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Posts Tagged ‘Franklin Delano Roosevelt’

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, NYT, 12-2-11

To select someone worthy of sitting in George Washington’s chair, sleeping in Abraham Lincoln’s bed and governing from Franklin Roosevelt’s desk, Americans crave a substantial presidential campaign, as long as they don’t have to endure too many boring speeches. Like every human decision-making process, presidential campaigns seesaw between the serious and the silly.

Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience, political science and the dismal science demonstrate what we know intuitively, that human decision-making involves our heads and our hearts. We are neither fully rational nor totally emotional. Similarly, campaigns fluctuate between profound policy exchanges and trivial personality clashes, between significant indicators of future presidential performance and serious idiocy.

A substantial campaign is most likely when history conspires to offer high stakes with stark choices or an incumbent seeks reelection (and it helps if the candidates avoid defining gaffes or temper tantrums). Re-election campaigns in particular are usually well-focused, because at least one nominee presents a defined track record.

The 2012 campaign seems primed to be portentous, with an embattled incumbent confronting an opponent from an ideologically-charged party amid economic turmoil. But every campaign, no matter how high-minded, flirts daily with farce. “Unfortunately, when you run for the presidency your wife’s hair or your hair or something else always becomes of major significance,” John F. Kennedy said, when Walter Cronkite asked about his forelock. “I don’t think it’s a great issue, though, in 1960.” Actually, the Kennedys’ good looks brought John Kennedy great political luck.

Hair has been the subject of political debate for Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, left, just as it was for John F. Kennedy, right.
Jim Watson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images, left; Associated PressHair has been the subject of political debate for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, left, just as it was for John F. Kennedy, right.

The first substantial presidential campaign — which brought about America’s first transition from a ruling party to the opposition — also teetered between frivolity and philosophy. An ugly brawl between two founding fathers preceded the great deadlock of 1800, which you may remember hearing about during the election standoff in 2000. Federalists called Vice President Thomas Jefferson an atheist, a libertine, a traitor, “the infidel.” Democratic-Republicans called the short, fat pompous president, John Adams, “His Rotundity.” But the election also contrasted Adams’ centralized government championing industrial development against Jefferson’s vision of limited government with limited growth.

The 1800 election was the first to show how presidential re-election campaigns crystallize issues and polarize positions. A challenger need not be as doctrinaire as Barry Goldwater to offer “a choice not an echo,” when pitting boundless hopes against a first-term president’s adjustments to reality. Running for re-election in 1936, Franklin Roosevelt admitted there would be only one issue: “It’s myself, and people must either be for me or against me.” Running a referendum on Roosevelt, the Republican candidate, Alfred M. Landon, called himself “the direct antithesis of the present executive.”

Winners beware, though. The binary choice most American elections offer frequently overstates differences and oversimplifies results, especially when presidents win re-election. Most of the twentieth-century’s most lopsided wins kept incumbents like Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan in power, but frequently helped spawn the dreaded second-term curse.

Campaigns fluctuate between profound policy exchanges and trivial personality clashes, between significant indicators of future presidential performance and serious idiocy.

Even landslides do not offer the political equivalent of a blank check, however much it might feel that way. Roosevelt overstepped during his second term, especially when he tried packing the Supreme Court. He wrongly interpreted his 523-8 electoral-vote triumph as a more sweeping mandate for his New Deal than voters intended. Lyndon Johnson went from feeling, “for the first time in all my life,” truly “loved by the American people,” marveling at “millions upon millions of people, each one marking my name on their ballot, each one wanting me as their president,” to being hounded out of office.

Sometimes campaigns turn serious by coinciding with serious trouble, especially impending wars, ongoing hostilities or economic busts. Voters in 1860, in choosing Abraham Lincoln, knew that they were empowering abolitionists and risking war. Four years later, a worried President Lincoln needed battlefield victories to woo voters who were doubting him and his war. Ultimately, bullets swayed the ballots as General William T. Sherman’s conquest of Atlanta two months before Election Day helped vindicate Lincoln’s war strategy, leading to his re-election.

