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Posts Tagged ‘Jimmy Carter’

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-2-12


Ronald Reagan campaigning in Columbia, South Carolina, on October 10, 1980, a few weeks before the only debate of the 1980 election. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Happy October, which every four years becomes debate month in American presidential politics. On October 3, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will debate domestic policy in Colorado. On October 11, their vice presidential running mates, Paul Ryan and Joe Biden, will debate in Kentucky. Five days later on October 16, voters at a town meeting in New York will question the two presidential candidates about any issues and on October 22 — two weeks before Election Day — Obama and Romney will debate foreign policy in Florida.

These debates — which are more like side-by-side press conferences with some exchanges — are usually the political equivalent of military service: long bouts of boredom punctuated by bursts of melodrama. Usually, they reinforce media narratives and voter impressions. But they have sometimes changed outcomes, particularly in 1980, when Ronald Reagan’s aw shucks, “there you go again” dismissal of President Jimmy Carter’s attacks triggered a Reagan surge — and the largest last-minute switch in poll results since polling began in the 1930s.

Treating history as an authoritative tarot card rather than a subtle source of wisdom, Mitt Romney’s supporters have been touting that ten-point swing as proof that the Republicans will win. The 1980 moment appeals more broadly to Republicans as indication that a gaffe-prone, ridiculed, seemingly out-of-touch former governor can defeat an earnest Democratic incumbent afflicted by a sagging economy, Middle East troubles, and accusations that the twin pillars of his foreign policy are appeasement and apology not power and pride.

The 1980 debate should sober Obama and buoy Romney. In his recent book, The Candidate: What It Takes to Win — and Hold – the White House, Professor Samuel Popkin, an occasional Democratic campaign adviser, recalls his failure coaching Carter in 1980. Playing Reagan in debate “prep,” Popkin echoed the Republican’s devastating anti-Carter criticisms. Popkin describes the kind of careful criticism Romney should launch against Obama, knowing that if the challenger is too aggressive he looks angry and insolent but if he is too deferential he seems weak and intimidated. Reagan, Popkin writes, “resorted to more subtle, coded criticisms that were harder to defend against. He appeared respectful of the office and the president, suggesting that Carter was hamstrung by defeatist Democrats in Congress.” This approach forced Carter to rebut the premise — and plaintively claim he was strong — or the conclusion — by insisting Democrats were not defeatists. “Contesting one point left him tacitly conceding the other,” Popkin writes.

Obama’s caveat is in Carter’s reaction. Offended and embarrassed by the criticism, Carter ended the session after eleven minutes. Popkin as Reagan had pierced Carter’s “presidential aura,” unnerving everyone in the room. Trying to dispel the tension, Carter’s chief domestic policy advisor, Stuart Eizenstat, himself Jewish, resorted to ethnic humor by pointing to Popkin and joking, “You didn’t know Governor Reagan was Jewish, did you?” Popkin, who quickly replied “Well, Governor Reagan is from Hollywood,” realized that many of Carter’s people, including the aggrieved president, were unfamiliar with Reagan’s attacks because the majesty of the presidency insulated Carter from serious criticism or serious study of his challenger.

Of course, in an ideal world the debates would emphasize issue flashpoints not gaffe-hunting. In Denver, Romney should, Reagan-style, subtly question President Obama as to when he as president will take responsibility for the anemic recovery and lingering unemployment rather than scapegoating his predecessor. At Hofstra University, Romney should ask Obama to explain to the voters present and the American people how his increasing reliance on the heavy hand of federal regulations and big government does not reflect doubt in the traditional invisible hand of individual entrepreneurial Americans and the markets themselves. And in Boca Raton, Romney should prod Obama on the Arab Spring, asking him at what point he would concede that his policy failed rather than simply dismissing the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the murder of American diplomats in Libya, and other Obama-orchestrated disasters as “bumps in the road.” In response, Obama should emphasize his successes in halting the economic freefall, his faith in American ingenuity guided by the government’s occasional, competent, and gentle helping hand, and his muscular defense of American interests in hunting down Osama Bin Laden, boosting troops in Afghanistan, and reprimanding Egypt’s president for delays in defending America’s Cairo embassy. Meanwhile, reporters and voters should push both candidates to explain what sacrifices they will demand from Americans, where they will deviate from their party’s orthodoxy, how they will end partisanship, and what bold solutions they have to American debt, demoralization, and decline.

