Mr. Magoo, a bumbling anti-Communist cowboy, a reverse Robin Hood and warmonger.  They said he cut taxes for the rich and burdened the poor while risking nuclear war by calling the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire.”  They mocked his gaffes, from blaming trees for causing air pollution to counting ketchup as a vegetable (which actually emanated from the Department of Agriculture, not him).  After Democrats surged in the 1982 Congressional midterm elections, pundits started eulogizing Reagan’s failed presidency.

Fortunately for Reagan, the economy revived before he had to face the electorate for re-election.  With inflation tamed, jobs being created, American pride returned. Reagan reigned as a Popular Patriot.   He blessed the prosperity as “Morning in America.”  He pushed for a peaceful ending to the Cold War by going to Berlin to say to his Soviet counterpart, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”  He repeatedly spurred Americans to build their county as “a shining city upon the hill.”

Yet by the time Reagan retired in January 1989, even many Republicans were losing enthusiasm for him.  The warm, fuzzy, up-with-America feelings he continued to evoke were balanced by outrage over the Iran-Contra debacle, worries over the growing gap between rich and poor, along with fears that America was becoming too yuppie, too self-absorbed, too greedy.  By promising a “kinder, gentler” nation, Vice President George H.W. Bush became president implicitly casting Reagan as the Unkind, Ungentle President.  The disrespect for Reagan in the Bush White House as lazy, ignorant, detached, became so overt that former President Richard Nixon fired off a note to Bush’s Chief of Staff John Sununu urging discretion.  Bush then called Reagan to apologize.

When Bill Clinton ran for President in 1992, he joined the pile-on, targeting Reaganite “greed” and accusing Reagan of neglecting middle class Americans.

As Reagan faded into the haze of Alzheimer’s, and as the Reagan-Bush-Clinton economic boom continued, Reagan’s stock rose. Americans remembered him fondly as the Prince of Peace and Prosperity, a genial, witty, optimist who restored American pride and patriotism.

After 2000, many Democrats who hated George W. Bush forgot how much they had detested Reagan.  Suddenly, to many, Reagan became the Palatable Republican, the UnBush, proof they did not hate all Republicans, only the current Republican incumbent.

When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, he called Reagan a Transformational Leader.  This approach allowed Obama to hail Reagan as an icon, acknowledge his continuing popularity, while repudiating Reaganism.

Whenever politicians speak about Reagan’s legacy, they treat it as a clear, static object.  In fact, his legacy, like all presidential legacies, is open to debate, just as his popularity will continue waxing and waning.  Remembering their fortieth president,  Americans usually invoke one of Ronald Reagan’s nine lives—as the Hollywood Democrat, the Conservative Ideologue, the Reagan Revolutionary, Mr. Magoo,  the Popular Patriot,  the Unkind Ungentle President, the Prince of Peace and Prosperity, the Palatable Republican, or the  Transformational Leader.  Another way of thinking about it, is that Reagan’s fans emphasize the 3 Ps—Peace, Prosperity, and Patriotism—while his detractors focus on 3 Gs—Gaffes, Greed and the Growing economic Gap.  Together, these labels paint a portrait of Ronald Reagan’s extraordinary life, reminding us that we live in a Reaganized America, still debating “Big Government” and cutting taxes on his terms, still living under his shadow.  Ultimately, then, for better or worse, Ronald Reagan was the greatest president since Franklin Roosevelt, meaning the most significant president since the New Deal.

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By Gil Troy, The Montreal Gazette, 1-4-11

It was the year of leaks, both oil and Wiki, plus seeping support for Obama and unrest in Europe and the Mideast

Workers remove oil booms from the beach after reaching the coast of South Pass, south of Venice, Louisiana, as oil leaking from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead continues to spread in the Gulf of Mexico, May 5, 2010.

Photograph by: Carlos Barria, Reuters

Good riddance to 2010 – not only because the calendar gods decree it, but because so many of us were so fed up with it.

Fortunately no historic cataclysm occurred that will jump off the page of future textbooks. Instead, it was a year of slogging through, of feeling drained. It featured major leaks, notably the British Petroleum oil leak and the diplomatic tsunami of WikiLeaks. During 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama’s support and standing continued to seep away. And 2010 witnessed trouble brewing in the United States and Europe, as the prolonged recession drained individuals’ morale, family finances, and communal energies.

The spectacular Deepwater Horizon explosion, and its ensuing oil gush, represented yet another spectacular failure brought to you by the corporate and government structures supposed to keep our world safe. Pictures of poisoned waters, ruined aquatic life and devastated coasts, were heartbreaking -and terrifying. This perfect environmental storm epitomized the high ecological price we pay for our oil addiction, and the humbling human impotence we see sometimes when technological failure begets natural disaster.

True, in less perfectionist, more trusting, times, we could have focused on the heroic, ingenious efforts to cap the underground geyser and clean up the oil spill. Accidents happen. But in our current collective cultural mood, headlines alternated between caricaturing the BP folks as greedy polluters of precious waters and Obamaadministration officials as reprising the George W. Bush administration’s follies following Hurricane Katrina.

The WikiLeaks release represented a different kind of breach -but yet another assault on our confidence in corporate and governmental structures. Once again we learned that the Internet expands our reach while shrinking our zone of privacy. While no particular diplomatic bombshell caused serious damage, the cumulative impact of so many secret documents so easily revealed humiliated the United States. Mostly the documents caught diplomats in the act of being diplomatic -which in kindergarten we called lying. It was embarrassing for Arab states to be caught worrying about Iran going nuclear, for the United States to be caught minimizing those concerns to pressure Israel on settlements, and for the U.S. State Department to be caught blurring the line between diplomacy and spying.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange claims to be nobly illuminating the dark recesses of modern governments. His simplistic and self-serving view somehow did not stop him from protesting when Sweden leaked details about his legal problems. Citizens have a right to know many things -not everything – about one another and about their own state. Even democratic governments need some arenas of discretion to protect the public, in every era with enemies and especially in an era with shadowy terrorist enemies.

The more BP’s oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico, fouling the atmosphere, and the more WikiLeaks’ documents leaked into the blogosphere, fouling the diplomatic environment, the more confidence in Barack Obama seeped away. The U.S. midterm elections in 2010 illustrated Obama’s plummet in public esteem from his euphoric election in November 2008 to his “shellacking” in 2010. But unlike Bush, who never recovered from the Katrina debacle when New Orleans flooded, or president Gerald Ford, who never recovered from the backlash against his pardoning Richard Nixon, there was no one dramatic moment when millions of Americans broke with Obama. Instead, it was a drip, drip, drip. Support seeped away gradually but steadily as the economy languished, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars continued, Iran and North Korea flexed their muscles, Obama relied too much on the left-leaning congressional barons in Nancy Pelosi’s Democraticcontrolled legislature, and Obama failed to excite Americans with his vision of governance.

It is premature to predict whether Obama will win reelection in 2012. But so far as president he has failed to replicate the post-partisan, broad-based magic he conjured in 2008. This is a shame, because Americans and the world could use a dose of hope and faith in incumbent leaders.

Instead, a generalized crankiness festered, as bad faith brewed in many pockets of the Western world. In 2010, student protests in Greece, in Italy and in Britain often turned violent. In the U.S., the trouble brewing was more subtle, expressed in a generalized malaise rather than incendiary outbursts. But the low-grade fever of low expectations threatens democracy, especially America’s upbeat, go-getting political culture. Of course, false hope is no better than dashed hopes. Americans – and many others in the Western world -yearn for serious statesmanship offering concrete solutions to the ongoing economic crisis.

On the whole, Canadians had much less to complain about than their neighbours in 2010. Despite Canadians’ characteristic low profile, the phrase “Canada is the new America” gained traction. This, Canadian patriots please note, is meant as a compliment, celebrating the Canadian dollar’s strength, Canadian banks’ stability, and Canadian politics’ relative calm amid the tumult of the Bush and Obama presidencies.

It is a lovely, constructive illusion that we start a new year with a clean slate. But just as millions of individuals make resolutions to tackle personal shortcomings, nations can resolve to tackle communal challenges. In shaping 2011, unexpected disasters like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill will erupt. The true test of political leadership, communal grit and a better year will come from solving the persistent problems, which for Barack Obama still involves ending two wars, jump-starting an economy, and, now, reassuring Americans that “yes we can” was a path to real progress, not an empty, ultimately disillusioning and disempowering slogan. May 2011 be a year of plugging leaks, stopping seeps, and brewing hope, witnessing personal and communal revivals economically, politically and ideologically.

Gil Troy teaches history at McGill University.

© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette

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30th Anniversary of the 1980 Election Roundtable–An Introduction

Society for Historians of Foreign Relations, November 29th, 2010

SHAFR.org is delighted to present its last roundtable of the year.  Thirty years ago this month the United States witnessed one of the most important elections in recent history when Ronald Reagan captured the presidency and ushered in a new era of national politics.  In our roundtable, three prominent historians of this era discuss different but overlapping ways for understanding the wide-ranging significance of this election.  Professors Andrew Busch of Claremont McKenna College, Chester Pach of Ohio University, and Gil Troy of McGill University challenge us to re-examine different facets of Ronald Reagan, the election that brought him to power, and the impact that his presidency had on American foreign policy.

Professor Gregory Domber of the University of North Florida rounds out the discussion by offering an essay on the challenges of teaching Ronald Reagan’s foreign policies to today’s students.

Our members are encouraged to participate in this conversation by commenting on these essays.  Passport has agreed to publish these essays and the best comments on them in its next issue.

Reagan and American Mood

By Gil Troy, Society for Historians of Foreign Relations, November 29th, 2010

Amid the claims and counterclaims regarding Ronald Reagan’s 1980 electoral victory, one clarifying contradiction emerges. Yes, Reagan exaggerated, alleging a mandate for his Reagan Revolution which never existed. Yet, when Reagan implemented a more muscular, more flamboyantly patriotic, up-with-America, down-with-the-Communists foreign policy, he was doing what the American people hired him to do.

