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

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

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

Photograph by: Alex Wong, Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gil Troy teaches history at McGill University.

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By Gil Troy, History News Network, 7-25-09

In one his many riffs this week against Barack Obama’s health care reform initiative, titled “This is a Very Dangerous Time: Socialized Health Care is Not Dead,” on July 21, Rush Limbaugh explained himself, saying: “So this is an attempt by me to keep people inspired and motivated rather than on the sidelines and analyzing it, the brave moderates! The brave moderates? (laughing) By definition, moderates can’t be brave! They don’t have opinions. (interruption) Dawn doesn’t like me saying things like that. But, I mean, brave moderates? Great Moderates in American History? Show me the book!”

Rush Limbaugh is triply wrong here. American history is filled with great moderates. The story of moderates in American history and in the American presidency makes for a great book subject. And Limbaugh’s celebration of extremism is one of the many reasons why Republicans are failing to get any traction in opposing the Obama Administration.

In my book, “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make Great Presidents,” I show that America’s greatest presidents succeeded by aiming for that presidential sweet spot, either finding the center or reconstituting it. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt were not wimps. They had opinions – contrary to Limbaugh’s caricature. But again and again they demonstrated that important insight that an effective and constructive leader in a democracy has to build as broad a coalition as possible, rather than simply playing to the margins, or being satisfied with “50 percent plus one” of the vote. George Washington, pulled in opposite directions by his squabbling subordinates, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, repeatedly urged them — and their fellow citizens – to be reasonable, to remember America’s “Common Cause.” During the traumatic battle over slavery, Abraham Lincoln endured harsh attacks from abolitionists because he understood that America’s survival hinged on working toward emancipation gradually, and keeping the Civil War a fight for union not for black freedom. Theodore Roosevelt – who was spasmodic, flamboyant, and not at all a moderate by temperament – built his presidential reputation by mediating during a great mining strike and finding a settlement to the Russo-Japanese War. And Franklin D. Roosevelt worked hard to build consensus during the New Deal – and even more painstakingly inched Americans toward involvement in World War II.

Even Rush Limbaugh’s great hero, Ronald Reagan, understood he had to lead from the center. Reagan was elected to be president of the United States not president of the Republican Party or the conservative movement. To keep the nation united, Reagan infuriated conservatives by backing away from their “ABC agenda,” focused on fighting abortion, busing, and crime. Instead, Reagan emphasized economic issues over social and cultural issues. When conservatives yelled “Let Reagan be Reagan,” they erred. When he was singing his broad patriotic song, when he was compromising, when he was building consensus as his role model Franklin D. Roosevelt had done, Ronald Reagan was being Reagan.

Barack Obama also needs to remember the importance of leading from the center – and his promises to transcend the polarizing politics of his baby boomer elders. But shrill extremists like Limbaugh have made it easy for Obama to veer left and still appear reasonable. Having Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney function as the public face of the Republican Party is a recipe for Republican disaster – and national trouble. Democracies need effective oppositions as much as they need smart, reasonable, temperate, center-seeking leaders who appreciate the importance not just of winning but of maintaining the consent of as many people as they govern as they can.

So, yes, Rush, moderates make great presidents, great Americans, and great book subjects. I leave it to others to determine whether they also make for great books, although I appreciate Geoffrey Kabaservice’s suggestion on the New Majority Blog that my book may be the right text to prove Rush wrong.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 4-21-09

Countering America’s tradition of moderate, bipartisan presidential leadership is an equally vibrant tradition of moderate masqueraders, partisans obscuring their sharp political elbows with bipartisan rhetoric. In 1968, Richard Nixon now the “New Nixon,” ran to heal his fragmented nation. Six years later, Nixon resigned, his presidency derailed by his partisan overreaction to student protests which triggered the Watergate scandal. In 2000, George W. Bush promised to unite America, only to govern as a divisive president. One hundred days into his presidency, Barack Obama wavers. At his best, he has wooed Republicans, seeking a new, welcoming center for a nation reeling from economic cataclysm, continuing foreign threats and Bush’s tumultuous tenure. At his worst, President Obama has indulged Congressional Democrats and party sensibilities rather than offering the moderate statesmanship America needs.

