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The Distant Horizon of a President

by Kenneth Weisbrode on Apr 23, 2010

What a difference a month makes. It now seems like ages ago that pundits were calling Barack Obama’s presidency a failure after only one year. His signature health care initiative was stalled; his inner circle had begun to show indiscipline by way of embarrassing leaks; and foreign leaders from Nicolas Sarkozy to Vladimir Putin to Benjamin Netanyahu were suggesting that the pensive, cautious, thoughtful Obama was just plain weak, or worse: incompetent.
Well, health care legislation has passed, the White House looks like a smoothly run machine, and leaders from nearly half the world have just paid homage to Obama in Washington during what was billed as the most significant meeting on the subject of nuclear weaponry since Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev called for their abolition more than 20 years ago.
No doubt everything will look different in another month’s time. This is the curse of the modern presidency: momentary ups and downs look so consequential and permanent. Everyone’s attention span is short. But the complex job of the president adheres to a different time horizon — extending not merely four or eight years but rather several decades into the future.
Obama seems to be grasping this fact in ways that have begun to impress a few skeptics who now sing in praise of his patience, discipline, far-sightedness. By contrast, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton appear more and more as sprinters, impatient to chalk up as many wins as possible before the clock ran out.
The emblematic presidential biography for the Clinton and Bush years was David McCullough’s “Truman” — the story of an impetuous, underqualified leader who, by luck, pluck and force of personality, seemed to find himself vindicated by history. If only history repeated itself so easily.
Obama, on the other hand, is playing for keeps, taking his time (except when he senses that the moment is ripe for a win), content to lose a few points while reformulating the game itself over the long haul, even to the extent of asserting un-interest in a second presidential term if that meant better, more lasting achievements generations down the way.
Of course, we can’t know what Obama really thinks. But his references to other presidents suggest a pattern and a time horizon that goes beyond the usual obsession with legacy.
Whom does Obama admire? He speaks often of Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Reagan. Future historians of today’s zeitgeist will note that the best-selling presidential biographies are now of Polk and Wilson. These presidents had in common the setting of a few clear goals and great persistence in achieving them, sometimes against tremendous odds. The results only became evident years after they left office.
Leaders who seek to replicate the lessons of the past almost always find themselves learning new ones. Obama has already acknowledged this. That should reassure his more prudently minded supporters, who worry that the man’s reach for a legacy has exceeded his grasp of political necessity.
Or it’s possible that Obama may most resemble none of the presidents he has invoked but two others from the mid-twentieth century: Kennedy and Eisenhower. He has Kennedy’s charisma and wry sense of his own place in history, not quite tragic (we pray) but with the manner of a man riding a wave rather than charging forward on a horse.
Obama also possesses what Kennedy lacked and what Eisenhower had in abundance: organization, executive competence and discipline. He also has a bit of Eisenhower’s aloofness and a gift for dissembling which, in retrospect, has revealed itself to be a shrewd method for drawing the ranks together while giving opponents greater opportunity to self-destruct.
It cannot be entirely coincidental that the Obama administration has spoken often of laying a new “foundation” at home and abroad. That is precisely what Eisenhower did after the postwar muddle of the Truman years.
If the Roosevelts invented the modern American presidency, Eisenhower and Kennedy refined and enriched it. They did so by mastering the basics.
The president must do three things well: manage, inspire and persuade. So far Obama has shown himself artful at the first two — a fortuitous fusion of Ike and JFK. If he can find a way to do the third, or to keep his failure to do so from destroying his capacity to lead, he’ll find that his legacy will look after itself.

Kenneth Weisbrode is a historian at the European University Institute and the author of The Atlantic Century (2009) and is a writer for the History News Service.