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Unconventional Wisdom

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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

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

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

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

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

Library of Congress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, NYT, 12-2-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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

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

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

Photograph by: Alex Wong, Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gil Troy teaches history at McGill University.

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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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