While such substantive exchanges would allow Americans to weigh the candidates’ dueling philosophies and records, it is more likely that the debates’ verdict will pivot around some theatrical moment. Since televised presidential debates began in 1960, when John Kennedy’s aristocratic calm contrasted with Richard Nixon’s sweaty, herky-jerky intensity, style has usually upstaged substance in debate reporting and debate perceptions.

It is too easy just to blame the press — although broadcasters and reporters will be seeking “gotcha” moments when a candidate stumbles and “grand slams” when a candidate dominates. Moreover, American voters respond more to debate theatrics than polemics. The mass reaction reflects one of the realities of modern leadership, which too many academics ignore and editorialists lament: image rules, style counts, a successful president or prime minister must communicate effectively not just administer smoothly.

This season, as the American campaign peaks and the silliness surges, it will be easy to mock American politics. But the presidential campaign remains a remarkable effective and dramatic ritual that gets two individuals conveying their messages to a polity of 300 million people.

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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, HNN, 1-19-12

After months of debating, fundraising, positioning, posturing, and polling, America’s Republican candidates are finally facing the voters – with Election Day still nearly ten months away. As always, there is much to mock. But despite its flaws, America’s electoral system is working, managing a complicated, intense, continent-wide conversation among millions of voters seeking a leader.

Admittedly, the Iowa-New Hampshire con  is absurd, with two, small, unrepresentative states starting the voting process earlier and earlier so they can be first in the nation. Both political parties foolishly enable this childish behavior. And yes, the Republican debates often seem more like Bart Simpson versus Sponge Bob than Abraham Lincoln versus Stephen Douglas. The most memorable moment so far from hours of talking by America’s aspiring chief executives has been Texas Governor Rick Perry’s excruciating “brain freeze,” when he could not remember the third federal agency he wanted eliminated, culminating with his now infamous “Oops.”  But this year, especially, the electoral system is not the issue – the frustrations come from the historical context and the candidates themselves.

This election comes at a particularly unhappy moment in American life. The economy has languished for nearly four years.  As during all recessions, Americans fear the downturn is permanent, forgetting the business cycle’s resilience while losing faith in their economy and themselves. The last decade has been clouded by fears of terrorism and the petty harassments at airports and elsewhere from living in a lockdown society. Americans overlook George W. Bush’s greatest achievement, which is a non-achievement — there were no successor attacks on American soil to the 9/11 mass murders. The war in Afghanistan still festers, the withdrawal from Iraq was joyless, even Barack Obama’s triumph in greenlighting the daring operation that killed Osama Bin Laden, brought only temporary relief. It was the dulled enjoyment of a chronically ill patient who had a rare, good day, not the long-sought healing or closure.

Meanwhile, Barack Obama’s upbeat, historic, transformational, “Yes We Can” candidacy has bogged down in the muck of amateur-hour governing, producing a weary, spasmodic, sobering, “Maybe We Can’t” presidency. Obama has now appointed his third-and-a-half chief of staff in three-years. Most recently, the now-retiring chief of staff William Daley shared duties, after his first demotion, with Pete Rouse.

Amid this depressing context, the Republicans promising to rescue America have been more empty suits than white knights, super-cranks not superheroes. The front-runner, Mitt Romney, has been a Ford Escort-kind of candidate, competent enough but not exciting, rolling along smoothly yet frequently stuck in neutral. He has yet to generate the kind of excitement Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Bill Clinton in 1992 each needed to unseat an incumbent president.  Different Romney rivals have successively zoomed ahead sporadically only to crash, sputter, or run out of gas.

