Obama 2.0 Must Lead from the Center Humbly and Substantively

News at Home

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University. He is the author of "Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents" (Basic Books, 2008). His latest book, co-edited with Vincent J. Cannato, is "Living in the Eighties" (Oxford University Press, 2009).

The American voters gave President Barack Obama a good, old-fashioned political whupping on Tuesday.  It was a stunning political reversal as Mr. Yes We Can became Mr. Why Can't They Understand and Appreciate Me? President Barack Obama must learn his lesson from this political drubbing.  To redeem his presidency, he must do what he originally promised to do, lead from the center—humbly and substantively.

The rise of the Tea Party, the loss of many moderate Democrats in swing districts, and the reelections of many leading liberals, led some politicos to conclude that Americans do not want centrist leadership.  This conclusion reinforces the Fox News-MSNBC view of the world as divided between good people – those who agree with me— and bad partisans—everybody else.  Instead, the results reflect American structural anomalies, where moderates come from divided districts and extremists come from strongly partisan districts.  During electoral tidal waves, the crucial swing voters veer left or right, wiping out moderates as extremists survive.

Yet with the end of the 2010 midterms marking the start of the 2012 presidential campaign, Barack Obama should worry that independent voters abandoned him en masse.  It is now clear that Obama erred by fighting for health care reform before lowering the unemployment rate.  And it is now clear that having the health care reform pass by such a partisan, polarizing vote, undermined Obama’s entire presidential leadership project.  The twentieth century’s two greatest pieces of social legislation—the 1935 Social Security Act and the 1964 Civil Rights Act—passed, after hard fights, with bipartisan support.  That the twenty-first-century’s first great piece of social legislation passed without Republican support reflects Obama’s broader leadership failure.

Obama 2.0. must resurrect one of the most powerful messages—and successful tactics—which propelled his meteoric rise to the presidency, his lyrical centrism.  Barack Obama did not just promise"hope and change," he promised a new kind of politics.  In Audacity of Hope, Obama positioned himself as a post-partisan centrist who would resist Washington’s ways.  Central to his appeal was his lyrical, multicultural nationalism, exemplified by his eloquent denunciation of the red-state-blue-state paradigm in his extraordinary keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic national convention.  Americans did not just hire Obama to be president, they hired him to be that kind of a president, one who would reach out across the aisle, who would sing a song of national unity and purpose that was substantive, pragmatic, results-oriented, not just lofty and lovely.

Unfortunately, as president, Obama has stilled his own voice, and failed to reconcile with Republicans.  True, Republicans share responsibility for being truculent and obstructionist.  But true centrism requires finding that golden path, that middle ground.  Instead of delegating the highly partisan congress to craft the health care reform, instead of negotiating so desperately to forge his Democratic coalition, Obama needed to deliver bipartisan support for such a monumental shift in America’s status quo.  The Social Security and Civil Rights bills quickly became part of the national consensus, thanks to the consensus-building presidential leadership which ensured bipartisan passage.  By contrast, abortion has festered as an issue for decades because the Supreme Court legalized women's right to choose, circumventing any kind of populist, consensus-building, democratic process.

Having demonstrated great potential as a cultural leader in 2008, Obama should spearhead a fight against the gong-show-governance emanating from cable TV coverage of American politics.  Watching MSNBC on Election Night, watching Keith Olbermann and company shout away at Congressman Eric Cantor—who enjoyed giving back as good as he got—I was struck by the cable echo chamber’s violent distortions.  Politicians who spend their time appearing on these shows forget that only a small percentage of Americans are watching.  The pols begin to think that everyone wants to play politics as a blood sport.  Politicians should simply stop appearing on these shows until they foster civility.

What a shame that we needed the comedian Jon Stewart to confront the Crossfire crowd in 2004.  No politician had the guts to reject the format that fostered fighting, that rewarded unreason.  Franklin Roosevelt called the presidency pre-eminently a place of moral leadership.  Obama should take the lead with substantive moves to cut down the culture of confrontation.

