Zealous Moderates: Barack Obama and William Howard Taft

Every season brings a new round of presidential analogies and comparisons. Two years into his presidency, Barack Obama has already seen his share. Supporters have compared him to Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy and even Dwight D. Eisenhower. Opponents have latched on to Jimmy Carter and Woodrow Wilson. Obama himself has invoked Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush as important role models.

But there's one president whose name has rarely been mentioned: William Howard Taft, an Ohio Republican who held office from 1909 to 1913. Like him, Obama has emerged as a stubborn middle-of-the-roader, with a style that seems to annoy everyone, left and right.
Taft is not well known. He served only one term and did not relish it. Despite being physically the largest man ever to occupy the office–at over 300 pounds–Taft presented a small, almost passive persona in contrast with his larger-than-life predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, and his messianic successor, Woodrow Wilson. Both men were later written about as "transformational" presidents; and it was Roosevelt who most likely delivered the 1912 election to Wilson after bolting the Republicans and running as a third party candidate.
Although heartbroken by Roosevelt's defection, Taft left office a content and probably relieved man with an important legacy in budgetary and organizational reform. His presidency made the executive branch more efficient and effective. Some historians regard it as the first modern presidential administration. 
He would go on to a quiet, academic retirement at Yale Law School, returning to public service in 1921 as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, a much happier position for him. "The truth is that in my present life I don't remember that I was ever president," he recalled.
Taft, who had been solicitor general and a federal judge, "brought a judicial temperament to the Oval Office," according to one biographer. "He consulted few people, weighed his opinions in isolation, and rendered political judgments as he had once delivered verdicts." Sound familiar?
With his first big initiative–revising the tariff–Taft deferred its drafting to the leaders of his party in Congress. Usually with signature pieces of legislation, the White House takes the lead and shepherds the legislation through with a few key Congressional allies. As Obama would discover with reforming health care, the Hill-first strategy has disadvantages. Namely, as the process becomes a political football, the president gets blamed by partisans on both sides, but he gets little credit among the middle-of-the-road constituencies—the so-called independents—that he most covets.
The Payne-Aldrich Tariff eventually passed in 1909, but with far more drama than almost anyone, including Taft, had anticipated. Democratic proponents of lower tariffs painted Taft as captive to more reactionary Republicans; progressive Republicans complained that Taft had betrayed them by making too many concessions, although the bill had gone forward under Republican leadership. Accused by an opponent of viewing "Congress as a jury," he looked weak and not in control of his own party. In the mid-term elections of 1910, the Republicans lost badly, with the House passing to the Democrats for the first time since 1894.
In appearance, background, political affiliation, personal ambition and oratory, Taft and Obama could not be more different. But in their judicial personality they seem strikingly similar. Both men were passionate about the rule of law at home and abroad. Both took a quiet, indirect approach to leadership. Both could be flexible and pragmatic but also riveted to principle.
In contrast with the "triangulation" approach favored by Bill Clinton and many years earlier by Teddy Roosevelt — that is, borrowing the most popular policies of their opponents and calling them their own — Obama's hallmark, so far at least, has been to circle continuously until finding the exact middle position, then to settle firmly upon it, no matter how unpopular. Few presidents have done this better than Taft. Like him, Obama reserves his ardor for defending the value of compromises that nobody likes. Not surprisingly, some of the bitterest critics of each man have been members of his own party.
America and the world are a far cry from what they were in 1910. Obama will most likely prove to be a more notable president; he might even be re-elected to a second term. Yet, like Taft, Obama cuts a cautious, deliberative, transitional figure.
Just as Taft appears an uncomfortable and hamstrung conservative sandwiched chronologically between two firebrand progressives—albeit of different parties—so may Obama find himself known someday as a mild reformer whose biggest presidential achievements, like Taft's, turn out to be administrative. No memorable ones have come yet, but the biggest issue on the horizon—cutting the federal deficit—gives Obama plenty of possibilities.
Obama promised a Goldilocks government:  one that is neither too big nor too small but that works.  So the American people probably should not ask for more.  He could do worse than emulating Taft.  Although Obama was never a judge and only briefly practiced law, he could perhaps look forward to a job he may really like.  John Roberts will turn 65 in 2020, just in time to make way for a new Chief Justice to celebrate the 100th anniversary of William Howard Taft's appointment to the Supreme Court.

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.

December, 2010