The First Hundred Days is an artificial benchmark rooted in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Obama’s presidency is unfolding. John Kennedy proved more successful than his first hundred days suggested, marred as it was by the failed Bay of Pigs Cuban invasion; Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush ended their respective presidencies less successfully than each began. Still, a presidential character starts forming. The First Hundred Days launches many story lines that ultimately determine a president’s destiny.

President Obama’s debut has been less bold than he promised and, frankly, confusing. Regarding foreign policy, his rhetoric has veered left but his actions have stayed centrist. Domestically, his rhetoric has been more moderate than his policies.

Obama’s foreign affairs messaging has positioned him as the “unBush.” From apologizing for American “arrogance” in Europe to smiling with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez to denouncing torture, Obama has enraged conservatives. But Obama has not acted like the pushover he sometimes appears to be. He is keeping troops in Iraq. He has intensified the military push in Afghanistan. And he gave the shoot to kill order when Somali pirates held an American hostage.

At its best, Obama’s foreign policy has used George W. Bush as a straw man, to appear to be hitting the oft-mentioned “reset button,” without acting irresponsibly. Obama’s approach to the Durban anti-racism review conference exemplified his strategy. In sending diplomats to preliminary meetings, Obama showed he would engage the world, unlike his predecessor. By nevertheless boycotting because too many delegates from Muslim countries pushed their anti-Israel, anti-Western, and anti-free speech lines, Obama acted properly, but with greater credibility.

Ultimately, Obama must define his foreign policy more clearly. He will have to remind Muslims how many Americans died trying to protect Muslims in Kosovo, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than simply apologizing for Bush’s “war on terror.” And the Obama administration will have to find its moral center, rather than disappointing dissidents worldwide when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says human rights issues will not divide the United States and China. Still, this has been a clever, cautious start for a president with a thin foreign policy resume.

Obama’s greatest challenge has been righting America’s economic ship of state. Watching the confusion among our supposed experts, seeing how many very smart people made such a mess, the President probably is as baffled as the rest of us. Just as it is easy during boom times to forget that a bust may soon come, it is easy to forget downturns are cyclical and fleeting too. Of course, the President lacks the luxury of waiting it out. Obama argues that too little governmental response in the 1930s made matters worse – forgetting that too much governmental intervention in the 1970s was equally harmful.

Rhetorically, Obama has been thoughtful and reasonable. His April 14 speech at Georgetown was a model of moderate leadership. Acknowledging critics left and right, he sounded balanced, systematic and visionary. He invoked the Sermon on the Mount – not to perpetuate squishy liberal sentiments about helping others, but to explain the importance of rebuilding on firm foundations. He affirmed his liberalism by delineating new “pillars that will grow our economy and make this new century another American century,” including “new rules for Wall Street” and new investments in education, renewable energy and technology, and health care. But Obama showed he was a liberal who had learned from Ronald Reagan. He added a fifth pillar, “new savings in our federal budget” and insisted that like a good doctor, the government primarily must do no harm.

Unfortunately, on Capitol Hill and in practice Obama has been less artful. While he watched the Super Bowl with some Republicans, most Republicans resented how Democrats burdened the economic stimulus package with so many items that long lingered on Congressional wish lists. More broadly, Obama is trying to spend his way out of the recession with a classically Keynesian, big government approach. At Georgetown, Obama invoked Bush’s policies to justify his actions as centrist moves – even though conservatives criticized Bush’s big-spending deviation from Reaganite orthodoxy.

Given the economic bewilderment and despair, Obama is angling for a win-win. If the economy is not as broken as the conventional wisdom now suggests, all Obama needs is a recovery before 2012, which would be a very long recession. If the economy revives, he will replicate Ronald Reagan’s position in 1984, declaring a new “morning in America” that validates Obamanomics as he coasts to re-election.