Obama also has to avoid presidential preening.  Blaming his losses on miscommunication not substantive policy differences will lead him and his staff to focus on how things appear rather than what they should be.  The elder statesman Dean Acheson once dismissed Richard Nixon by comparing him to a shortstop so concerned about how he looks when fielding, he misses the ball.  Obama has always struggled with a grandiose and highly self-conscious side.  Fighting for his political future, he needs to focus on substance, cultivating the big-tent governance he promised the American people.

In the 1950s, Joseph Stalin dismissed Mao Zedong as a margarine communist.  It was a delicious phrase, capturing the gruff former farm boy’s disgust for a product that looked like butter, but wasn’t.  So far, Obama has been a margarine moderate, making superficial gestures toward dialogue and compromise, then sticking to one side of the aisle.   

Obama still has the time and the national good will to recover.  Most Republican campaign commercials targeted Nancy Pelosi, or Harry Reid, or big government, not the president.  This nuance reflected Obama's personal popularity, despite his 55 percent negative job approval rating.  Moreover, the economy could still revive, unemployment could fall, the Republicans could self-destruct by misreading this election as an invitation to showcase their extremists.

Political greatness, in fact personal greatness, does not come from winning all the time, but from knowing how to turn devastating defeats into incredible opportunities.  The true test of Barack Obama the man and the president has begun.

Related Links

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Maarja Krusten - 11/12/2010

Dr. Troy,

I await with interest your response to Mr. Hughes, above. And if there is no response, what that decision not to respond tells us about the difficulties that America faces.

David Brooks asks today “How can you love your country if you hate the other half of it?”
It’s a good question, but one I don’t expect Rush, Sean, or Beck to answer. They are too vested in infantilizing conservatism, taking many of its supporters back to high school. One of the most interesting phenomena of the recent time period for this former conservative is how fragile so many of its advocates seem willing to make it seem. It’s as if somewhere they lost confidence in the principles of conservatism and decided to turn instead to the Big Lie and to smears. There’s an enormous difference between the way men who served past Republican presidents (David Stockman, Bruce Bartlett, David Frum) discuss economic issues and the way the blowhards on Fox and talk radio do. The former display confidence in their side; the latter do not. How can you or anyone reach people whose confidence has been eroded by fearmongers?

Mr. Hughes praises demagogues whom Bob Inglis (who lost his GOP primary this year) has called demagogues.
http://thinkprogress.org/2010/07/09/inglis-preying-fears/ That tells you something about the wall that has been built up around some segments of the citizenry. What you suggest Mr. Obama do might work with those who aren’t susceptible to the Fox Fear Factory (not all who are open to conservative solutions believe what the worst demagogues in the world of right wing talk radio and on tv spoon feed their listeners.) But how can a President reach those who lap up the fear mongering?

Brooks points out the danger he believes the U.S. is in economically, but notes forthrightly that you can’t sell people on painful solutions. Too many people have become conditioned to thinking they can have it all and that they need not sacrifice. And the civic courage Brooks cites from the civil rights era largely has faded. With so many vested in selling magical thinking and absolution (“it’s not your fault. You are a good person,” as Ta-Nehisi Coates observes of what the voters demand from politicians), it may be too late to undo the damage of the demagogues who have ruled for the last 20 years. The black dude (no, not Obama, Coates) speaks a truth that many people (not all in one party) simply are afraid to face.

Maarja Krusten - 11/12/2010

Hah! Among my many typos here (I just didn't proof read) is the spelling of demagogues as demeagogues. Sounds as if I intended to combine demean or mean with demagogue. Maybe that's a Freudian slip. I obviously have a strong disdain not just for the Big Lie (too close to what my parents once had to endure under Communism) and concern about what leads many to accept false witness in our churchgoing nation, but also for the mean girl and bully boy tactics on display in the halls of schools sometimes. We face too many problems as a nation to leave them to the posturing jocks and the mean spirited Queen Bee types we all remember from high school, who know nothing of the responsibilities involved in the student council and just throw verbal spitballs from outside.

Maarja Krusten - 11/12/2010

I call BS on Joe Sixpack learning anything about Obama from Rush, "Shawn" (its Sean), Laura, and Beck. All they've done is tell their well meaning listeners, whom they could have helped to be stronger, how to walk with crutches. That just leads to atrophying of muscles that could instead have been made stronger. In the case of the blather fed to listners by the people you named, much of it just has encouraged magical thinking.