Underlying the theatrics and personality questions is a serious referendum about the Republican Party’s character. Romney appears to be the most reasonable, presentable, electable candidate. Voters looking for an anybody-but-Obama candidate should rally around Romney, as the Republicans’ best chance to recapture the White House.  The other candidates – especially now that Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry quit – are ideologues, representing doctrinaire strains within the Republican Party.  Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, in particular, hold fringe views.  In a general campaign, Democrats and the media would easily caricature either as yahoos, while Newt Gingrich remains an unguided conversational missile, who has now been tagged by his ex-wife as an advocate of “open marriage.”

The surges of the Santorum and Paul campaigns demonstrate that in the US today, a growing gap separates fundamentalist provincials and cosmopolitan moderates. The extremes are diverging, submerging the center.  Ron Paul’s libertarianism and Rick Santorum’s fundamentalism epitomize the reddest of the red state sensibility, which is deeply alien to the New York-California East Coast-West Coast blue state sensibility.  In an age of niche media – to each his or her own Facebook page and shrill corner of the Blogosphere — members of each social, cultural, political fragment in a society can have their own echo chamber. As they whip each other into self-referential frenzies, and as the headline-driven media amplify their shouts, they drown out the increasingly silent majority, making it harder to forge a common, constructive social, cultural and political conversation.  Of course, the primary campaigns in particular favor the shrill partisans. General election campaigns often help candidates find the center as they woo swing voters.

So let the games begin. As the Republicans battle it out, it will be interesting to see whether Mitt Romney’s safe, lowest common denominator politics wins, or Republicans turn to an edgier, pricklier candidate. And as Republicans pummel one another, President Barack Obama will be watching from the sidelines but trying not to get sidelined.  Hovering above the fray is nice but Obama cannot afford to be too removed – he is too vulnerable and risks irrelevance.

Republicans seek a new Reagan –a Republican upstart who unseated President Jimmy Carter in 1980.  Democrats should be hoping for 1996 Redux, when a flawed, unpopular Democratic incumbent, Bill Clinton, was blessed by an even more flawed, less popular Republican challenger, Bob Dole. For Obama, even winning by default will represent an historic, and possibly redemptive, achievement, as Clinton learned.

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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, New York Times, 1-10-12

Right now, while we indulge New Hampshire’s childish insistence on its presidential primary being “first in the nation,” Americans should decide to bury this tradition. Nearly a century is enough: the Granite State has somehow turned a fluke into an entitlement. Worse, its obsession with primacy prolongs, complicates and distorts the presidential nominating process. In a democracy, no state should be first forever.

People have been grumbling about this and other undemocratic anomalies for years. But the standoff between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008 gave the nominating process the equivalent of a stress test, which it failed.

We can find redemption via randomization. Every four years — in March, not January — four different states, from the North, South, East and West, should begin the voting.

Since 1920, each presidential primary season has started with New Hampshire. Primaries to select national convention delegates first emerged for the 1912 campaign. When New Hampshire officially embraced this democratizing alternative to boss rule for the 1916 contest, the timing served voters’ needs, not state conceit.

The primary occurred in March during “mud season” — after the snow, before the plowing — the traditional time for New England politicking. As the New Hampshire Almanac proudly explains, the legislature scheduled primary day on town meeting day, the second Tuesday in March, because “frugal New Hampshirites” loathed lighting “the Town Hall twice.” By 1920, Indiana, which originally voted earlier, decided to vote in May, making New Hampshire’s primary the first.

A voter stepped out of a town hall in Canterbury, N.H.
T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty ImagesA voter stepped out of a town hall in Canterbury, N.H.

When New Hampshire officially embraced the primary system, the timing served voters’ needs, not state conceit.

New Hampshire continued to hold presidential primaries, even as the number of primaries dwindled and voter turnout plummeted. New Hampshire’s primary, like most in those days, selected unpledged national convention delegates. In 1949, the legislature popularized the process by allowing voters to designate favorite candidates, too, in what amounted to a non-binding straw poll.