Of course, much history could intrude between now and then, ruining this scenario. But considering the headaches he inherited, Obama is governing in the politically shrewdest way for him – shifting left while speaking reasonably domestically, then sounding more radical than he actually acts in foreign affairs. That strategy mirrors Ronald Reagan’s strategy in shrinking taxes but ultimately negotiating with the Soviet Union. Obama admires Reagan’s ability to transform the country. Clearly, Obama hopes he can do the same – in the opposite direction.

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Gil Troy “The First 100 Days: George Washington Set the Standard for All Future Presidents”

U.S. News & World Report, 2-19-09

Adds historian Gil Troy in Leading From the Center: “Washington was a muscular moderate, far shrewder than many acknowledged. Emotionally disciplined, philosophically faithful to an enlightened, democratic ’empire’ of reason, Washington passionately advocated political moderation. Acknowledging his own shortcomings as a human being, he tolerated and welcomed others’ views. He realized that others might reasonably reach different conclusions about important issues. Washington’s idea of democratic politics was to seek common ground and blaze a centrist trail.”

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 2-3-09

In a recent HNN posting, Professor John Grigg urged President Obama to stop seeking consensus, characterizing bipartisanship as “often a cynical effort to silence dissenting views.” Professor Grigg’s article is worth dissecting because he captures the current – dare I say it – consensus among academics to dismiss bipartisanship and consensus-building while romanticizing partisanship and radicalism. In fact, President Obama should press for a genuine consensus, building as much bipartisan support for his proposals as possible. As I argue in my book, “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents,” this approach is not just what we need today – especially amid the economic downturn and the continuing terrorist threat – but that moderation has often been the secret to presidential success and broader American good feeling.

Professor Grigg’s indictment rests on three pillars. For starters, he tries to apply the shortcomings of the consensus school of history to the broader effort at consensus-building. He notes that the historians from the 1950s who emphasized America’s center-seeking tradition often painted a one-dimensional portrait of American development that minimized some of the constructive conflicts that made this nation great. Moreover, Grigg continues, seeking consensus breeds political complacency. Rejecting a status quo politics, he argues that “the extension of liberty in American history has come not from consensus but from confrontation.” Finally, he claims that the current chorus for consensus comes from a few insiders who seem “to welcome political debate; but only within a narrow field of vision.” The result, he insists, is a politics that gets intensely personal not because it is too partisan but because it not partisan enough.

Grigg’s critique of the consensus school has merit. There was a tendency in the 1950s – among academics and others – to assume that the unity Americans achieved at the height of World War II was typical. Fortunately, waves of historical revisionists since the 1950s have painted a richer, more complex portrait of America’s history. But, it is possible to acknowledge conflict, even constructive conflict, while still appreciating the strong, consensus-oriented, pragmatic streak in American history? Modern historians have been so successful at charting America’s disagreements – and dysfunctions – they often fail to answer the most basic question about American history – how has the country succeeded? A new, more sophisticated, post-consensus-history understanding of American consensus can incorporate diversity and conflict into the broader narrative of a country that functioned best when leaders sought to find the center – or, as we are currently seeing and have seen before – tried to forge a new center.

Grigg is correct that seeking consensus can often degenerate into simply maintaining the status quo. But to inflate a tendency to avoid into a permanent condition is like complaining about the common cold as if it were cancer. Historical change in America at its most constructive has occurred when consensus-oriented politicians like Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy played off against more radical voices fomenting division. A great president takes the strong, occasionally divisive currents agitating for change and tames them, making them more mainstream, more primed for domestic consumption. Currently, Barack Obama seems to be doing just that. He is making dramatic moves, but by trying to build a consensus, he is making them more palatable politically. Such leadership goes way beyond cheap political posturing. When done correctly it fosters the kind of engagement and support we need in a democracy, rather than the bruised feelings and alienation we have seen far too frequently in recent decades.