While wartime campaigns often become votes of confidence — or no confidence — regarding the incumbent, the downswing in an American business cycle often yields an upswing in surprisingly theoretical, intensely polemical, debates about American capitalism. During a recession, suddenly everyone is an economics major — or a philosopher.  The Panic of 1893 triggered 1896’s “Battle of the Standards.” Americans escalated arcane questions about valuing paper money, silver coins and gold into a searing philosophical divide that stirred fears of civil war. The major parties nominated candidates with contrasting stands. Converting from currency to morality, William McKinley, the Republican goldbug, said “The American people hold the financial honor of our country as sacred as our flag.” And catapulting from economics to metaphysics, William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic-Populist silverbug defending “the producing masses of this nation and the world” famously cried: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” One Republican, John Hay, moaned: “The whole country has been set to talking about coinage — a matter utterly unfit for public discussion.”

Still, good intentions and clear visions do not guarantee Solomonic deliberations. In 1964, insisting that “I’m not one of those baby-kissing, hand-shaking, blintz-eating candidates,” Senator Barry Goldwater envisioned a “lofty, rational presentation of contending beliefs” against President Lyndon Johnson. Goldwater loved his campaign slogan:  “In your heart, you know he’s right.” But with Democrats sneering “In your guts, you know he’s nuts,” and his numbers tanking, Goldwater retaliated. By October he was snarling “Would you buy a used car from Lyndon?” and saying all Johnson did was “lie and lie and lie” — although the patriotic senator recoiled when crowds, riled by his rhetoric, booed the president. Time magazine deemed the 1964 campaign “one of the most disappointing ever.”

Just as ideologues can end up mudslinging, moderates do not necessarily sling mush. Mocking moderates is a great American tradition. Some, like Lewis Cass, the Democrats’ compromise nominee in 1848, earn the contempt. As Americans polarized over slavery, Cass ran as a “doughface,” a Northern man who molded his politics to satisfy Southerners, impressing few, alienating many. “And he who still for Cass can be,” one Whig wrote, “he is a Cass without the C.”

America also enjoys a rich tradition of muscular moderates. Barack Obama has already shown he can run an exciting, crisp campaign from the center. In 2008, both parties nominated centrist senators seeking the swing voters who could sway the election. These crucial voters, like the Reagan Democrats and the Clinton soccer moms before them, made a clear choice, this time for Obama. Interestingly, even though both Obama and John McCain played to the center, they clashed on foreign affairs, economic policy and governing philosophy, and in the process they offered voters two quite distinct alternatives.

President Barack Obama, left, was accused of being an atheist, as was Thomas Jefferson, right.
Pool photo by Kevin Dietsch, left; United Press International, right President Barack Obama, left, was accused of being an atheist, as was Thomas Jefferson, right.

The history of presidential campaigning reveals the ingredients that yield substantial campaigns, including a charged historical context, clashing world views and coherent candidacies.  Still, every candidate remains one slip of the tongue, one gotcha question, one feeding frenzy, away from the chaos that overwhelms so many campaigns. Americans genuinely yearn for an ideal democratic exercise, one-part university seminar, one-part town hall. Yet the blood rushes, the pulse quickens, interest peaks, when campaigning turns ugly, emotional, personal. The contradictions of popular politics, meaning mass democratic decision-making, don’t just mirror but magnify our all-too-human contradictions as personal decision-makers.



Gil Troy, 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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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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, 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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Obama has made his mark by seizing leadership of the party that was once the bastion of racists

GIL TROY, The Montreal Gazette, HNN, Friday, August 29, 2008

The moment when Hillary Rodham Clinton suspended the state-by-state roll call vote she had demanded, moving for the 2008 Democratic Convention to nominate Senator Barack Obama by acclamation, was extraordinary.