Ronald Reagan began his presidency with a magic trick, conjuring a mandate he lacked. The election was tougher than he acknowledged; his victory margin thinner than it appeared. He won only 50.75 percent of the popular vote. The victory was also something of a fluke. After extended squabbling, Reagan and President Jimmy Carter finally debated on October 28. With Reagan’s silky-smooth, “There you go again,” performance, with America’s President reduced to quoting his 13-year-old daughter Amy on the importance of ending the nuclear threat, polls showed that Carter’s popularity dropped ten points within 48 hours after the debate. It was the most significant last-minute slide Gallup pollsters ever recorded.

On November 4, the Electoral College magnified the win as Reagan triumphed in 44 states, earning 489 electoral votes to Carter’s 49. Reagan pointed to the overwhelmingly red electoral map as proof of a landslide, affirming this broad mandate to rule. Yet it was essentially an ABC – Anybody But Carter – mandate. So many Americans soured on Carter’s tentative, apologetic debate performance after a year of disasters, especially the continuing Iranian hostage crisis.

Yet, despite this political sleight of hand overall, Reagan was on firmer ground in feeling that voters validated his particular foreign policy vision. When accepting the nomination at the Republican National Convention, Reagan blasted Carter’s defeatist foreign policy, condemning the “weakness, indecision, mediocrity, and incompetence” that suggested “that our nation has passed its zenith.” Reagan said he would regard his election ”as proof that we have renewed our resolve to preserve world peace and freedom — that this nation will once again be strong enough to do that.”

Anti-Communism provided the bedrock for Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy views. With his election, he would join an exclusive club of three world leaders who saw Soviet Communism as evil – and vulnerable. When Pope John Paul II, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and Reagan spoke candidly about their disgust for Communism, and their expectations that the Soviet Union would soon collapse, most people politely looked away, embarrassed by these deviations from common sense. Back in 1975, on one of his radio broadcasts, Reagan called Communism a form of “insanity,” an aberration, and wondered “how much more misery it will cause before it disappears.” In 1983, when he would call the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire,” one leading historian would call it the worst presidential speech ever.

Yet, Reagan’s anti-Communism resonated with Americans, within limits. To the extent that it was rooted in a push for more vigorous leadership, more national self-respect, less collective breast-beating, Americans cheered. Most Americans were tired of apologizing for Vietnam. Back in 1976, millions had yelled with Peter Finch, the fictional newsman in the Oscar-winning movie “Network,” “I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.” Reagan himself would note signs of an ascendant patriotism independent of his calls, from the euphoria that greeted the “miracle on ice,” when the U.S. team beat the Soviet hockey team in the 1980 Winter Olympics to the swell of pride when the space shuttle launched successfully.

Carter’s reign, marked by stagflation, gas lines, and, the ultimate indignity, this endless Iranian hostage crisis, fed a yearning for national salvation, which Reagan offered. The drawn out struggle with the Iranian radicals – and the way Jimmy Carter turned into the “53rd hostage,” with so much of his last year shaped by the crisis, culminating with the humiliating failure of the rescue attempt, sobered the American people. Reagan’s call for more pride, more military funding, and more aggressive leadership resonated widely.

And yet, Americans had also welcomed Richard Nixon’s détente with the Soviet Union and China. Many delighted in Reagan’s swagger while fearing it. Little did most Americans – including his most zealous supporters – realize just how in touch with the American consensus Reagan was. It would take years to see, what only his closest advisers knew. Reagan’s take-no-prisoners rhetoric against Soviet Communism was tempered by a deep pacifism that recoiled at the “MAD doctrine” of Mutual Assured Destruction. Reagan wanted to eliminate nuclear weaponry as ardently as he wanted to build up America’s army. History would be kind to Reagan, allowing him, in his second term, to surprise the skeptics with his openness to the new Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev and to arms control, having already demonstrated his vigor.

The legacy of the 1980 campaign would help Reagan. His calls for national greatness and a defense build-up solidified his reputation as a tough American leader. It insulated him politically from a backlash against some fiascoes, especially Hezbollah’s lethal truck bombing in 1983 of the Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon. Reporters noted that had 241 American servicemen and civilians been killed under Jimmy Carter’s watch like that, Carter would have been run out of town.

At the same time, Reagan’s tough stance during the 1980 campaign against Iran, and his harsh critique of Carter’s leadership on the issue, made Reagan the “54th hostage,” if you will. The man who spoke so strongly against negotiating with terrorists could not negotiate with terrorists. When it turned out –during the Iran-Contra affair – that he had negotiated and failed – his drop in popularity and loss of credibility were all the more precipitous.

Campaigns are both sales pitches and rehearsals. Reagan made a foreign policy pitch in the 1980 campaign while rehearsing some major themes. But campaigns are not previews. Politics is the art of seeming to have expected the unexpected. In 1980, Reagan showed he was ready to inspire his fellow Americans, to spearhead a battle against Communism, but he would soon discover that, among other things, a subtle Middle East policy, and an effective counter-terrorism approach, could not necessarily take root in his anti-Communist bedrock.

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By Gil Troy, Institute for Research on Public Policy’s Policy Options, Oct. 2010

The United States has traveled a long way from the euphoria of Election Night, 2008 to the crankiness of the 2010 midterm elections. Even President Barack Obama’s most ardent supporters agree that the turnaround in popular support he has experienced has been dramatic, unprecedented, unnerving, The “Yes We Can” Candidate of 2008 – who seemingly could do no wrong – is now seen by millions as the President who can do no right leading a sobered “No We Can’t” citizenry, many of whom have lost jobs, lost hope for the future, and lost faith in the man who seemed so promising as a leader just two years ago. Here is Barack Obama’s challenge. He is not only confronting two wars, one ongoing economic mess, and countless other cultural, social, diplomatic, ideological and political crises. He is not only being measured against the Presidents who preceded him, some of whom are encased in legend, setting stratospheric standards for any worthy successor. He is also competing against himself and the impossibly high hopes his election unleashed.

It is still worth remembering Barack Obama’s shining moment in November 2008, even amid soaring unemployment, the Afghanistan quagmire, tea party demagoguery, anger over the deficits, anxiety about the new health care legislation, fear of renewed Islamist terrorism, and Fox News shout-show host Glenn Beck’s attempt to hijack the civil rights legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. The library of books published about Obama’s brilliant 2008 presidential campaign all serve to remind us just how unlikely his victory was. Back in spring 2004, before his bombastic Democratic National Convention debut, few Americans had heard of this self-described, “skinny guy with a funny name.” And his name was so strange, that the first time in 2004 President George W. Bush saw a Democrat visiting the White House with an OBAMA button, Bush, genuinely confused, peered close and asked “Osama?” Moreover, no African-American had ever been elected President – and at the time, most people were quite sure that the Democratic nominee would be the first woman with a serious shot at becoming President of the United States, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The fact that Obama nevertheless won, and that his victory triggered a national orgy of high-fiving and fist-bumping, among rich and poor, Republicans and Democrats, Obamians and McCainiacs, blacks and whites, reminds us that national moods are variable – and that Americans in particular are the ever-believing people, constantly searching for salvation, perpetually primed to rally around a great white – or now black – hope. Great American leaders have always understood this addiction to redemption. That, frankly, was part of Obama’s appeal – and part of his plan. Obama surveyed the carnage of the George W. Bush presidency. He could have concluded then, as many are concluding now, that Americans had lost their capacity to believe. Bush had become the presidential master of disaster, mired in Iraq, buffeted by hurricane Katrina, mismanaging a teetering economy – which ultimately cratered just weeks before Election Day.

Yet Obama understood that Americans would respond to a message that they could do better, that their best days were not behind them, that America remained a land of promise. Obama successfully channeled Franklin D. Roosevelt’s promise in 1932, offering a New Deal to the American people. He eloquently evoked John F. Kennedy’s optimistic vision from the 1960s of a New Frontier. He echoed Jimmy Carter’s post-Vietnam and Watergate vows in 1976 of “I’ll never lie to you” and “why not the best?” He updated and broadened Ronald Reagan’s appealing dream of a Morning in America, making it Democratic, liberal, multicultural. And, like Bill Clinton in 1992 he became the “Man from Hope.” In both the bruising primary campaign against Hillary Rodham Clinton and in the general election campaign against John McCain, the man became the message, embodying Americans’ dreams. By simply electing Obama as the first African-American president, Americans could redeem themselves and their country, demonstrating their openmindedness, optimism, and faith in the future.

As Obama navigates through what is looking like a tough Congressional-midterm election season for Democrats, he should remember that both the volatility of the national mood and the credulity of the American public could redeem his presidency – or at least secure him a second term.  In fact, the three presidents he most models himself on – Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, and, believe it or not, Ronald Reagan – were shellacked in midterm elections before achieving convincing re-election victories.

While every modern president since Franklin Roosevelt has compared himself and been compared to Franklin Roosevelt, the attempts to link Roosevelt and Obama have been particularly intense. During the transition, Obama publicized the fact that he was reading up on Roosevelt’s famous, transformative first hundred days. That tidbit boosted the sales of Jonathan Alter’s book on the subject “The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope.” Alter returned the favor in his recent book,  “The Promise: President Obama, Year One,” writing a more than 400-page valentine to the current chief executive – sprinkled with admiring comparisons between Obama and Roosevelt.

Beyond all this cozy Washington posturing, the comparison emphasizes the sobering economic conditions which greeted Roosevelt as well as Obama on their respective inauguration days, and the soaring ambitions both Democrats brought to the White House. Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said a crisis is a terrible thing to waste;  indeed Obama has governed by that motto. In pushing through a health care reform bill, along with dozens of other, significant, reforms, Obama has revealed his desire to be the most consequential president since Franklin Roosevelt.