Grigg should not be so quick to dismiss the healing possibilities of bipartisanship – or the broad cries in the country for such leadership. The success in 2008 of bridge-builders like Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Barack Obama suggests that the desire for center-seeking goes beyond the Beltway insiders Griggs seeks to demonize. And the Clintons, among others, would be the first to testify to the fact that the “politics of personal destruction” which they so famously denounced came from the harshest of Republican partisans rather than the moderate, David-Gergen-like Washington types I am assuming Griggs targeted – without naming any names or offering up any evidence.

Bipartisanship and consensus-seeking need not mean namby-pamby leadership. The American political tradition we need to appreciate is one of muscular moderates, proud nationalists, who understood that in forging a national consensus they were maintaining democratic legitimacy and nurturing nationalism. This center-seeking is the call of George Washington, urging squabbling partisans to remember Americans’ “common cause.” It is the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln, understanding that first he had to keep the North united before he could end the blight of slavery. It is the romanticism of Theodore Roosevelt, using the White House “bully pulpit” to position the president as the tribune of the “plain people” building consensus for progressive change. It is the experimental incrementalism of Franklin D. Roosevelt, introducing enough reforms to silence working class cries for revolution but not so much change that capitalism vanished and America’s Constitution became unrecognizable or moot. And, with any luck, it will be the Reaganized liberal pragmatism of Barack Obama, restoring a sense of community and self-sacrifice, reinvigorating government where necessary, without forgetting all the lessons of the last 40 years so that America does not end up saddled again with inefficient big government programs offering delusional solutions rather than constructive change.

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The challenges ahead

The new president must decide on the size of government, his foreign-policy philosophy and whether to govern from the center

By Gil Troy, Freelance, Montreal Gazette, January 21, 2009

Michael and Laurie McRobbie of Indiana were among the millions at the inauguration ceremony.
Michael and Laurie McRobbie of Indiana were among the millions at the inauguration ceremony.

Photograph by: JESSICA RINALDI, REUTERS, Freelance

The hoopla surrounding Barack Obama’s inauguration was moving. The challenges he acknowledged in his speech are sobering. But beyond the policy conundrums of today and the future hopes of tomorrow that Obama’s inaugural speech focused on, he must address three underlying dilemmas that continue to bewitch America’s presidents. Barack Obama is joining a two-century-old conversation about just how big government should be, just what kind of foreign policy America should have, and whether a president should lead as a partisan or lead from the centre.

Regarding the first question, President Obama – along with his predecessor George W. Bush – is trusting big government. Since the American Revolution, Americans have debated how much independence they should have as individuals and how much dependence they should have on government collectively. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan rejected the half century of government expansion that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal jump started and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society intensified.

Reagan’s inaugural declaration that “government is not the solution, government is the problem,” proved so compelling that in 1996, preparing to run for re-election, it was a Democrat, Bill Clinton, who proclaimed “the era of big government is over.”

Actually, under both Clinton and Reagan, government continued growing, although more slowly. Even before the stock- market crash, George W. Bush had emerged, anomalously, as a Big Government Conservative. Bush’s interventionist foreign policy and occasional bursts of compassionate conservatism expanded government. Still, many people, especially Democrats, viewed the 2008 financial meltdown as history’s verdict on two decades of Reagan-Bush deregulation (overlooking Clinton’s role in it all). Bush himself put ideology aside to approve hundreds of billions in bailouts.

Obama has embraced the narrative and the policy. So far, his ambitious ideas for a fiscal stimulus, health-care reform, massive energy investment, suggest he is banking his administration’s success on repudiating the Reagan Revolution with a twist. In his writings and speeches, Obama has insisted he is not a Sixties-style, throw-money-and-big-programs-at-any-problem, kind of liberal. He has promised a new synthesis, with a more vigorous, effective government wary of big bureaucracies, avoiding unrealistic goals, and sensitive to the eternals of faith, family, friends as partners in nation-building. In that spirit, Obama said yesterday that we don’t need big government or small government, but government that works.

The second dilemma, regarding foreign policy, hinges on two longstanding debates. In his Farewell Address in 1796, George Washington warned Americans to avoid “entangling alliances.” It is often obscured with the U.S. so enmeshed in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, but the country has a strong isolationist streak. While arguing whether they should be more isolationist or interventionist, Americans also debate whether their foreign strategy should be realist or idealist. Realists emphasize U.S. needs; idealists focus on spreading democracy and other U.S. ideals worldwide.