Network cameras, inevitably, zeroed in on African-Americans, young and old, beaming, as tears poured down their cheeks. For the first time in U.S. history, a major political party had nominated a black man to be president. Critics have ample time left to bash Obama for various shortcomings. But this week, anyone who cares about justice, equality, democracy and the American dream can rejoice that Barack Obama was nominated to lead the Democratic Party, once the voice of America’s ugliest racists.

Yes, we can appreciate the extent of America’s turnaround on race by exploring the Democrats’ shameful history. America’s progressive party today – which boasts of being the world’s oldest continuous democratic political party – was founded by Thomas Jefferson, the prince of U.S. paradox, whose slaves waited on him as he wrote the magical words that would eventually free them: “All men are created equal.” By contrast, the Republican Party is the party of Abraham Lincoln, founded in the 1850s to abolish slavery.

Thus, before the Civil War, as the party of the South, of a weak central government, and of Jeffersonian liberty, the Democratic Party defended Southern plantation owners’ freedom to own slaves. After the Civil War, Democrats celebrated the “Lost Cause,” misremembering the attempt to keep human beings enslaved as a noble fight against Big Government and for private prerogative. In the 1930s, the Democratic Party was the party of the powerful southern senators who opposed federal laws banning lynching.

In the 1960s, the Democratic Party was the party of the powerful southern senators who opposed the Civil Rights Movement. Some tried torpedoing the now legendary 1964 Civil Rights Act by adding a sweeping amendment promising women equality, too. These southern racists assumed their fellow sexists in the North would never accept such an absurdity. The strategy backfired. The 1964 act has benefitted women and African-Americans.

Of course, by the 1930s, thanks to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democratic Party was becoming the party of the forgotten, the oppressed, the left behind. For three decades, Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson tried propping up the collapsing coalition between northern Democratic liberals, including blacks, and the recalcitrant Southern racists. When Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, he understood that the Democrats would lose the white South for decades – resulting in today’s diversity-obsessed party, now led by the son of a white woman who married a black African.

Barack Obama has campaigned as a leader of all Americans, not the great black hope. But, inevitably, in multicultural democracies, the lines blur. True, Obama’s biggest problem has been being too green – inexperienced – not too black. True, he is of a new post-baby boom generation, freed of Jesse Jackson’s anger, Al Sharpton’s antics, Louis Farrakhan’s hatred. But whenever an individual from a distinct, historically oppressed, sub-group bursts through a glass ceiling, it is both an individual and group achievement.

And so, with Barack Obama having received the Democratic nomination, Americans and freedom-loving people everywhere honour his individual achievement – along with the welcome breakthrough for people of colour and oppressed minorities everywhere. We toast apostles of freedom like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, whose love of liberty laid the groundwork to free their country from the great contradiction of slavery.

We recall the millions who suffered through slavery, and the 600,000 who died in the Civil War to end America’s original sin. We can finally bury “Jim Crow,” the horrific system white Southeners then improvised to imprison freed blacks in a maze of local laws keeping them second-class citizens.

We mock the slavery-loving 19th-century Southeners like Vice-President John C. Calhoun of South Carolina and the “Segregation Now, Segregation Forever,” 20-century racists like Alabama Governor George Wallace, who tried their hardest to put off this day.

So many of us, black and white, Democrats and Republicans, Americans and Canadians, have waited our whole lives for this moment. Barack Obama’s slogan “yes we can,” was a hope and a prayer, a challenge and a yardstick. Much work remains to be done. The United States is is not perfect, racism is certainly not eliminated. But this 47-year-old self-described “skinny kid with a funny name” had proven to us all that “yes we can,” change things for the better; and “yes we can” live long enough to see things improve.

No matter what happens the rest of the campaign or for the rest of his life, for this achievement alone, Barack Obama deserves and has earned historical immortality.

– Gil Troy is a history professor at McGill University and the author, most recently, of Leading from the Centre: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

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