Suddenly, in 1952, this “beauty contest” became significant. General Dwight D. Eisenhower proved his viability to Republicans, while Senator Estes Kefauver’s surprise victory in the Democratic primary inspired President Harry Truman to please his wife Bess and retire.

The legend of the cataclysmic “Live Free or Die” primary grew when President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968 and Senator Edmund Muskie in 1972 each won but faltered by performing worse than expected. Four years later, Jimmy Carter soared after his “better than expected” win – by only 4,663 votes. In 1980 Ronald Reagan stopped George Bush’s “Big Mo.” From 1952 through 1988, every winning presidential candidate first won New Hampshire.

During the 1970s, the politics around this first presidential beauty contest started turning ugly. The New Hampshire primary – and its Iowa caucus doppelganger – was tainted by greed. With primaries proliferating nationwide to allow party members more democratic input in selecting their nominee, media scrutiny of the early contests intensified. Motel owners, car rental companies, printers, advertisers and caterers enjoyed the resulting bonanza, while otherwise obscure political hacks and journalists reveled in playing kingmaker.

This quaint ritual became a state fetish. In 1975, a state law passed protecting the prerogative. Statute RSA 653:9 now mandates that the primary be scheduled at least seven days before all other primaries.

Jealous states like South Carolina and Florida tried front-loading their primaries to enhance their voters’ influence. New Hampshire advanced its primary date into February, then January — goodbye rain boots, hello snow shoes. The shifts prolonged presidential campaigns unnecessarily, annoying millions. In 1999, New Hampshire bullied candidates into signing the New Hampshire Primary Pledge boycotting states that pre-empted New Hampshire. For this current 2012 election cycle, New Hampshire’s zealous Secretary of State, William Gardner, even considered a December date to pre-empt Nevada’s caucus, until the Westerners caved.

In 2008, this silly situation became scandalous. When two large, important states, Florida and Michigan, dared to hold January primaries, New Hampshire and Iowa state officials demanded that candidates promise not to campaign in either state. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama cravenly complied. Obama’s name did not even appear on the Michigan ballot.

Hillary Clinton won Michigan’s primary on Jan. 15 and Florida’s two weeks later.  Clinton’s Michigan vote of 328,309 was more than New Hampshire’s entire Democratic vote total of 287,542.  Still, the punitive Democratic National Committee initially refused to seat any delegates from those states. Desperately seeking delegates, Clinton rediscovered the democratic ideal of “one person, one vote” and insisted on counting the delegates she won in those states. Ultimately, the Democrats awarded Florida and Michigan delegates half a vote each. This compromise affirmed party officials’ scheduling power over state legislatures, while at least partially involving these two states’ citizens in the nominating process.

New Hampshire patriots describe their primary as downright Jeffersonian. Like their Iowa counterparts, they claim the state’s size favors humbler candidates who “make their case door-to-door,” intimately, substantively. Yet New Hampshire campaigns are as frivolous as any other American elections. Candidates spend days flipping pancakes, driving tractor-trailers, slurping chowder, sucking lobster claws. No worse but no better than other states, New Hampshire merits equal but not special treatment.

Once the New Hampshire primary ends, reporters, rather than locals, start behaving badly, exaggerating this one minor, peculiar state’s significance. Speaking in percentages magnifies margins. Hillary Clinton’s slim 7,589-vote victory sounded more impressive when rendered as 39 to 36 percent. Further amplification comes from the media echo chamber as words like “triumph,” “disappointment” and “momentum” transform minor tremors into electoral earthquakes.

In 1787, the “bundle of compromises” that created the Constitution repeatedly balanced small states’ prerogatives with those of big ones. Presidential elections are too important, and first impressions too lasting, to cede so much power to one small state today. Potential presidents must handle a huge, diverse, continental America. A randomized rotation, with four different states starting the nomination process every four years, would test the candidates fairly.

Fetishizing New Hampshire’s primary position has become big business, but it’s bad politics. An idiosyncratic state’s aggressive assertion of an absurd claim, indulged by two spineless national parties and a compliant news media, effectively disenfranchises other voters while exaggerating the importance and the effect of tiny wins of a few thousand votes in a nation of more than 300 million. We can do better. After all, we are selecting candidates for what is still the most important job in the world.