Thanks to the backlash against Bush’s overselling of democratic hopes in Iraq and elsewhere, the realist and isolationist schools are ascendant. Obama’s initial campaign focus on just getting out of Iraq played to Americans’ historic isolationism. But 24 hours into the job, Obama already knows the world looks very different when viewed from the Oval Office’s big, bullet-proof, picture window. Moreover, the surge’s success in Iraq stabilized the situation, precluding a quick withdrawal.

Finally, while Obama relies on some realist advisers, he is somewhat imprisoned by his own soaring rhetoric and aspirations. Obama does not just want his administration focusing on what is right for his country; he wants what is right for his country to be right for the world. Just as true isolationism is impossible for the world’s only superpower; neither can any American, let alone Obama the hope-generator, avoid the idealistic impulses in the country Obama’s hero Abraham Lincoln deemed “the last best hope of Earth.” Or, as the new president put it, “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”

As he defines his domestic and foreign policies, Obama will be demonstrating just how he wants to lead. Bush, coached by his political guru Karl Rove, spent much of his presidency mobilizing the conservative base, playing to partisans. This strategy helped Bush win re-election in 2004 but lose big in the court of public opinion, retiring with a dismal 22 per cent approval rating.

Despite having strong, big-government-oriented, liberal roots, Obama has displayed a more pragmatic and moderate leadership vision. He seems committed to leading from the centre. So far, he filled his government with pragmatists, especially Hillary Rodham Clinton, nominated as Secretary of State, and the economic gurus Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers. Obama believes in muscular moderation, in being rooted in principle but reaching out, building bridges, seeking unity.

This leadership tradition stretches back to George Washington, who urged Americans to work together in building their “common cause,” and Abraham Lincoln, who emancipated the slaves slowly, gradually, to avoid alienating the critical, still-slave-holding Border States.

Inauguration Day is a day of potential, with the new administration facing a bright, golden wave of tomorrows. As Obama begins to govern, he will have to navigate some tough days and, inevitably, end up with some failed yesterdays.

In going from campaigning to governing, from speech-making to policy-making, Obama will have to find what works in the moment to build toward a better future, ever sensitive to the echoes of the past, as by virtue of his position and his power he starts shaping – and being shaped by – history.

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

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HNN Debate: Should Obama Lead from the Center or Not?

By Allan Lichtman and Gil Troy

HNN, 12-15-08

Mr. Lichtman is a professor of history at American University in Washington, D.C. His six books include Prejudice and the Old Politics: The Presidential Election of 1928 and The Keys to the White House.

Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and Visiting Scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, DC. He is the author, most recently, of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN.


HNN Editor Recently, Allan Lichtman recommended in a post on the Britannica Blog that Barack Obama should adhere to four simple rules followed by FDR. Three of the rules sounded the same notes being heard all over Washington these days: 1. Strike early. 2. Bring the people with you. 3. Think big and broadly. But the fourth rang a controversial bell: Don’t govern from the middle. We thought this fourth point was worth further exploration. We asked historian Gil Troy, author of the new book, Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, to comment. What follows is an exiciting Lichtman/Troy roundtable.

Allan Lichtman

Great presidents don’t move to the middle they move the middle to them by changing the conversation about government and implementing programs that work. That is what FDR did for liberal governance in the 1930s and Ronald Reagan for conservative governance in the 1980s.

No political leader in the history of the government has gained major political success or produced fundamental changes in national policy by attempting to move to the middle. Rather the so-called “center” of American politics is the graveyard of mediocre one-term presidents like William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, George H. W. Bush, and Jimmy Carter. The centrist presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton won two terms in office, but they both lost control of Congress in their first term and failed to pass on the presidency to a candidate of their party.

