Obama Sees a Distant Horizon

Kenneth Weisbrode is a historian at the European University Institute and the author of The Atlantic Century (2009). E-mail: Kenneth.Weisbrode.eui.eu. Attribution to the History News Service and the author is required for reprinting and redistribution of this article.

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.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 4/29/2010

It seems pretty clear what Obama really thinks, and whom he admires.

Among the latter you begin with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and continue to Frank Marshall Davis, Bill Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn, Tony Rezko, Rod Blagojevich, Valerie Jarrett, former Illinois State Senator Alice Farmer, and then go to such exciting world leaders as Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro.

Thus far his Presidency has adopted no policy of any kind which enjoys the support of a majority of the people. His pensive, cautious, and thoughtful executive competence has utterly failed to de-fang the regime in Teheran, and thus has brought nuclear war to the doorstep of the Middle East. Along the way he has also managed to demoralize the U.S. military and bankrupt the U.S. Treasury...

He is dragging us pell mell toward the day when we throw on the light swich and nothing happens, thanks to his embrace of the insane energy ideas of his associates Waxman and Markey.

He favors trials costing $200 million in Manhattan for terrorists who should have faced firing squads years ago...

His "gift for dissembling" really seems to know no bounds. High among his whoppers was, "If you enjoy your health insurance now, you will be able to keep it." Another was that the reorganized health care system was going to cost less, not more, despite the addition of millions of patients and the inevitability of severe doctor shortages. And, of course, he was not going to touch grandma's Medicare.

He is completely unconcerned about the mayhem and chaos on the Mexican border, not to mention wholesale vote fraud in its train, which is where the mind naturally leaps from there. The evidence seems to show he favors vote fraud, and the more the better. So does his attorney general.

I can't think of anything good to say about Obama, except that he does seem to love his wife and children.

Some of us are beginning to feel he will, in the long run, prove to have been very good for the United States by inciting a popular, powerful and salubrious counter-movement, a renaissance of capitalism, growth, prosperity and freedom.

Jonathan Pine - 4/26/2010

First glance had me believing this was a tongue-in-cheek piece but was horrified to find that Mr. Weisbrode is dead serious.

Yeah, Obama’s seeing the far distant horizon all right. The same horizon Corporate America is seeing, and it looks profitable. On the one hand you have one of the greatest socialist enterprises of our time going full blast nationally and globally, I’m talking about the US military on the one hand, and on the other hand, a corporate America that recently gained personhood, making obscene profits with the war machine as well as running America. And the rest of us? well, we have to fend for ourselves under the guise of capitalism since we are not part of the socialist club of the military and the rich. This is what Obama took over and continues to run.

He put Siddiqui, a pesticide pusher, in charge of Agricultural Trade Relations. Keep those corp. spewing out those healthy chemicals.

Soon after Obama’s victorious health care bill was passed, Ramsey Baghdadi, a Washington health policy analyst, projected a $30 billion, 10-year net gain for the industry, on top of what it already earns. And whatever costs pharmaceutical companies conceded/invested in the bill, they can afford it with all those new customers and rising costs of health care and medicine.

Successfully expanded the Afghan war, yes he’s authorized more predator drone strikes than in all of G. W. Bush's eight years, I suppose to prove that war, after all, is peace and Obama’s Nobel Peace prize proves it. Killing all those civilians has been determined by State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh , of an American soldier or a civilian casualty, who probably never seen the lungs, brains and guts spewing over the ground as they try to live, insists that these drone attacks "comply with all applicable law, including the (international) laws of war." So it must be okay if they say so. Koh claims it’s required that "the damage to civilians caused by those attacks ... not be excessive." So long as it’s not Koh’s family involved.

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