Sure, some listeners may have thought they learned something from Rush et al. But why did that "teaching" have to include so many smears and outright lies? Why in the marketplace of ideas did they feel they had bring brass knuckles to an ordinary fist fight between two sides, both legitimate contenders? Why the lack of manliness?

We used to do quite well in the U.S. without having demeagogues resort to the fabrication of enemies and the repetition of Big Lies, as they do in totalitarian states. Some of us still resist that here in the U.S. Sure, there always have been demagogues, but there never has been so strong a sense of contempt for conservatism as the radio and tv blowhards you named have shown to the honorable, decent, hard working, inherently patriotic people to look around for help in sorting through issues that confound them. I say contempt because resorting to lies tells me the speaker has no confidence in what he is selling. And perhaps no confidence in the American, small d democratic model. There was no need for Rush to tell his listners to hold their hands over their ears and prattle lalalalalala:

If Rush et al. had more confidence in their ideologies and positions, they wouldn't resort telling people not to listen to a president or bleating about "death panels." Weak sisters.

It is what it is. Perhaps too many people have gotten used to the comfort food drivel they spoon out to their listners to walk away from it. It weakens America. Sure, it may lead to some short term gains. But we all meet our Maker in the end.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 11/11/2010

Apart from the worries about the deficit, unemployment, the arrival of EU-style socialized medicine, the mortgage foreclosures and other regularly cited reasons for the Republican landslide, none of the PC reporters ever mentioned prior to his election in 2008 that Obama had a strong affinity for Islam and mosques, and close relationships with dangerous communists. Millions of voters who get thir news only from the liberal media in three-minute bursts on their car radios, have now absorbed this background about Obama for two years from Rush, Shawn, Laura and Beck, et al., and now know that there are some serious problems with this guy. The hostile middle is continuing to swell, and by 2012 it seems unlikely Barack will even seek renomination. If he does, the Democrats will have to let him run again and go down in flames very badly, because otherwise they would antagonize their black vote--without which their party would have no chance with any candidate.

Cary Fraser - 11/9/2010

Is there a relationship beteen the rise of magical thinking and the decline in the performance of the educational system?

Maarja Krusten - 11/8/2010

Thanks much, I'll check it out.

As to your last comment I would add also magical thinking regarding economic and fiscal issues, and I say that having voted for Reagan twice. The U.S. is paying an incredible price for that. Not sure what the source was. A secular form of the Prosperity Gospel that some churches here started preaching during the last 10 years? Maybe. Unlike some who ignored them, the deficit issues really started to alarm me while he still was in office.

Cary Fraser - 11/8/2010

The url is: Trinidad and Tobago Review
www.tntreview.com/ - Similar and you type in my name in the search box and several articles under my name will appear. Just scroll down to look for A Presidency Besieged.

On the issue of what has happened in American life, I would suggest that Reagan's Presidency legitimized the politics of a false nostalgia - and the society at arge has yet to recognize the problem.

Maarja Krusten - 11/8/2010

Thank you, Mr. Fraser, that's is very interesting. Do you happen to have a link for your full article?

Every time period is different, which is why I cautioned Dr. Troy (unfortunately MIA) to consider the peculiar characteristics of some of Obama's opposition. Consider the rise in anti-intellectualism and emotivism. In Carter's day, people were weary, and looking for a lift, which Reagan's optimistic vision of the U.S. provided. (I voted for Reagan primarily for foreign policy reasons related to the Cold War.) Many voters were reachable through appeals to fairness and reason and presentation of facts.

In the late 1970s, the public face of the right in America was not the John Birch Society or Rush Limbaugh but Willliam F. Buckley, host of the "Firing Line" program on tv. Of course, there were still Birchers around, as there were nascent Limbaugh fans. But conservatives still were able (allowed to) accept a Buckley as their public face.

Now, Rick Perlstein writes that the U.S. is becoming a mendocracy. Rush Limbaugh can say to his listeners, "Pay no attention to what Obama says. He means the opposite in most cases. What he says is irrelevant." Perlstein points to this type of lie about a President as an abandonment of the social contract.