By following the example of FDR Obama can prove that it is possible to learn from history and not merely be condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Gil Troy

I agree with three of Allan Lichtman’s four “simple rules” suggesting how Barack Obama could be another Franklin D. Roosevelt. Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, among others, also knew to Strike Early. Americans’ desire to see their new president succeed gives an administration a great launching pad. Bringing the People With You is essential in a democracy. Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill described Americans’ insistence in 1981 that he give Ronald Reagan a chance to succeed. Thinking Big and Broadly is the example FDR set, and other successes such as John Kennedy followed. I lost Professor Lichtman on his fourth rule “Don’t Govern from the Middle.” In fact, Obama should lead from the center – but as a muscular moderate not a spineless centrist.

Lichtman builds his case against moderation by mentioning a grab bag of mediocre presidents. Actually, the greatest presidents including FDR led from the center. Being a muscular moderate entails having core principles, thinking big, but mastering the art of compromise too. Franklin Roosevelt understood that, as did the other president whom Lichtman identifies as a success, Ronald Reagan.

To understand Roosevelt as a moderate we have to recall the historian’s favorite text – context. When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in March, 1933, America’s prospects looked bleak, radicals demanded revolution. “Mr. President, if your program succeeds, you’ll be the greatest president in American history,” an admirer told Roosevelt. “If it fails, you will be the worst one.” Roosevelt responded: “If it fails, I’ll be the last one.” Against that backdrop, Roosevelt’s reforms were pioneering but temperate. He preserved private property. He restored American capitalism. The American welfare state he created was a stretch considering America’s past, but a far cry from European varieties, let alone the Soviet model so many American intellectuals desired.

In the historian Richard Hofstadter’s apt metaphor, FDR was a nimble quarterback, always scrambling but usually remaining within America’s constitutional boundaries. Perhaps Roosevelt’s greatest failure – his attempt during his second term to pack the Supreme Court – resulted from running out of bounds. The Court-packing scheme – adding up to six new justices for each justice over seventy – failed because Roosevelt overestimated his own power and the American people’s appetite for revolution. This miscalculation set back the New Deal – but taught FDR a valuable lesson. When World War II broke out in Europe, Roosevelt was a model muscular moderate – advancing forward in an important direction, toward intervention, but always staying half a step ahead of the American people, rather than outrunning them.

Similarly, Ronald Reagan proceeded more cautiously than conservatives hoped and liberals feared. From the start of his administration, Reagan demonstrated that he was not the president of the Republican Party or its conservative wing but president of the United States. The Reagan Library has many files filled with letters from conservatives blasting Reagan for being too accommodating. Reagan’s Cabinet, filled as it was with moderates like Alexander Haig and Malcolm Baldridge, let alone Rockefeller Republicans like Richard Schweiker, infuriated conservatives. One of the few ideologues Reagan appointed to a high position, his Office of Management and Budget Director David Stockman, would write a kiss-and-tell book, The Triumph of Politics, complaining that the so-called Reagan Revolution was headed by an amiable former actor more interested in being popular than storming the big government Bastille. Ultimately, the Reagan Revolution slowed the rate of growth of government – but it preserved the New Deal status quo. Stockman’s glum conclusion was that American government was more “Madisonian,” fragmented, temperate, incrementalist, than he had hoped.

This moderation provides essential ballast in a democratic system. America remains a center-right nation – and a country of pragmatists wary of revolution. Even the American Revolution itself was a relatively mild, reasonable affair – compared to the French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutionary bloodbaths. In his victory speech, Barack Obama acknowledged the tens of millions who did not vote for him, whose support he will need to succeed. George W. Bush presidency should be remembered as a cautionary tale warning against the Karl Rove strategy of mobilizing the base and neglecting the center.