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, 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, The Toronto Star, 1-4-11

Jimmy Carter’s smile looks forced while applauding Edward Kennedy at the 1980 Democratic convention.

STAR FILE PHOTO

While much of the discussion since U.S. President Barack Obama’s “shellacking” in the 2010 congressional midterm elections has focused on the Republican surge, Obama also should worry about his base. In the last 50 years, the only incumbent presidents who have lost their re-election bids first faced primary challenges for renomination. In short, Obama better worry about his own party before dealing with the Tea Party.

Although in the age of modern communications the power of any incumbent is considerable, the American president’s powers are particularly formidable. By being both the head of state and head of government, in effect the king and the prime minister, the president can tap all kinds of non-partisan patriotic emotions while monopolizing the airwaves and using political muscle. During the Christmas season, for example, as the president hosts thousands of influential Americans in the White House, as he lights the national Christmas tree and calls for national unity, he serves as the high priest of America’s civic religion, transcending mundane partisan concerns.

So it is difficult — and has always been wrenching — to fire a president. In the 20th century, only five incumbents lost re-election bids, and in the last half century, it occurred only three times. Each time it required a major crisis and a serious insurgency, whereby someone with purer ideological credentials from the president’s own party first weakened the incumbent before the general election.

In 1976, president Gerald Ford knew his position was weak. He was the first vice-president in American history to replace the first president ever to have resigned, Richard Nixon. Furthermore, he had been the first vice-president never to have faced the national electorate, having replaced a disgraced vice-president, Spiro Agnew, under the terms of the new 25th Amendment, which had only been ratified in 1967. Before then, vice-presidents were not replaced and, when necessary, the speaker of the House became the president’s designated successor. Moreover, in the 1974 midterm congressional elections, just weeks after Ford became president in August of 1974, his Republican party had imploded, losing 48 House seats and five Senate seats. Americans punished the Republicans as the party of Watergate, shorthand for all the scandals that forced Nixon from office.

Although Ford was a decent and honest man, his short tenure already had been very rocky. His pardon of Nixon dissipated much of the goodwill with which Americans had greeted him; the collapse of South Vietnam humiliated Americans; and soaring inflation devastated individual Americans’ household budgets. Going into their 1976 bicentennial year, Americans were cranky. Republicans worried that their weakened incumbent would follow in the footsteps of two other Republicans who lost their re-election bids, William Howard Taft in 1912 and Herbert Hoover in 1932.

Still, amid all the troubles, what most harmed Ford was the campaign mounted by a fellow Republican, Ronald Reagan. Reagan ran to Ford’s right, exploiting growing frustrations with détente (the policy of engaging with the Soviet Union and China) and a broader sense that Ford was not committed to core conservative ideals. Reagan took advantage of the fact that partisans are often the most motivated to vote in primaries — general elections usually reward centrism more than partisanship. Reagan’s attack imposed the primary double-whammy on Ford. The president was weakened by having to fight Reagan primary by primary — and had to shift right to compete with Reagan for partisan Republicans. As a result, it was easier for the smiling, elusive Democratic nominee, Jimmy Carter, to paint Ford as a weak leader out of step with the American public.

Four years later, Carter was the one in trouble. The inflation rate was even higher — as Americans endured the new phenomenon of “stagflation,” whereby prices rose even as the economy flagged. Carter was a weak leader, urging Americans to adjust to limits. Conservatives hated him for this defeatism. Liberals hated him because they considered him the most conservative Democrat since Grover Cleveland, pushing to deregulate the economy and balance the budget.

Carter’s standing with party regulars and liberals sank so low that the crown prince of the Democratic party, senator Ted Kennedy, decided to run for the nomination. Kennedy’s candidacy was ill-fated. When a sympathetic interviewer, Roger Mudd, asked why he was running, Kennedy rambled. When radical Islamist students overran the American embassy and held 52 diplomats hostage in November 1979, just as the nomination campaign was starting, Americans initially rallied around their president in an instinctive patriotic reaction.