Unlike Obama, Roosevelt was able to shape more of a mandate for change in his first term. Both Obama and Roosevelt were blessed to succeed unpopular and failed predecessors. But it has become clear that Obama basically won a GO-George election – a Get Out George W. Bush contest. His plummeting polls suggest that Americans are not looking for an updated New Deal. Many of Obama’s reforms have worried the public. Most dramatically, of course, Obama’s challenge remains “the economy, stupid.” For all his creativity, despite many legislative accomplishments, Obama is still saddled with a listing economy, and devastatingly high unemployment figures.

Obama can only look back and envy Roosevelt’s experiences in the 1934 midterm elections, which Roosevelt and the Democrats cleverly turned into a referendum on Roosevelt and the New Deal.  Rallying around their confident, creative new President, American voters gave him a mandate for change. Nine new Democratic senators were elected, giving Democrats 69 of the 100 senators, and nine new Democrats added to the already-strong majority of 313 in the House of Representatives. By contrast, polls suggest, Obama and the Democrats in 2010 are working hard to hold onto the Senate and may not even secure a bare majority in the House.

Obama might learn by looking at the 1938 midterm elections, which routed Roosevelt and the Democrats. After Roosevelt won re-election in 1936 by strong margins too, he  — and his fellow liberals — overstepped. The New Republic called Roosevelt’s re-election victory “the greatest revolution in our political history.” The liberal political writer Max Lerner rhapsodized: “Mr. Roosevelt is now, as never before, a colossus bestriding the American world.”

Believing his press clippings, feeling overconfident, Roosevelt tried packing the Supreme Court by adding one new justice for each justice over 70-years-old, to a maximum of 15 (from the traditional nine). Americans saw this as an affront to the Constitution, and the proposal failed.  Unbowed, Roosevelt then put his muscle behind a number of challengers to conservative Democrats, especially in the South, who had been fighting the New Deal. Again, Roosevelt failed. In addition, Americans struggled through a renewed economic crisis as the Recession of 1937 to 1938 wiped out many of the gains some had enjoyed thanks to the launching of the New Deal. On Election Day, 1938, the Democrats lost seven seats in the Senate and a whopping 72 in the House.

Roosevelt learned from this debacle. He respected Americans’ constitutional conservatism and in the future usually fought party rivals with more subtlety and circumspection.  The brash, ambitious, statist, progressivism of 1935 and 1936, which produced the New Deal’s signature program, Social Security, evolved into a more cautious creed, which the historian Alan Brinkely labeled “the end of reform.” As a result, America’s welfare state would not follow the European model. Big Government, American style offers a hybrid of safety nets and spurs within a framework of capitalism, private property, sensitivity to budget deficits, constitutional caution and occasional rhetoric against Big Government. After the election, Roosevelt expected to retire to his Hyde Park estate, within two years, when his second term ended. However, the outbreak of World War II led to a movement to draft Roosevelt for a third term, and he not only complied, he managed the movement from behind the scenes.

No one wants a Hitler or Mussolini to rise on the world scene and help Obama win re-election. But a chastened president can sometimes be a more effective president. Thus far, Obama has been better at passing programs than selling them to the American people. He is like an athlete wracking up individual records without leading his team to victory. In the second half of his first term, Obama should go back to some of the fundamentals he mastered in the 2008 campaign. In running for president, Obama both tended to the grassroots and sang a song Americans applauded. His presidency has lacked both that common touch and that lyricism, even as he has amassed an impressive list of programs passed and reforms introduced.

The experience of Barack Obama’s Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, also proves that a chastened president can become a more responsive and popular leader. The excitement Obama generated in 2008 tended to make people forget just how much excitement Clinton generated in 1992. But when Bill Clinton first started wowing and wooing the American people during his campaign against George H.W. Bush, many Baby Boomers declared him their Kennedy, the first politician in a generation who could get hearts palpitating and hopes soaring. Clinton also entered the White House with great ambitions. But the economy was too good, people were too complacent, and he was too undisciplined to achieve what Obama has achieved programmatically. Nevertheless, Clinton’s failed health care reform, and his scattershot approach annoyed millions, triggering a backlash. In 1994, the Democrats lost eight Senate seats, 54 House seats and control of the Congress for the first time in forty years, since the days of Dwight Eisenhower.

Clinton was shell-shocked. Few Democrats had expected a loss on such a scale. The day after the election, Beltway Democrats seemed annoyed, indignant that the voters dared to remove them from their Congressional baronies. Clinton, both agile and ambitious, retooled, shifting rightward, even as he went into a tailspin. By April 1995, he was insisting plaintively, pathetically, “the President is still relevant here,” noting that “the Constitution” gave him relevance.

While Clinton’s return to the center, and to smaller, less ambitious, more digestible initiatives helped him restore his presidency, the turning point came shortly after his plaintive press conference when a twisted domestic terrorist, Timothy McVeigh, bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City. Clinton, America’s empath-in-chief, emerged as a leader. He struck the right tone, showing enough human vulnerability to help the nation mourn, while displaying enough presidential steeliness to help the nation move on.

Leaders – and particularly America’s presidents – are defined by such moments. George W. Bush may have won re-election with the simple gesture he made in the aftermath of September 11, when he hugged a rescue worker while reassuring Americans through a megaphone at Ground Zero. Similarly, he may have derailed his presidency by floundering – and not choreographing such a moment – during Hurricane Katrina.

Surprisingly, as President, Obama has not yet shown an ability to transform a moment of crisis into a defining moment, a lasting impression of effective leadership. The man who saved his presidential campaign from being derailed amid revelations that his preacher Jeremiah Wright was a racial demagogue by delivering an historic speech about race in America, has yet to master a similar moment as president.  The BP oil spill, the Fort Hood massacre, the failed terrorist bombing attempts on a jetliner and in Times Square, all offered opportunities which he failed to take.  Having used rhetoric so effectively during the campaign, having redefined a vision of liberal nationalism for the 21st century, as President, Obama has been surprisingly reticent to reprise that role – even as Americans are yearning for reassurance during this time of crisis.

Clinton eventually won re-election in 1996. Something else that helped him immensely – and may help Obama too – was his rivals’ utter impotence. So far, the Republicans have succeeded in criticizing the President but they have not found a leader who seems able to take on Obama. The Tea Party rebellion and the rise of Glenn Beck could help re-elect Barack Obama, making him appear as the mature candidate once again. In 1996, the Republican Party gave Clinton – and the Democrats – the gift of Bob Dole, unintentionally smoothing the way for Clinton’s victory.

Obama may be banking on following the trail of a Republican president, Ronald Reagan. In his book Audacity of Hope, Obama makes it clear that he watched Reagan carefully as President and admired his leadership abilities but not his ideology. During the primary campaign, Obama infuriated Hillary Rodham Clinton – and her husband – by praising Reagan as a transformational leader, while suggesting that Clinton’s little policy band-aids did not measure up. Like Obama, Reagan entered the White House during a time of economic crisis – and initially watched the numbers tank. Reagan’s dramatic assault on “big government” first looked like a big flop. By late 1981 and early 1982, Democrats were criticizing the “Reagan Recession,” and anticipating that Reagan and his Revolution would be a one-term wonder.

During the midterm elections of 1982, Republicans lost 26 seats in the House. “The stench of failure hangs over the Reagan White House,” the New York Times claimed at midterm. With unemployment high, national morale low, and the administration seemingly adrift, Reaganism was looking suspiciously like Carterism with the focused, class-bound anguish of unemployment substituting for the broadly shared pain of inflation. Two Democrats, former Vice President Walter Mondale and Senator John Glenn, defeated Reagan in presidential trial heats. The Washington Post columnist David Broder and others declared Reaganism dead.

Ultimately, the resilience of the American economy resurrected Reagan’s presidency. The former actor’s timing was impeccable. Coming on stage during an economic crisis, he watched it get worse, only to see the boom begin by 1983, in time for his 1984 re-election campaign. Reagan then framed the cyclical upswing as “Morning in America,” the vindication of Reaganomics, and his Revolution took off.

This time around, the American economy has lagged longer than many analysts expected. Still, even if it languishes for another year or year and a half, as long as it recovers in 2012 Obama will have bragging rights – and a strong shot at re-election.

Of course, not all Presidents who endured midterm losses have experienced a comeback. The Democrats under Jimmy Carter lost three Senate seats and 15 House seats during the 1978 midterm elections. Carter went on to lose the presidency to Ronald Reagan, amid high inflation, high interest rates and the great humiliation America endured during the prolonged Iranian hostage crisis. Like Obama, Carter had a meteoric rise from obscurity to the presidency. Like Obama, Carter was a golden boy who had always succeeded at everything he tried, until he entered the Oval Office. And like Obama, Carter was a thoughtful, bookish, earnest do-gooder who found it difficult to reassure Americans that America’s greatest days were still ahead.

Ironically, the great liberal lion Ted Kennedy helped trigger the Reagan Revolution by running against Carter for the Democratic nomination in 1980. In fact, in the last half-century, the only Presidents who have lost re-election races entered after being bruised by a primary battle. George H. W. Bush in 1992 was weakened by Pat Buchanan. Carter was weakened by Kennedy in 1980. And Gerald Ford was weakened by Ronald Reagan. The single most important thing Obama needs to do to secure re-election is keep his party united behind him, as it is. The single most effective thing Republicans could do to weaken Obama would be to secretly support some leftwing Democratic dissident, a Ralph Nader, a Dennis Kucinich, who could somehow hurt Obama in a primary or two, thus puncturing his aura of invincibility while forcing Obama to swing left and lose the center.

