Posts Tagged ‘Theodore Roosevelt’


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, 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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By Gil Troy, HNN, August 15, 2008

The news that Hillary Rodham Clinton’s name will be placed in nomination at the Democratic National Convention not only cheered her still-disappointed supporters. It also delighted television network executives saddled with the task of attracting viewers to the Democratic National Exercise in Rubber-Stamping. All of a sudden, the drama of the Obama-Clinton battle may be repeated. All of a sudden, both Bill and Hillary Clinton are back where they love to be, where they need to be – front and center, even if this convention was supposed to be Barack Obama’s star-turn.

The roll call charade will evoke conventions of yesteryear when these quadrennial gatherings actually made a difference and designated an often surprising nominee. But the modern message underlying this traditional ritual will be quite clear. After months in the spotlight, Hillary Clinton virtually disappeared from the public radar screens once Barack Obama eked out his victory over her. But Senator Clinton – and her ex-president husband – want to remind the American people that she won more than 17 million votes, and many of those votes came from enthusiastic women devastated by Hillary’s loss.

Whatever Hillary Clinton loses by appearing too brazen, she gains much more with this power play. Just as fighting to the last primary battle boosted her standing – and illustrated the depth of her support – the successful demand to star in this convention psychodrama underscores just how significant a role she and her husband continue to play in the Democratic Party.

Obama’s is the riskier move here. He cannot appear to be cowed by the Clintons. He has to be magnanimous without being swept up in the Clinton cyclone. Obama cannot play the stolid William Howard Taft to the charismatic Theodore Roosevelt. He cannot allow former-President Bill Clinton to undercut him as Dwight Eisenhower undermined Richard Nixon in 1960, by asking for a week’s time to remember any of Nixon’s Vice-presidential accomplishments. Obama also cannot allow Hillary Clinton to give the kind of soaring consolation speech which steal delegates’ hearts, as Ronald Reagan did in 1976 or Ted Kennedy did in 1980.

Of course, the alluring Obama is no Taft. He is banking on the fact that the renewed excitement and drama will redound to his benefit – after all, the conclusion is pre-determined (warning: spoiler ahead): Obama has enough delegates to win the nomination. Moreover, he is banking on the same constellation of forces that helped him win in the first place. He – not Hillary – is more likely to steal the show – and American hearts – with a dazzling display of eloquence. If Hillary Clinton had those skills, she would be the one doling out convention slots and figuring out how to satisfy her rivals – and would be well on her way to the White House.

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HNN, July 3, 2008

Arianna Huffington’s slam on centrism – “Memo to Obama: Moving to the Middle is for Losers” — proves that the struggle for the soul of Barack Obama continues. Moderate voices must stand tall and strong against the partisans pulling him to the left. Obama’s meteoric rise to national prominence — and his victory in the Democratic primaries — resulted from the lyrical centrism of his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech. Without that message of unity, moderation, centrism, civility, and sanity, Obama would be just another junior senator. If Obama forgets the origins of his brief career and lurches left, he risks returning to his Senate seat in the fall of 2008, behind even Hillary Rodham Clinton in the pecking order.

Huffington’s post on this issue rests on a false choice between principled extremism and centrist pandering. Huffington caricatures “tacking to the center” as “watering down th[e] brand,” playing to the “fence sitters,” and “dilut[ing]” Obama’s “own positioning.” Huffington fails to understand that being a moderate does not necessarily mean being a pushover. Obama’s vision of new politics, which she chides him for abandoning, is rooted in a traditional push for the center, with a renewed, optimistic vision for today.

Obama’s centrism is part of a great American political tradition. America’s greatest presidents were maestros of moderation, who understood that the trick to effective leadership in a democracy is finding the middle, or creating a new middle. George Washington viewed his role as more of a referee than a crusader. He preached repeatedly to his squabbling subordinates, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, about finding common ground. Abraham Lincoln spent most of his time in office, negotiating, compromising, cajoling, and conniving to keep the badly divided North united against the South. That is why he emphasized fighting to keep the Union together rather than liberating the slaves, despite his personal dislike of slavery. Theodore Roosevelt, although temperamentally immoderate, proved to be an adept arbitrator, ending the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902, and even earning a Nobel Peace Prize for his diplomatic skills in resolving the Russo-Japanese war. Franklin Roosevelt, though often denounced as a radical, in fact tacked carefully between the extremes of the radical left and the complacent right, inching America toward a modified welfare state.

All these presidents succeeded because they understood that they had to play to the middle. Part of the reason why so many Americans are so angry with the current administration comes from George W. Bush’s disdain for the center. By not reaching out sufficiently, Bush has left many Americans alienated from his policies –and from America’s democracy.

Democracy is ultimately a fragile flower. Presidents – and presidential candidates – have to tend it carefully, remembering that the consent we who are governed grant is implied, and rests on a collective act of good will. Great presidents tap into a broad, mainstream strain of American nationalism that keeps this nation of now over 300 million people united and, on the whole, even-tempered.

Arianna Huffington also erred in claiming that previous Democratic nominees stumbled when they shifted to the center. Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton did not lose because they were too centrist; they lost because each lacked an effective message – and allowed their opponents to define them. Huffington also conveniently overlooks the only Democrat to win a presidential election since Jimmy Carter in 1976, Bill Clinton, who repeatedly played to the center, and triumphed.

For Democrats to win in 2008 — and for America to heal and to prosper – Barack Obama needs to find his centrist voice, showing that he can bring a new tone to American politics, as well as creative, broad-based solutions to some of the pressing problems the country faces. Obama has to make sure that the Republicans do not cast him as the next George McGovern. The young Illinois Senator could learn a lot from the pantheon of democratic heroes who understood how to have core principles but also the broad centrist vision necessary to keep this country united.

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