When President Bush struck early, thinking big and broadly, one Democratic senator proposed minor changes to Bush’s controversial tax cuts. The senator promised that with those compromises, “I guarantee you’ll get seventy votes out of the Senate.” Rove replied, “We don’t want seventy votes. We want fifty-one.” This polarizing take-no-prisoners attitude alienated many and derailed Bush’s presidency. The writer who recounted that anecdote was Barack Obama himself, in The Audacity of Hope. Obama then wrote: “Genuine bipartisanship … assumes an honest process of give-and-take, and that the quality of the compromise is measured by how well it serves some agreed-upon goal, whether better schools or lower deficit.” This is a great description of what muscular moderation is all about – and what Barack Obama needs to remember as he reads about FDR’s presidency – and plans to lead from the center in an Obama administration.

Allan Lichtman

I appreciate Gil Troy’s positive comments on most of my piece on how Barack Obama could become another FDR. I take issue, of course, with his criticism of my recommendation that Obama should not govern from the middle, but should boldly implement progressive policies.

Troy’s arguments are based on the faulty premise that departure from what he calls the “muscular middle” necessary means the embrace of some sort of radicalism or extremism. This is evident by his contrasting Roosevelt’s policies with “radicals” who “demanded revolution” during the Great Depression. Of course, Roosevelt was no radical or revolutionary, but his policies were decidedly more progressive than the middle-of-the road for his time. Indeed, Roosevelt’s New Deal established much of the modern liberal tradition against which conservatives have been railing against for decades.

According to the acclaimed Poole-Rosenthal index of conservative-liberal ideology (with liberal ratings from 0 to -1 and conservative ratings from 0 to +1) FDR’s rating for the New Deal period — based on his legislative advocacy — was -.58. This places him well to the left of the center of US politics at the time. By contrast, the mean scores for all US Senators during the period was +.02 and for all House members -.06.

Likewise it makes no sense to tab Reagan as a centrist because he didn’t mechanically follow the lead of the most extreme right-wingers. As a true conservative and not a middle-roader, Reagan did far more than just slow the growth of government, he engineered foundational changes in tax, regulatory, and defense policies, and in America’s approach to the world. His administration established the modern conservative era of American politics. Reagan’s Poole-Rosenthal rating of +.742 during his first two years places him far to the right in the American political spectrum. By contrast, the mean scores for all US Senators during this period was +.02 and for all House members -.03.

If both FDR with his -.58 rating and Ronald Reagan with nearly his polar opposite rating of +.742 are both centrists then the concept has lost all meaning. By this odd reckoning, all presidents are centrists and have governed from some vast ill-defined middle. However, if Troy means only to say that leading from the “muscular middle” means avoiding the contentious, bitter partisanship of the Bush years, then I heartily agree. However, no political leader and no political party has transformed American politics by leading from the ideological center of his times.

Barack Obama has a golden opportunity to implement such progressive policies as establishing universal health care coverage, weaning us off the fossil fuel economy, vigorously protecting civil rights and liberties, reforming the tax code, and instituting a more cooperative and multilateral approach to international affairs. He should not be dissuaded from pursuing these commitments by misguided advice to govern from the middle.

Gil Troy

I appreciate Allan Lichtman’s reaction to my response to his initial, thought-provoking post. We disagree both about whether successful presidents have led from the center and whether Barack Obama should be what I call a muscular moderate. Our disagreement manifests itself in three important ways: methodologically, historically, and politically.

For starters, I am too much the historian and not enough of a political scientist to settle historiographical disputes with the “Poole-Rosenthal Index of Conservative-Liberal Ideology” or any other formulaic attempt to reduce the complexities of reality to a simple batting average. Such approaches would have made graduate school a whole lot easier – but a lot less interesting.

Of course, the P-R index and others help assess a presidency. My conception of a muscular moderate acknowledges that the FDRs of the world will tack left while the Reagans will tack right – but the question is how much? And here, we plunge into our historical clash. I agree that it would be simplistic to give Roosevelt, Reagan, or other presidents centrist merit badges just for not being as extreme as the most fanatic elements of their respective parties. But in placing a particular president on the spectrum, and divining the secrets to his success, we must factor in the tug-of-war of the political process.