From the start of his administration, Barack Obama’s presidency has paralleled both Ronald Reagan’s and Jimmy Carter’s paths. Many Obama critics see him replicating Jimmy Carter’s ways, wooing America’s enemies, neglecting America’s allies, telegraphing weakness at home and abroad. Obama, on the other hand, wants to be the Democratic Reagan, pressing the reset button on the Reagan Revolution, making government effective, relevant, and popular again.

History is not destiny. Barack Obama ultimately will follow his own path. But there is a reason why White House library shelves are crowded with presidential biographies. Presidents understand that there is much to  be learned by studying their predecessors’ successes and failures. The record shows that historical forces make a huge difference, be it the state of the economy, the actions of rivals, or the moves of foreign states. But each outside factor offers a president a leadership opportunity. Successful presidents are not lucky; but it does take great skill to turn dumb luck into lasting good fortune, as Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton frequently did.

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By Gil Troy, Bipartisan Policy Center, Aug. 20, 2009

Coach Vince Lombardi famously proclaimed: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Actually, in American democratic politics, winning is only half the battle. Presidents need a workable consensus, not just slim victories. That is why bipartisanship is not just a posture. It must be more than serving cookies to opponents in cozy settings. And bipartisanship is not just a tactic. America’s greatest presidents understood that bipartisanship is crucial because leadership is not just about imposing a policy on the people but getting it accepted and implemented.

Although we usually talk about “consent of the governed” only when we learn about the American Revolution, no American leader should forget that our democratic system rests on a voluntary bargain between the leader and the led. Winning big fights by small margins, imposing radical changes on the people despite slim margins of support, risks the goodwill that helps “the governed” grant their “consent.” Al Gore has challenged us to beware our “carbon footprints”: leaders must avoid leaving a “toxic footprint” when wielding power in a democracy. The bigger the change a president seeks, the more important it is for the president to build consensus.

American’s greatest presidents were often visionaries who understood that winning elegantly by building a broad coalition was as important as whether they won. At a key moment during the struggle to pass the Social Security Act of 1935, one of Franklin Roosevelt’s key advisers, Rexford Tugwell stopped opposing the payroll tax. He still believed it was regressive, unfairly burdening the poor. Nevertheless, he recalled, he and another Roosevelt ally Harry Hopkins realized they “wanted a social security system much more than we wanted our own bill. And when the time came we stopped arguing.” Roosevelt himself took a long-term, consensus-building view. He described Social Security, his masterpiece, as a “cornerstone in a structure which is being built but is by no means complete.” In that spirit, the Social Security Act passed by lopsided votes of 371 to 33 in the House and 76 to 6 in the Senate.

The Social Security Act broke with America’s constitutional tradition of small government and political culture of self-reliance. The bipartisan backing this radical piece of legislation received was critical to its becoming perhaps the most important law passed in the 20th century, and a given in the American system. Within two decades, the first Republican president to serve since the Democratic New Deal, Dwight Eisenhower, was explaining to his brother Edgar Eisenhower, a doctrinaire conservative, that the number of Americans opposing the welfare state, including Social Security, was “negligible and they are stupid.” President Eisenhower warned that any political party that failed to accept the new consensus would wither. Franklin Roosevelt’s instincts for bipartisanship in the 1930s – reciprocated by most Republicans then — flourished into a lasting consensus.

Both Democrats and Republicans who want to solve the health care crisis – and other crises in America today – should learn from FDR that going broad and bipartisan is the way to go.

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Miller McCune, 2-7-10

Calls to work together for the common good during the current crises have been emanating at breakneck pace from the Obama administration. Academics discuss how to get the results of a Roosevelt, and not a Carter.

Historian Gil Troy of McGill University in Montreal also finds that instructive, noting that gearing people up for a metaphorical war can be an effective way of asking them to sacrifice.

In recent decades, “We’ve had an unfortunate tradition for decades of presidents soothing us,” he said. “We have sort of an addiction to having our cake and eat it too. Clearly Bush missed the moment after 9/11. That was a time when Americans might have been willing to give something up. The nation was ready to take collective action.

“Now, Obama has an opportunity to succeed where Bush failed. There’s nothing like a financial meltdown to sober people up! You don’t have an enemy like after 9/11, but you have more pinched circumstances. Obama’s sense prior to the crisis was that Americans were yearning for this sense of community, sense of engagement. Now he may have the conditions that will allow him to achieve that.

“In Obama’s inaugural address, he said America is a place where people are willing to work fewer hours so their friend won’t lose their job. That was a very explicit call to sacrifice — much more explicit than Kennedy’s ‘Ask not what your country can do for you.’ We haven’t had that kind of specifics since Franklin Roosevelt.”

Well, we did have Jimmy Carter, whose failed presidency coincides with Obama’s coming of age. Troy is convinced the new president has learned from his peanut-farming predecessor’s missteps.

“Carter’s mistake was his rhetoric of sacrifice was disconnected from
a sense of hope,” he says. “He allowed himself to be tagged as the
man of malaise. He was preaching the gospel of limits. What FDR did that Carter missed was preach a gospel of self-sacrifice in the context of ultimate salvation.

“FDR’s message was we’re rolling up our sleeves and making sacrifices because we’re going to have a better tomorrow. With Jimmy Carter, you got the sense that we were being asked to put on another sweater, but we would still be cold.”

In contrast, Obama is overtly linking the need to sacrifice with the hope of a better future. If he can continue that balancing act, Troy believes people just may respond. “Americans don’t want to be told we are entering an age of limits,” he said. “We want to be a nation of limitless hope. That’s in the American DNA.”

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 12-7-09

This piece was originally published in Policy Options, November 2009, pp. 25-30. It is based largely on Gil Troy’s The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2009),

In pushing health care reform, President Barack Obama is confronted by contemporary critics and haunted by history. Americans are ambivalent about big government, not just since Ronald Reagan but since the American Revolution. A review of American attitudes toward government since the Revolution demonstrates this tension between Americans’ desire for government help and their fear of government intrusiveness. Obama also must learn from Bill Clinton’s health care reform failures. Like Obama, Clinton was popular and aware of the Great Society’s failures. Nevertheless, Clinton failed to make the sale, as Republicans caricatured the program as a big government power grab.

In pushing health care reform, President Barack Obama is confronted by contemporary critics and haunted by history. Obama has to learn from the last Democratic president’s failure. Bill Clinton also championed health care reform. Moreover, Obama cannot forget that Americans are ambivalent about big government, not only since the Ronald Reagan era but since the American Revolution. 

Americans are torn. Most retain enough of their nation’s historic fear of executive power to dislike big government in the abstract. But after seventy-five years of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deals and Harry Truman’s Fair Deal, of John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, Americans are addicted to many of the government programs that together make their government big, their tax bills high, their bureaucracy dense – as well as their society a kinder, gentler place to live. Usually, Democrats miscalculate by overlooking this traditional fear of big government; Republicans err by overstepping and eliminating essential programs that Americans now take for granted.

Although the American Revolution was far less radical than the French or Russian Revolutions, Americans did rebel against executive power. The Revolutionaries’ experience with the King of England – and his governors in the colonies – soured a generation on strong, centralized government. The younger men of the revolution such as Alexander Hamilton, who assisted George Washington in trying to win the war, better understood the need for an effective government. They pushed for the new Constitution in 1787, replacing the Articles of Confederation that bore the mark of the revolutionary struggle by keeping the national government weaker than the states, and the executive impotent compared to the Congress.

Still, the Constitution established a federal government that was not supposed to overwhelm either “We the People” or “these United States,” as the country was called at the time. Moreover, there was a strong ethos of self-sufficiency. People were supposed to take care of themselves, especially considering America’s riches.

This question of how vigorous the new federal government should be split George Washington’s Cabinet. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, having opposed executive power so eloquently in the Declaration of Independence, fresh from admiring the French Revolution up close, led the charge with his friend James Madison against a strong government – and executive. When Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton proposed a National Bank in 1791, Jefferson opposed this power grab by subtly misquoting the Constitution. Analyzing what he called the Constitution’s “foundation,” Jefferson wrote to Washington that the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution declared that “all powers not delegated to the United States, by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States or to the people.” Jefferson feared that taking “a single step” beyond Congress’s clearly drawn boundaries meant seizing “a boundless field of power,” with no limits. In fact, the Constitution reads “the” powers not “all” powers. The original text still preserves the prerogatives of the state and the people, but less globally.

Pushing back, Hamilton hastily drafted his opinion defending the Bank of the United States as constitutional. Hamilton endorsed a “liberal” reading of what is known as the “elastic clause,” Article I, Section 8, authorizing the new Congress “to make all laws necessary and proper for carrying into execution” the powers granted to the Federal government. Appreciating the clause’s “peculiar comprehensiveness” regarding the government’s many implied powers, Hamilton said that Jefferson’s strict reading made the clause unduly “restrictive,” an “idea never before entertained.” Hamilton said it would be as if the Constitution only authorized laws that were “absolutely” or “indispensably” “necessary and proper.”

            This Hamilton-Jefferson divide defined the debate for more than a century. Jeffersonian liberals wanted small, non-intrusive government, thinking of farmers as ideal citizens, and trusting self-sufficiency over any kind of government patronage. Hamiltonian conservatives wanted a larger and more vigorous government to help America develop, trusting private-public partnerships to serve the economy and the citizenry.

            While saving the union in the 1860s, President Abraham Lincoln articulated a vision of the nation, united, effective and supreme, forever changing the power balance between the federal government and the states. After the Civil War, these United States became the United States. Moreover, the often forgotten part of Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party agenda advocated a more activist approach to helping farmers and laborers, using national power to improve individuals’ quality of life.