Eventually, Kennedy found his footing, winning the important New York primary. Kennedy failed to win the Democratic nomination, but at the party’s national convention he upstaged Carter. Kennedy’s passionate endorsement of the welfare state, vowing “the dream shall never die” in a speech that became an instant classic, captured Democratic hearts. At the same time, it helped Carter’s general election opponent, Ronald Reagan, define Carter as yet another liberal to a nation increasingly fed up with liberalism’s failures.

In 1984, Reagan broke the emerging presidential losing streak, winning re-election with his upbeat “Morning in America” campaign. Reagan had no real opposition from his fellow Republicans in the primaries. His Democratic opponent Walter Mondale floundered, with the economy finally booming after the traumatic, inflation-wracked Ford-Carter years.

Reagan’s vice-president, George H.W. Bush, essentially inherited the presidency after Reagan’s two terms. But Reaganite conservatives always doubted Bush. They remembered how Bush opposed Reagan in the 1980 primaries, mocking their cherished tax-cutting, budget-shrinking “supply side” theories as “voodoo economics.” They mistrusted Bush as too Yankee, too Connecticut, too establishment. To placate the right, Bush proclaimed at the 1988 Republican convention: “Read my lips: no new taxes.” When, governing responsibly, Bush broke that vow two years later, conservatives broke with Bush. The conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan ran against the president for the 1992 Republican nomination.

Buchanan’s candidacy was far weaker than Reagan’s in 1976 or Kennedy’s in 1980. Still, Buchanan’s impressive showing in the New Hampshire primary with 38 per cent of the vote, and his own fire-breathing convention oration, helped derail Bush’s campaign. Arkansas governor Bill Clinton’s campaign shrewdly emphasized that “it’s the economy stupid.” Still, the Buchanan candidacy helped confirm Clinton’s argument that Bush was a weakened incumbent too tied to the exhausted and discredited Reaganite right.

A few weeks ago, on Dec. 4, with Democrats still reeling from their midterm losses, the Washington Post ran an op-ed from a progressive fed up with Obama’s “spinelessness,” pleading: “Save Obama’s Presidency by Challenging Him on the Left.” The writer, Michael Lerner, overestimated the left’s popularity and misread his history. Such an insurgency would threaten Obama’s tenure not prolong it.

Lerner’s voice is marginal but the fact that the influential Washington Post ran his article demonstrated just how far Obama has sunk since the magical days of his election back in November 2008. For that reason, Obama and his aides will have to use some of the sharp-elbow tactics they mastered in Chicago politics to try squelching any potential Democratic opponents to Obama’s renomination, such as Congressman Dennis Kucinich or former Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold.

Exit polls after the 2010 midterm congressional elections showed that Obama has lost most ground with the independents who helped elect him in 2008. Obama should shift to the centre over the next two years, governing more as the post-partisan moderate he promised to be rather than the liberal partner to the liberal-Democratic congressional leadership he often has been. A liberal challenge in the primaries would force Obama to play to his left, undermining that effort.

The Ford-Carter-Bush losses also offer Obama another cautionary tale. It really is “the economy, stupid.” Americans tend to give presidents too much credit when the economy booms and too much blame when the economy sags. Seeing the stock market or employment figures or inflation rates as a referendum on a president is natural but simplistic. Government policies and presidential economic strategies affect the economy, but so do many other factors. The broader economic cycle reflects a stunning array of inputs, that neither the president nor any other individual can control fully. If the economy revives, even as late as 2012, Obama will have bragging rights to his own Reagan-style “Morning in America.” Even most Americans’ judgment of the complex health-care reform, which will barely be kicking in by then, will be determined by the state of the economy.

History is instructive not predictive. Still, it is hard to see how Obama could lose if the economy is booming and his party is united. And it is hard to see Obama winning if the economy remains depressed, Democrats are deeply divided, and Republicans find a candidate who is popular, credible and effective.

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and the author of, among others, Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, and The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.

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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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