The center is, of course, an elusive target (just as definitions of liberalism and conservative or left and right have shifted over the decades). But we can deem a president a centrist when he acts more as a pragmatist than an ideologue, when he compromises on key measures if not core ideals, when he uses his bully pulpit to forge as broad a coalition as possible both in Congress and among the people. Simply seeing the FDR years as a lurch -.58 to the left and the Reagan years as a lurch +.742 to the right not only misses the subtleties but overlooks the serious ways in which the president’s and party’s ideological wings were clipped in both eras.

We need not fully embrace Barton Bernstein’s characterization of the New Deal as a “conservative achievement” but I always have been struck by Roosevelt’s discipline – most of the time – in not overstepping during an era when cries for more radical solutions were mainstreamed. And I link FDR’s triangulation process to a broader American leadership tradition rooted in George Washington’s enlightened approach to mobilizing Americans behind a “common cause,” Abraham Lincoln’s pragmatic focus on of first keeping the country united and alive, then freeing it from the stench of slavery, and Theodore Roosevelt’s bully-bully romantic nationalism seeking to make America more progressive without alienating big business, too much. The result in the 1930s – as I argued in my last post – was the uniquely American welfare state that stretched our constitutional limits but was a far cry from the European reality or homegrown leftist dreams.

Similarly, I echo the analysis of James Patterson, Alonzo Hamby and others in viewing Ronald Reagan as more of an incrementalist than an ideologue. This centrism of Reagan’s, this understanding of the need to compromise and sell his program broadly, accounted for his success. At the same time, Bill Clinton’s tenure is a cautionary tale for moderates. Simply being a finger-to-the-wind spineless centrist, lacking big ideas and core principles which you can at least compromise on, leaves you with little more than the policy bandaids of the Clinton years and the impression he created of tremendous potential unfulfilled.

So, to end by focusing on the political differences this exchange uncovers, I desperately hope that Barack Obama leads from the center, appealing to what he has called the “pragmatic, nonideological attitude of the majority of Americans.” I discovered by analyzing America’s centrist tradition that the search for moderation is really about reinvigorating a new broad vision of American nationalism – and advancing policies that reinforce a big, broad tent approach. It starts with repudiating the George W. Bush-Karl Rove 50-percent-plus-one strategy of simply mobilizing enough partisans to ensure re-election. But it entails picking moderate, non-ideological advisers – as Obama has done so far. It entails reaching out symbolically and substantively to Republicans and more conservative Democrats – as Obama has done so far. And it entails singing a song of centrism while advancing constructive, bridge-building policies that are rooted in the ideas of one camp but acknowledge the concerns of the opposition. It requires complex solutions to complex problems, mindful of Dwight Eisenhower’s warning to John Kennedy that only the thorny questions end up on the president’s desk, the easy ones are solved before they get to the chief executive.

What that means more concretely (to follow Lichtman’s agenda) is constructing a health care reform that avoids triggering the big-government fears Republicans exploited so effectively in killing the Clintons’ program. It means using government stimulus to find alternative energy sources but not in such a heavyhanded way as to smother individual or corporate initiatives – or trigger another great inflation thanks to soaring budgets. It means tax reform that does not return us to crushing burdens of the 1950s or the 1970s. And it means protecting civil liberties and working together with allies without being afraid to treat terrorism as a military problem not simply a crime and without forgetting how in the Middle East cooperation and diplomacy can be perceived as weakness.

This summer, Barack Obama demonstrated the kind of muscular moderation America needs, when he endorsed a different FISA domestic surveillance bill from the one he initially opposed. This nuanced approach angered many of his core supporters. In a remarkable on-line exchange with thousands of his field workers, Obama explained why the new legislation did not cross his red lines – while affirming his commitment to defend civil liberties if legislation did. As one volunteer who participated told me, he showed he was willing to listen to the complaints, he understood the disagreement, but he was comfortable with his decision. George W. Bush rarely showed he was willing to listen. Bill Clinton too frequently caved in on core issues. At that moment, and many others, Obama demonstrated that he just might walk the walk as well as talk the talk – governing as he speechifies, creating a “Yes We Can” muscular moderation that advances a substantive agenda in ways millions of Americans in the big, broad, pragmatic center can applaud.

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