            With the growth of government – and corporations – during the Civil War, with the rise of a national currency, the greenback, a national debt, and national income taxes, American business leaders noticed that government involvement could restrict their growth as much as feed it. In what the political scientist Clinton Rossiter called “the Great Intellectual Train Robbery of American History,” conservative business leaders hijacked Jeffersonian small government liberalism to suit their own purposes. The “Laissez Faire” doctrine they embraced suggested that government should step back and let corporations thrive. Connected to this hands-off policy was a notion that the poor could fend for themselves – or be taken care of locally, by relatives, churches, volunteers.

As the nation grew, so did the government, and so did the sense of collective responsibility. Both the rural-based Populist movement of the 1870s, 1880s and the 1890s, and the more urban-based Progressive movement that began in the 1890s and lasted through the 1920s, mobilized the government to protect the people against corporate fat cats and the vicissitudes of life. Still, the Great Depression of the 1930s initially highlighted the limits of Progressivism – and the continuing American allergy to dramatic government intervention. Thomas Jefferson’s ideas survived, propped up by private-property protecting business interests who rejected government redistribution or regulation as anti-American. The despair spreading through society, combined with the hopes generated by radicals in Europe and Soviet Russia, challenged American stability and values. While only a few actually waved the banner of revolution, many feared that the American economic system was broken, and the sclerotic American political system made it unfixable.

In these dark days, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s infectious optimism brightened America’s mood, while adjusting the country’s ideology. Roosevelt’s “First Hundred Days” in office set a template of presidential action and established numerous precedents for direct government intervention in American life. Mixing Jefferson’s democratic populism with Hamilton’s top-down centralization, Roosevelt created big government liberalism.  “I am not for a return to the definition of liberty under which for many years a free people were gradually regimented into the service” of capitalism, Roosevelt said.  Liberalism “is plain English for a changed concept of the duty and responsibility of government toward economic life.”

Using appeals to the collective, justifying his emergency actions with military analogies, Roosevelt offered a three-pronged program. First, he mobilized the power of government to offer immediate relief, shifting the responsibility from churches, community groups, and relatives to the local, state, and federal governments. Then, he tried to jump-start a recovery, putting the government in the business of micromanaging the economy – and violating the longstanding American aversion to federal budget deficits. Finally, he sought broader reforms to institutionalize the changes and avoid a repeat.

Suddenly, the executive branch was choreographing currency shifts, bringing electricity to the South, eliminating corporate abuses, subsidizing individual homeowners. The government provided the old with pensions, the disabled with support, and the poor with sustenance while hiring millions through a new “alphabet soup” of agencies, the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), the PWA (Public Works Administration), the AAA (Agricultural Adjustment Administration), and the NRA (National Recovery Administration). The “first duty of government is to protect the economic welfare of all the people in all sections and in all groups,” Roosevelt said in a 1938 Fireside Chat. This casual statement reflected a revolutionary departure from Alexander Hamilton’s vision, let alone Thomas Jefferson’s.

The Social Security Act of 1935 was arguably the single most dramatic New Deal reform. The Act helped the elderly poor immediately and began a federal pension plan gradually. It eventually offered unemployment insurance, federal aid to dependent mothers and children, and assistance to the blind and handicapped. Half a century of Progressive agitation culminated in this legislation. Roosevelt made this great leap seem like a logical next step. His genius for making revolutionary changes appear inevitable built popular support for these audacious steps. The Democratic Party became America’s party, the party of activist government protecting the middle class and the poor.

Roosevelt wanted to provide “cradle to grave” security, but constructing a workable plan took years. Advisers and activists debated whether there should be cash grants or welfare programs, whether support should be national or state-based, whether social welfare guaranteed dignity or destroyed individual responsibility.  Such comprehensive social insurance deviated from American constitutional practice and offended many conservatives, both rich and poor. The National Association of Manufactures blasted this attempt at “ultimate socialistic control of life and industry.”

To soften the blow, Roosevelt injected an all-American centrist twist into this legislative masterstroke. Workers would pay into the Social Security system for decades before getting their payouts. This innovation reinforced the sanctity of private property, individual dignity, and government centrality. “We put those payroll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral, and political right to collect their pensions and their unemployment benefits,” Roosevelt explained. The individual contributions also guaranteed the program’s future. “With those taxes in there,” Roosevelt declared, “no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program.”

After vigorous debate, most members of Congress could not oppose helping the American community’s weakest, sickest, and oldest members. The House passed the bill 371 to 33. The Senate bill passed two months later, in June 1935, 76 to 6. Roosevelt’s Social Security Act truly was a bipartisan bill enjoying overwhelming support.

Roosevelt’s “New Deal” did not end the Great Depression. But it reassured Americans. It repositioned the government and the president in the center of American political, economic, and cultural life. The advent of World War II jumpstarted the economy – and launched a half-century of unprecedented economic prosperity. America became the world’s first mass middle-class society.

The war also brought about a level of government intervention, regulation, and, of course, taxation, that would have been denounced as “Bolshevik” by millions at the start of Roosevelt’s reign. But step by step, improvisation by improvisation, speech by speech, and crisis by crisis, Roosevelt had brought Americans to a new approach – and understanding. Europeans and Canadians remained surprised by America’s limited welfare state; thoughtful Americans with some sense of history were surprised at how far this initially reluctant giant had moved toward government activism.

Still, for all his talk of “Cradle to Grave” coverage, FDR could not get any bill for universal health care out of committee. Harry Truman’s Fair Deal expanded Roosevelt’s program, but Truman was no more successful in getting a health care bill to the floor of the Congress.  In the 1950s, by maintaining signature New Deal programs such as Social Security, the first Republican President since the New Deal, Dwight Eisenhower ratified Roosevelt’s vision and guaranteed that America would maintain a generous welfare state. Eisenhower also averted a bruising partisan battle.

The federal government’s meteoric growth and the equally quick emergence of a national focus meant that the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s could function – and succeed – as a national movement fighting an injustice rooted most intensely in one region, the South. The Civil Rights movement’s success in an age of big government and national television furthered the development of a national conversation about once local problems — and the search for national solutions. John Kennedy’s tragically brief presidency raised expectations further.

 Increasingly, the debate during Kennedy’s years was no longer “should the federal government be involved,” but “how should the federal government solve particular problems.” What was so revolutionary about this shift was that it no longer seemed remarkable. Government had become so big, so centralized and so central in Americans’ lives, many forgot how novel a phenomenon the welfare state was in American history. It would take conservatives who began mobilizing in the 1960s around Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan nearly twenty years to remind Americans that questioning big government was not marginal or anti-American, but rooted in some of the most fundamental American political traditions and assumptions. Increasingly, it seemed that Americans liked their government small in the abstract, but big when it came to helping them.

Lyndon Johnson became president in 1963 after John Kennedy’s assassination trusting in a governmental solution for nearly every problem.  “The roots of hate are poverty and disease and illiteracy, and they are broad in the land,” Johnson proclaimed in an early speech, planning to legislate these scourges into oblivion. Johnson linked the challenges of Communism, civil rights, and poverty. He wanted to win the Cold War by perfecting America, vindicating democracy worldwide.

In May 1964, Johnson redefined America’s historic mission at the University of Michigan’s commencement ceremonies. After settling the land, Americans developed an industrialized infrastructure. During this next stage Americans would go beyond mere riches and power, “to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization.” Johnson envisioned a “Great Society,” providing “abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice…. The ‘Great Society’ is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents…. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.”

Propelled by his electoral landslide in November 1964, Lyndon Johnson surpassed the New Deal. In 1964 and 1965, Johnson muscled through an ambitious array of laws that transformed the way the government helped the poor, the sick, the old, the young. Eventually, staffers counted 207 laws as “landmark” legislative achievements. Under Johnson, the federal budget first topped $100 billion. Aid to the poor nearly doubled, health programs tripled, and education programs quadrupled. LBJ outdid FDR by enacting the 1965 Medicare amendment to FDR’s Social Security Act. Harry and Bess Truman received the first two Medicare cards. Medicare was for all older Americans (and some disabled citizens), theoretically paid for by their own contributions when they worked; another program, Medicaid was a means-tested program for the poorest Americans, and involved state participation as well.

Alas, Johnson could not legislate away America’s problems. Even as Congress passed a landmark civil rights law, the Voting Rights Act, riots erupted in Watts, the Los Angeles ghetto. The Vietnam War became Johnson’s albatross – and America’s burden, wasting billions of dollars, sacrificing 50,000 American lives, and bleeding away America’s credibility and confidence. Johnson’s Great Society hopes sank in the Vietnam morass. Johnson retired prematurely, refusing to run for re-election in 1968.

The Great Society’s failure spurred the Reagan Revolution – a backlash against big government. Ronald Reagan spoke eloquently about up-from-the-bootstraps, do-it-yourself American individualism, saying the Great Society failed because Big Government never worked. When Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, he understood his mission as trying to restore Americans’ faith in government, by showing that government could be effective without getting too big.

Ultimately, Clinton failed to enact health care reform because he missed the center, he forgot how deeply skeptical Americans remained about big government.  Few remember how likely prospects for change appeared in 1993.  “America’s ready for health-care reform and so are we,” South Carolina’s Republican Governor, Carroll Campbell, declared, as Republicans scrambled to offer their own alternatives.

Clinton – and his overbearing wife Hillary Rodham Clinton – squandered that early mix of bipartisan good will and political fear so necessary for an ambitious reform effort in a divided Congress.  In what was widely perceived as a payoff for her wifely loyalty amid all the adultery rumors in the 1992 campaign, the First Lady chaired this ambitious health-reform effort. Rather than developing a general plan with Congress, Mrs. Clinton presented a fait accompli, a byzantine 1,354 page program more suited to the big-government ambitions of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson than to the small-government era Ronald Reagan pioneered. 

Rather than adjusting the elaborate plan to mollify Republicans, the president and his wife went rigid, and attacked their critics. Hillary Clinton refused to compromise. She urged her husband to wave a pen in his 1994 State of the Union address, promising to veto “legislation that does not guarantee every American private health insurance that can never be taken away.” On the stump, the First Lady bashed doctors, pharmaceutical companies, insurance executives, and conservatives. Mrs. Clinton mocked those who "drive down highways paid for by government funds" and "love the defense department” but object “when it comes to … trying to be a compassionate and caring nation." 

The Clintons’ personal scandals, Congressional counterattacks, and media nitpicking gradually undermined the effort. Emboldened, Republicans began following the ideologues rather than the moderates. "There has been almost total surrender amidst the largest power grab in U.S. history," former Education Secretary William Bennett first complained in October 1993. On “Meet the Press,” The Republican Congressional leader Newt Gingrich denounced the plan as “the most destructively big-government plan ever proposed.”

As the Clintons lost control of the health care debate, two powerful streams in modern American ideology merged. Cartoons of the "Evil Queen" offering up a Pandora’s box of "Socialized Medicine" linked ancient and modern obsessions about government power and powerful women. Partisan Republicans and cynical reporters described an out-of-control, crusading radical feminist and her henpecked, secretly liberal husband imposing another arrogant, expensive Great Society failure on the American people. “NATIONAL HEALTH CARE: THE COMPASSION OF THE IRS! THE EFFICIENCY OF THE POST OFFICE! ALL AT PENTAGON PRICES!” one bumper sticker seen in 1994 proclaimed.  This crude caricature encapsulated many of the anti-government themes developed in the 1980s and demonstrated the Clinton opponents’ success in transforming the public debate.

Most dramatically, the health insurance industry created a fictional couple to balance out the presidential couple. In a $14 million advertising campaign, compounded by all the free media coverage it generated, the American people met Harry and Louise, two middle-class Americans struggling with their bills, celebrating Thanksgiving, going to the office – all the while debating the health care reform. In one commercial, the announcer warned:  ”Things are going to change, and not all for the better. The government may force us to pick from a few health care plans designed by government bureaucrats.”   ”They choose,” Harry then says, and his wife chimes in, ”We lose.” In another, Louise tells Harry: ”There’s gotta be a better way.” Furious – and reflecting just how effectively the Harry and Louise message had penetrated, Mrs. Clinton snapped in November that the insurance companies “have the gall to run TV ads that there is a better way, the very industry that has brought us to the brink of bankruptcy because of the way that they have financed health care.” Speaking of Harry and Louise, Ben Goddard, the president of the agency that invented them, exulted:  “These are people” average Americans “feel comfortable with; they might invite them to a Christmas party.” Liberals and Democrats tried to mobilize, but no reply was as effective as the “Harry and Louise” onslaught.

  The Clintons’ operatic marital dynamics kept the President wed to Hillary Clinton’s rigid strategy even as their initiative fizzled. The Clintons further alienated Congress by bypassing the usual procedures and slipping this major reform into a budget bill. President Clinton did not throw himself into the fight as intensely or as nimbly as he had with the budget and or the North American Free Trade Agreement. The bill withered on the congressional committee vine, neither the Senate nor the House never even voted on it.  Bill Clinton’s failure to deliver even a compromised health care bill symbolized a broader failure to fight effectively for policies and principles with the same tenacity and agility he would display in 1998 when fighting for survival during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. 

Barack Obama’s people have studied the Clinton case carefully – many, including White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, witnessed the failure from within the Clinton Administration. Obama’s decision to led Congress draft the bill, for example, reflects an attempt to avoid the dynamics that hurt the Clintons whereby the White House sent legislation down Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill for approval. But the real test is yet to come. Can Obama convince Americans that universal health care coverage should be as American as Social Security (if not apple pie)? Or will the Republicans play to Americans’ traditional suspicion that Big Government will do more harm than good? 


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By Gil Troy, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 11-8-09

[Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, in Washington. His books include Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s (Princeton University Press, 2005) and The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2009). With Vincent J. Cannato, he edited an essay collection, Living in the Eighties (Oxford University Press, 2009).]

Reagan and the 80s Deserve More Courses 1

Alex Majoli, Magnum Photos

Today’s college students, who were born just as Ronald Reagan’s presidency was ending, need more opportunities to understand him and an era that so shaped their America.

Most college students today were born during the 1980s or early 1990s, but they are far likelier to take a history course about the 1960s than about those decades. Market Data Retrieval, a service of Dun & Bradstreet, lists 525 college instructors teaching “the Vietnam era,” meaning the 1960s; courses on the 80s do not even merit a separate category. One publisher’s higher-education marketing manager estimates that although 100,000 students may be enrolled in courses on the 1960s, barely 10,000 take courses on the 1980s. This imbalance reflects the biases and passions of today’s professors far more than the interests or needs of today’s students. Even as many declare the Reagan era over with the rise of President Obama and the fall of the markets, we need more and better courses on the 1980s.

Ten years ago, when I started teaching an honors seminar on Ronald Reagan and the 1980s at McGill University, I could not have made this appeal in good conscience. At the time, I would begin my class with an apology, acknowledging the paucity of good books on the subject. David Stockman and Peggy Noonan had produced riveting memoirs about the Reagan years. But most books followed a predictable path, rehashing the conventional wisdom trailblazed by Garry Wills’s insightful Reagan’s America and Haynes Johnson’s colorful Sleepwalking Through History. We learned again and again about the hedonistic excess of the new Gilded Age and that the president of the United States for most of the decade was considered an “an amiable dunce,” in Clark Clifford’s memorably biting phrase. Too many books seemed formulaic, with diatribes against American greed leavened by anecdotes about Reagan’s declaring ketchup a vegetable (it was actually a Department of Agriculture pronouncement, not his) or Nancy Reagan’s having his presidential schedule dictated by an astrologer (which did occur occasionally). “This is a crucial, complex decade,” I told my students, “but we history profs have not done our job so that you can learn properly about this era.”

History was repeating itself, or actually replicating the politics of the times. Most historians treated Reagan and the 1980s as too anti-intellectual and too conservative to bother studying. The one Bigfoot studying Reagan, Edmund Morris, seemed defeated by the task, unable to complete it, and ultimately unable to keep his work nonfiction. In survey courses, as professors raced through the 20th century, most lingered on the New Deal and the 60s, then ended up sprinting through the 80s, failing to study it properly or situate it within the broader historiographical narrative. Those of us embarking on proj ects or trying to teach classes about the era were immediately suspect, assumed to be conservative renegades out to support the liberals’ Antichrist.

It is one of the great ironies of 20th-century scholarship. Most people yearn for peace and prosperity, but most intellectuals, including historians, seem to detest boom times. In the simplistic Kabuki theater of most 20th-century courses, students learn that the 1920s, 50s, and 80s were bad times, eras of greed and selfishness, of retreat from the great march of prog ress toward bigger and bigger government. By contrast, it is the traumatic times, like the Depression, or World War II, the “good war,” that are great.

From this perspective, the 60s are anomalous. The economy was strong, but so was the push for social justice; thus the attendant professorial approval. Nostalgia for the days of baby-boomer rebellion also feeds the boom in 60s studies. Most baby boomers, who today dominate the professoriate numerically and set the tone ideologically, are invested in justifying the 60s, and in glorifying their own roles in saving the world. In 1999, in Madison, Wis., a top record producer, Steve Greenberg, and I presented a paper for a conference supposedly dedicated to making sense of the decade. Our paper, the “Other Side of the 60s,” analyzed record sales from the time to argue that, on a typical Saturday morning during those halcyon days, far more teenagers and students were washing their cars and listening to bubblegum music like the Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar” than angrily marching on administration buildings singing about revolution. Many of the professors in the room, who were baby boomers, attacked our paper furiously. Many graduate students, who were Generation Xers, thanked us privately after the session for deviating from the usual self-congratulatory 60s narrative.

Related to this, American history is taught as cyclical, following the explanatory paradigm developed by the great father-son history team of Arthur Schlesinger Sr. and Jr. The Schlesingers taught that bursts of reform in America have always triggered periods of retrenchment. Thus the Progressive era ended with World War I and led to the benighted 1920s; the liberal dynamism of the 1930s and 40s resulted in the conservative complacency of the 1950s; and the revolutions of the 1960s and 70s ended with the counterrevolution of the 1980s. That thesis received a strong boost from Susan Faludi’s best-selling 1991 polemic, Backlash, which focused on feminism’s travails during the Reagan era. Given that ebb and flow, with all its emotional and ideological baggage, who wanted to be on the wrong side of history by teaching and writing about the bad old 1980s rather than the good old 1960s?

That view, says Vincent Cannato, a historian at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, is ahistorical, deterministic, and prescriptive, assuming a correct logic to history. Events are caricatured as either contributing to “progress” or impeding it. This simplistic bias is particularly striking in regard to the dynamic setting up the 1960s versus the 1980s. Just this spring, at the Organization of American Historians meeting in Seattle, a leading boomer-aged historian dismissed me when I dared to question her denunciation of the entire Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II years as a dark era of backlash against blacks, women, gays, and the enlightened among us. I argued that the sexual revolution, the civil-rights movement, gay liberation, environmentalism, and many other social movements had been consolidated, mainstreamed, and even advanced during and since the 1980s. How, I asked, could Barack Obama have been elected if the civil-rights revolution had been so stymied? In response, this senior colleague-who had greeted me warmly before the panel presentations began-gave me a withering look and shuddered.

The deification of the 1960s and the denigration of the 1980s reflect scholarship as advocacy and fantasy, with a dash of self-promotion. Most infamously, the great historian Joseph Ellis was embarrassed eight years ago by revelations that in lecturing about the 1960s, he had falsely injected himself into the narrative with invented tales about antiwar, civil-rights, and football heroics.

What sounds sometimes like a political conflict between 60s hippies and Reaganite conservatives is often a generational conflict, especially in the generally liberal milieu of the academy. As a post-baby-boomer, born, like Barack Obama, in 1961, I am old enough to be counted among that demographic surge but too young even to be able to lie credibly about going to Woodstock in 1969, as so many from that generation do. Those of us born in the early 1960s did not watch Howdy Doody when Bill Clinton watched. We had no Vietnam draft to dodge (or not dodge). We were children of Jimmy Carter’s sourpuss politics and Ronald Reagan’s optimism, shaped more by the goofiness of The Brady Brunch-Michelle Obama’s favorite show growing up-and the gritty chaos of that defining 1980s show, Hill Street Blues.

Obama’s rise and his titanic primary battle last year against Hillary Clinton demonstrated the clashing sensibilities, even amid fellow liberals. In January 2008, during the Nevada primary campaign, Obama confessed to admiring Reagan as a transformational leader. Clinton immediately tried to tie Obama to the GOP’s “bad ideas,” as if by acknowledging the scale of Reagan’s accomplishments Obama was endorsing the content of Reagan’s programs.

Needing baby-boomer votes to win, and aware that presidential campaigns are not forums for subtle distinctions, Obama stopped praising Reagan and stopped bashing boomers. But building up to his candidacy, most dramatically in his book The Audacity of Hope, Obama criticized baby boomers, be they left or right. He cast the Clintons and George W. Bush as too rooted in the 60s’ polarizing politics, which Obama vowed to change.

Certainly there is much to learn about the 1960s. It is remarkable how much those years shaped our world and our politics. But especially since the financial meltdown, and with the passage of time, we also have to do right by the 1980s. Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 marked a huge shift in tone, even as many of the phenomena unleashed during the 1960s and 1970s continued to change the world. I emphasize the Reagan Reconciliation. His rhetoric of counterrevolution tempered by his seeking the center helped synthesize the 60s with the 80s, incorporating and accepting the social, cultural, ideological, and lifestyle revolutions sweeping the country during his administration.

Conservatives, be they boomers or younger, are as guilty as 60s-loving liberals of romanticizing their favorite decade. They frequently forget how disappointed they were with Reagan’s shift toward the center during his presidency. Almost from the start, conservatives complained bitterly about Reagan’s moderate choices for the cabinet and his failure to advance their “ABC” agenda for counterrevolution, focusing on abortion, busing, and crime. And Reagan himself embodied the great conservative blind spot of the times. For all his rhetoric about tradition, he and his allies never acknowledged that the consumerist capitalism they celebrated helped further the social movements toward indulgent individualism they detested. The result was an era of conservative libertinism.

Love him or hate him, Ronald Reagan

was the greatest president-meaning the most consequential leader-since Franklin D. Roosevelt. Finally, 20 years after his inauguration, historians have started looking at him and his era skillfully and intelligently. Since 2005 leading historians including James T. Patterson, the late John Patrick Diggins, and Sean Wilentz have published important, and surprisingly respectful, works about Reagan. Wilentz’s The Age of Reagan was the most surprising, as an iconic baby-boomer professor and liberal activist acknowledged how much Reagan’s era had changed and frequently improved America.

Even after the financial meltdown, we still live in the Age of Reagan. His legacy shapes the continuing fights about abortion, taxes, the budget deficit, and health care as well as the debates about greed versus altruism, individual versus community, tradition versus change in America. Moreover, just as we needed to understand Franklin Roosevelt to understand Ronald Reagan,

who modeled his presidency on the most influential president of his youth, we need to understand Reagan to help understand Barack Obama.

President Obama, thus, is leading us back toward studying the Reagan era, even as he tries to lead the country away from Reagan’s antigovernment assumptions. Today’s college students, who were born just as Reagan’s presidency was ending, deserve more opportunities to understand this president and an era that so shaped their America. It may be more fun for professors to trot out tie-dyed T-shirts than power ties as props. It may be more inspiring for students to be asked to chant together, “Hell, no, we won’t go,” the classic antiwar slogan, when they study the Vietnam era than to watch Michael Douglas in Wall Street declare, “Greed is good.” But in the 21st century, it is probably more important to understand Ronald Reagan’s 1987 speech in Berlin, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” than John F. Kennedy’s classic “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

And the only way we can understand Barack Obama’s inaugural formulation that the “question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works,” and Bill Clinton’s declaration in 1996 that the era of big government was over, is by studying Reagan’s inaugural proclamation that “government isn’t the solution, government is the problem.” Even if we love teaching the 60s, it is our responsibility as historians to teach the 80s.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-16-09

When Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine voted for the Senate Finance Committee’s health bill this week, Democrats rejoiced. “We have today a bipartisan bill,” White House Press Secretary Joe Gibbs exulted. While it made sense for Democrats to welcome Snowe’s support after an excruciating, high-stakes process, one moderate maverick crossing the aisle does not make the bill truly bipartisan. Mistaking a deviation for a trend in politics is like mistaking one defection for a peace treaty during wartime.

Wherever one stands on the health care debate, and on Senator Snowe’s decision, it is misleading to call this week’s tokenism bipartisanship. True bipartisanship means working together, building bridges, finding common interests, forging consensus. Bipartisanship is Republicans and Democrats spurred by the graciousness of John McCain and Barack Obama, celebrating the election of the first African-American President last November. Bipartisanship is McCain and 13 other centrist Senators creating a “Gang of Fourteen” to approve Republican judicial nominations so as to head off the “nuclear option” threatening Senate prerogatives Democrats were enjoying. And bipartisanship is the shared feelings of mourning mingled with patriotism after 9/11, epitomized by dozens of tearful, subdued members of Congress spontaneously singing “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps hours after the downing of Flight 93, which may have been targeting that very site.

Historically, true bipartisanship occurred when righteous renegades or statesmanlike party leaders led others to create a broad coalition, even if reluctantly. Back in 1964, Everett Dirksen, a Republican from Illinois, the Senate Minority Leader, was the key figure in breaking the 83-day filibuster against the landmark Civil Rights Bill. President Lyndon Johnson gave Senator Dirksen his famous “treatment,” understanding the secret formula for Congressional cajolery: one part flattery, one part bribery, leavened by a sense of history. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, deployed by Johnson as point man, recalled wooing Dirksen aggressively but elegantly: “I began a public massage of his ego, and appealed to his vanity. I said he should look at this issue as ‘a moral issue, not a partisan one.’ The gentle pressure left room for him to be the historically important figure in our struggle, the statesman above bipartisanship….” More crassly, Humphrey admitted he even would have been willing to kiss “Dirksen’s ass on the Capitol steps.”

Humphrey finally succeeded without going that far. Dirksen broke the filibuster, quoting Victor Hugo: “Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come. The time has come for equality … in education and in employment. It will not be stayed or denied it is here.” The cloture vote passed with a surprisingly wide margin of 71 to 29. When asked how he became a force pushing for civil rights Dirksen grandly replied, “I am involved in mankind, and whatever the skin, we are all included in mankind.”

Dirksen’s sense of history made him immortal – they named a Senate Office building after him, among other things. Moreover he saved the Republican Party. Today, whatever else their standing with African-Americans may be at any particular moment, Republicans can say with pride that they helped pass the 1964 Civil Rights bill, thanks to Everett Dirksen.

Similarly, in the 1940s, Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg helped lead his party and the nation away from a pinched, provincial, isolationism. President Harry Truman could construct his emerging Cold War foreign policy as bipartisan, thanks especially to Vandenberg. On Friday, April 13, 1945, his first full day in office, Truman lunched with seventeen congressional leaders. Vandenberg hailed this unprecedented move for ending Franklin Roosevelt’s era of presidential unilateralism. Vandenberg’s pronouncement that “politics stops at the water’s edge” built popular consensus behind America’s containment strategy. Vandenberg remained a Republican and occasionally contradicted the President, saying that frank exchanges facilitated true unity. The senator saw himself leading the “loyal opposition” putting “national security ahead of partisan advantage.”

Senator Vandenberg’s journey from ardent partisan isolationist to leading bipartisan interventionist reflected the massive ideological shift Franklin Roosevelt facilitated, and Harry Truman completed. Vandenberg’s rift with the Republican isolationists underlined the continuing American resistance to becoming a world superpower. America did not even have a standing army. Many isolationists such as “Mr. Republican,” Ohio Senator Robert Taft, reluctantly accepted the fight against fascism but hoped returning to normalcy included restoring America’s characteristic insulation.

Facing a divided country and a treacherous world, Truman crusaded for cooperation. In his first speech to Congress, on April 16, 1945, Truman said only “a united nation deeply devoted to the highest ideals” could provide the “enlightened leadership” the world needed. This strategy, and both Vandenberg’s and Truman’s good works, were vindicated repeatedly, culminating with Soviet Communism’s collapse, which historians credit as a bipartisan victory.

By contrast, a century earlier the “Compromise of 1850” was not much of a compromise — or too much of a compromise. No one was happy. Henry Clay’s nationalist attempt to craft an omnibus package had failed, rejected in the summer of 1850. The legislation passed – but ultimately failed – because the young Democratic Senator from Illinois Stephen A. Douglas crafted a series of shifting congressional coalitions passing individual parts of the legislation, reflecting sectional differences not national concerns. Southerners supported the individual planks which pleased Southerners, while Northern representatives endorsed the pro-Northern legislation. There was no reconciliation, legislative or otherwise. The misnamed Compromise of 1850 failed to find common ground or common terms, the essential elements of bipartisanship. In playing to sectional differences not splitting the difference, the Compromise spread the pain without consolidating any gain.

Senators Dirksen and Vandenberg made history because they were not renegades but pioneers, leading their reluctant, partisan followers across the Red Sea to the promised land of bipartisanship to benefit America. Presidents Johnson and Truman – with assists from Vice President Hubert Humphrey, among others — understood that bipartisanship is not about luring one or two mavericks across the aisle, but convincing a broad swath of citizens and leaders that change is coming, and better to be on the right side of history.

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By Gil Troy, Globe and Mail, 9-18-09

[Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University and visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, is the author of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents and The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.]

Barack Obama’s election to the presidency was supposed to usher in a new, more mature era of race relations, but it could not evoke nirvana. There’s a growing chorus complaining that this summer’s hostility to his stimulus package, to his health-care reform and to Mr. Obama himself is racist.

“I think it’s based on racism. There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president,” former president Jimmy Carter said, clearly forgetting the euphoria when Americans elected a black president.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd said she heard “an unspoken word in the air” when Republican Representative Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” during the President’s speech to Congress last week: “You lie, boy!” She also located Mr. Obama “at the center of a period of racial turbulence sparked by his ascension.” In fact, Mr. Obama is at the center of a political storm sparked by his leadership – as all presidents have been.

American politics is a contact sport. The long, rich tradition of American centrism does not negate the equally long colorful tradition of American mudslinging and partisanship. It is unfair and itself divisive to impute racial motives to Mr. Obama’s opponents without evidence. The shrill opposition reflects the high stakes surrounding the current debate, Americans’ enduring ambivalence about big government and the ugly way modern politics plays out in the media, within the blogosphere and on the streets.

Mr. Obama is controversial because he is seeking big changes. He’s no Bill Clinton in his second-term incarnation, focusing on minor policy “Band-Aids” such as the “V-chip” and school uniforms. Mr. Obama wants to be a transformational president like Ronald Reagan. During the transition, faced with the unexpected economic crisis, Mr. Obama read books about how Franklin Roosevelt re-engineered the U.S. economy. Headlines celebrating “Franklin Delano Obama” launched Mr. Obama’s ambitious first hundred days. Spending nearly a trillion dollars to stimulate the economy, taking over the U.S. auto industry, and now trying to solve the perennial health-care riddle – while protecting America and seeking world peace – are sweeping goals. No wonder there’s pushback.

The conservative counterattack is particularly intense because Mr. Obama seems to forget that Americans have mixed feelings about big government. There’s a strong individualistic streak in American thought. Every major jump in the government’s mandate has encountered fierce resistance. Conservatives denounced FDR as a Mussolini and even a Hitleresque dictator.

In 1993, Hillary Clinton was shocked at the vitriol directed her way when she led health-care reform efforts. The Clintons, in fact, endured far more abuse than Mr. Obama has – so far. The Clintons were accused of drug-running, murder, faked suicides, financial corruption, rape and cover-ups galore. After his impeachment, Mr. Clinton lamented Republicans’ descent into the “politics of personal destruction.”

Mr. Clinton and his fellow Democrats suggested these attacks were a conservative Republican tic. The implication then – as now – was that liberals disagreed as rational, reasonable human beings; conservatives were harsh, hysterical, character assassins.

Unfortunately, the loony left can be as vicious as the ranting right. In the 1980s, Mr. Carter and the Democrats called Mr. Reagan a war-mongering racist who would deprive blacks of civil rights while bumbling into nuclear war. One of the Democratic Party’s grand old men, Clark Clifford, called Mr. Reagan “an amiable dunce.” Respected liberal writer Garry Wills called him “Mr. Magoo.”

George W. Bush endured even more vicious attacks. Mr. Carter himself was one of many Democrats who said America’s leaders lied in the buildup to the Iraq war. During the 2004 campaign, an Internet ad compared Mr. Bush to Hitler. Bushophobia became so intense that critics often seemed more disgusted by Mr. Bush than by Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden. “There is something profoundly wrong when opposition to the war in Iraq seems to inspire greater passion than opposition to Islamist extremism,” Senator Joe Lieberman, [then] a Democrat, said in 2007.

Vice President Richard Cheney was even more hated, and routinely compared to Darth Vader. Much of this enmity stems from the ever-accelerating news cycle, the blogosphere’s nastiness and Americans’ ability to speak, text and listen only to those with whom they agree.

Mr. Obama promised to lower the volume – acknowledging how shrill politics was under Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush, two white presidents. Obama supporters should not be shocked that Republicans are attacking Mr. Obama as vehemently as Democrats attacked his predecessor.

And it is dishonest for Mr. Carter, Ms. Dowd and others to play the race card, implying that anyone who dares disagree with Mr. Obama’s health-care plan or stimulus package is a redneck. American politics needs a different tone – these delusional, demagogic, racial recriminations only make things worse.

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By Gil Troy, History News Network, 7-22-09

Barack Hussein Obama has now been President for six months – when campaigning he avoided using his full name, now he embraces it. As President Obama passes this half-year milestone, his honeymoon with the public may be ending – although America’s media remains gaga about him. Obama is readying for a major fight over health care. His popularity is starting to sag. As he enters what was a difficult phase for new presidents, Obama should learn from history not to bank only on his charisma. Other presidents have learned the hard way that depending too much on personal magic can prove tragic for the country.

Thus far, simply getting elected has been Obama’s greatest achievement. On Election Day, and with his inauguration, Barack Obama brought hope to a depressed country. Counterfactuals are impossible to prove, but it is hard to believe that electing John McCain or Hillary Rodham Clinton would have generated the excitement of Obama’s victory. A McCain win in particular, probably would have triggered rounds of recriminations and accusations of racism, especially considering most reporters’ pro-Obama bias during the campaign – and since.

Obama played his part magnificently. “Yes We Can” inspired a country demoralized by George W. Bush’s lethargy, Iraq’s complexity, New Orleans’ devastation and the financial collapse. As both candidate and rookie president, Obama demonstrated perfect political pitch on the racial issue, never indulging in racial demagoguery or anger, refusing to run as the black candidate, but embracing his historic role as an agent of healing and change when he won.

Governing, of course, requires more than winning election by spinning an uplifting personal narrative. In fairness to Obama, when he started running he – and most everyone else – believed these years would be times of continued prosperity. Few anticipated the financial crash, although that secured Obama’s victory, given that the debacle occurred on the Republicans’ watch. Obama has also been blessed by his predecessor George W. Bush’s unpopularity and the Republican opposition’s stunning impotence.

But Obama has been cursed by this financial crisis’s depth and complexity. So far, he has blamed Bush. But, as Ronald Reagan learned, presidential success early on – and pie-in-the-sky promises about saving the economy – quickly make the incumbent responsible. In 1981, Reagan blamed Jimmy Carter and the Democrats for the great inflation, high interest rates and crushing budget deficits he inherited. After many legislative successes and hope-laden speeches that culminated in August 1981, seven months into his presidency, the economy nosedived. When Congress returned from its summer recess, Democrats blamed their constituents’ suffering on “The Reagan Recession.”

The $787 billion stimulus plan could end up being Obama’s albatross. He erred by allowing the Congressional pork-kings to dictate the legislation, burdening it with pet projects rather than smart stimuli. He further erred by forgetting his vows of bipartisanship and post-partisanship, thus failing to share responsibility with the Republicans. Ultimately, like Reagan, Obama has time on his side. All he needs is a recovery by spring 2012 and he can still claim a new, Reaganesque, “morning in America,” with his own liberal twist. But by veering as left as he has domestically, by playing the hard partisan game he has, he risks following in the footsteps of Jimmy Carter – who six months into his presidency scored about ten percentage points higher than Obama has in public approval surveys. And Obama is now entering a particularly difficult passage in his presidency as he tries to overcome the health care reform curse that stymied Bill Clinton, another young charismatic Democrat with great potential.

In foreign affairs, Obama’s addiction to his own rhetoric and charisma is more apparent, and more dangerous. Foreign policy has often been a refuge for modern presidents, an arena for bold actions, stirring speeches, and fawning headlines with less Congressional or press interference. But many major presidential disasters of the last half-century were rooted in foreign troubles. Most people forget that the phrase “the best and the brightest” – which has been used repeatedly to boost Obama and his Ivy League advisers – was more epitaph than tribute in David Halberstam’s classic work on Vietnam. John Kennedy’s people, despite his charisma and eloquence, despite their smarts and pedigrees, steered America into the bogs of Indochina.

So far, while his actions in boosting troops in Afghanistan and keeping troops in Iraq have been measured, Obama’s instincts abroad have proved troubling. Reacting feebly to in-your-face North Korean missile tests and initially dismissing heroic Iranian protests while belligerently targeting Israeli settlements further evokes unhappy memories of Jimmy Carter, who incompetently alienated friends and appeased enemies.

Obama’s Cairo speech revealed his characteristic tendency to hover above the fray, create moral equivalences between opponents, and promise to reconcile the unreasonable combatants. World affairs are rarely that simple. Naivete and moral obtuseness usually fail, even if George W. Bush proved too heavy-handed, simplistic, and incompetent.

Still, the presidential learning curve, especially in foreign affairs, can be steep. The presidency, despite being the world’s most scrutinized job, is also ever-changing, providing more plot twists than an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Nikita Khruschev bullied John Kennedy when they first met in Vienna, in 1961, only to be outmaneuvered by a more experienced JFK during the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis. And Israelis forget that George W. Bush, whose warm friendship for Israel seems to have put off Obama, did not enter the White House as an obvious friend. Well into Bush’s first year in office, Bush – or his Secretary of State Colin Powell – criticized nearly every Israeli action against Palestinian terrorism, which mounted with increasing intensity that awful year. Only the horrors of September 11, 2001 – followed in January 2002 by Yasir Arafat’s direct lie to President Bush claiming not to know anything about the Karine-A illegal arms shipment from Iran – changed Bush’s approach.

A now-famous you-tube video shows Obama killing a fly easily during a television interview. Obama gloats at his success, which was cool and impressive. As he governs, Obama has demonstrated great potential but even greater confidence. Whether his cool personality roots him, or his arrogance defeats him, remains to be seen. Ultimately, results not charisma will count.

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