There might have been a time when a radio pundit told listeners the President of the United States simply lies in most cases and many listners would reach for the dial to find another station, never to return. Not so now. If that doesn't signal dysfunction, I don't know what does.

As for the anti-intellectualism, some of it reminds me of the campus demonstrations against ROTC during and after the Vietnam War. Not in the source of the protest, but in the sense of some people saying, "no, no, no, we won't have you here, begone, we don't need or want you." Except now, instead of being directed at the military from the left, among others, it's directed at academics from some on the right. And right wing academics for the most part are just standing by and letting some spokesmen for the right slide down the slippery slope of relying too much on lies, just as some moderate students kept quiet in the face of some of the excesses of the New Left during the Vietnam era. Given the age of some of the angriest people on the right at present, I sometimes wonder if what so far has been presented as pure fiscal conservatism actually isn't for some of them an attempt to re-litigate the Vietnam War and keep the culture wars going.

What I haven't been able to figure out is how U.S. conservatism, with its tough veneer, came to be personified by figures who seem as lacking in confidence as to its basic tenets and appeal as Limbaugh seems to be. People confident in the foundation of their thinking don't demagogue or lie, they project serenity. They add adherents through that, rather than repelling all except those who think exactly as they do. They keep their cool, unlike Limbaugh whose style is hot and angry and insistent.

Something changed the right from the period of Carter's administration, when people thought of Buckley and Reagan, to one where they think of Limbaugh. That U.S. conservatism has become strangely fragile (Fox News is another marker of inherent fragility) fascinates me. It's anybody's guess as to what it will take to make people on the right reject demagoguery, re-develop confidence in their ideology, and turn to models that reward civic courage and independent thinking rather than shrill rhetoric and conformity.

Cary Fraser - 11/8/2010

You may find the following citation of interest.

"In effect, the challenges to Obama should encourage him to consider the fate that befell Jimmy Carter even as the current crisis is well beyond the context of the latter’s Presidency. As he moves forward to address the long-term erosion of American power and legitimacy, Obama may find useful the recent observations of Paul Volcker who served as Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board during the Carter administration and serves an advisor to the Obama administration. In a recent interview with Der Spiegel, Volcker – in response to a question about his expectations “in the very near future” – said: “As an American, I have to be an optimist. But we have got a big challenge and we have to face up to it. And as you know, there is a lot of concern about the dysfunction of the political system.”
As Jimmy Carter’s experience revealed – even if an American President recognizes that serious change has to be undertaken, he can easily become a victim of the political dysfunction that has defined American politics in recent decades. Obama’s capacity to transcend that dysfunction will determine the course and success of his Presidency."

It was published in an essay - A Presidency Besieged - I wrote for the Trinidad and Tobago Review on January 4, 2010. (available online)

Maarja Krusten - 11/7/2010

See this letter from an unselfish senior (yes, there are such people out there.) I myself know a 90 year old who is appalled by the demagoguing that surrounds so many issues these days. While she votes GOP, she feels sorry for what Obama has had to endure. So there are principled voters out there in both parties.


Maarja Krusten - 11/7/2010

You are exactly right about the extent to which people deluded themselves that they were entitled to live beyond their means (pull out the plastic) and that, as Cheney later said, "deficits don't matter." And the increase in personal and public debt began to skyrocket under Reagan. I voted for Reagan in 1980 -- his optimistic, confident Republicanism was very attractive (shining city on the hill, morning in America). But if you go back and read what has been labeled as Jimmy Carter's "malaise" speech, that really was what every American president since then should have told the people. No one has dared to speak truth to political power as represented by voters that way after Carter's defeat. But Carter’s speech is how a grown up talks to other grown ups:

I haven't had time to think through exactly how the public came to embrace after 1980 (or to insist from politicians) the "you are a good person. It is not your fault" mantra that Ta-Nehisi Coates captures perfectly at

What is the source of this requirement that leaders infantilize the public in their dealing with it? There is an incredible disconnect between the widespread notion that "you have to baby and praise the public, it's the only rhetorical approach they'll reward" we see in politics, and the pragmatism and fact based decision making you see in well run businesses and organization. What I haven’t figured out yet is the role of religion, and why when combined with political conservatism, it has led to weakening, not strengthening, of the civic fabric and moral fiber of the country.

Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Dish comes the closest to unraveling this. The gay, HIV positive Catholic is one of the bravest bloggers I've seen in terms of tackling tough issues relating to character and integrity and secular and religious values. (By contrast, the self congratulating, low-risk opining Cornerites often seem laughable to me.) Sullivan even discusses issues such as "Hallmark Christianity.” That voters fall for lies and demagoguery so easily surprises me sometimes, given the religiosity of many Americans. And I am myself a Christian, albeit mainstream Protestant. However, the congregation for the church I attend is composed mostly of aging refugees from Soviet communism, so I don’t have a good finger on the pulse of the American church going public. So I tend to be blindsided by some voters’ poor choices on matters of civic courage and integrity.

It's odd to see that for all our churchgoing, faith hasn't made more Americans stronger or resilient or “willing to work the steps”as they say in AA. Or more resistant to the pull of blame games and lies and morally reprehensible political tactics (such as the flyers in 2004 saying John Kerry would ban the bible in Arkansas, if I remember the state correctly). Somehow the combination of the political and the religious on the right has resulted not in a move towards self examination, self improvement and personal responsibility but to cheering by many of blame shifting and finger pointing. What might have happened to these well meaning, patriotic in their own way, people, had Carter’s 1979 speech not have come to seem toxic? Many of them are good, decent, well meaning people after all. But now perhaps unreachable by a President, whether he is humble or not. But there it is, no escaping it.

Clarence R. Smith - 11/7/2010

If the President wants one term then he should just ask if the House won't just please be adults about this awkward situation and help find common ground with him on the many things we humans have in common.

If President Obama scrapes and pleads for this Republican House to give him his re-election by letting him govern in a moderate and unifying fashion I assure you their response will be NO! They will then send him as many veto magnets as they can get through the Senate.

He should accomodate them by using that sharpest instrument in his Constitutional armory, the veto pen, freely.

Only by drawing a clear line between himself and what will continue to be a very unpopular and almost certainly now a reactionary House will he ever have a chance to see another term.

His model should be Truman. Obama needs to develop the fire in the belly that Truman developed - the only thing that might possibly allow him to survive his difficult start will be confrontation with a hostile Congress.

That line between the House and President Obama should be drawn sharply and it's boundaries determined by a real search for whats best for the country's uncertain future. There is no middle ground for the President to find in his coming confrontation with the House. He should not even try. He should simply give them Hell!

Maarja Krusten - 11/7/2010

I hope some of you had a chance to read if not engage with Jeremy Young when he still blogged at "Progressive Historians." He provided a model for holding firm, principled positions but dealing with posters with civility. We didn't always see things the same way but unlike those who used taunts in engaging with readers, I ALWAYS considered what Jeremy wrote in blog posts and in engaging with commenters. Despite the fact that I'm an Independent. (Just this week, someone told me s/he was convinced I am a conservative and a day later someone else said s/he was sure I am a Democrat. I'm neither.)

Jeremy also was man enough to rethink some of his initial reactions -- and to admit that publicly. Even to write that he was wrong. Going where the facts take you and admitting what you don’t know is a core requirement for data gathering and critical thinking but not always displayed on some of the “Father Knows Best” blogs.

Last month, a right wing poster here on HNN who was tired of my mentioning my work told me in a comment posted here that at most he would allow me to curate urinating cats in his apartment. I later mentioned that in three venues which included politically conservative men. In two, no one uttered a peep of protest against the taunt. But in a third, involving a one-on-one exchange, the GOP listener shook his head and said whenever someone engaged in such ad hominems, he mentally automatically called a balk and awarded the target the base. In only one forum out of three did a conservative say the taunt was unwarranted. Maybe that reflects the troubled age and incivility enabling age in which we live.

Although young in more than surname :-) Jeremy kept his cool at his blog while taking principled stands. No Limbaugh style demagoguery or taunts about urinating cats from him. Jeremy served the history profession well while he blogged. Much better than the history professor who sneered at a history grad student that he was "p!ssing in the pond" of the blog owner. Unfortunately, that particular student left the field of history soon thereafter (he used to appear here on HNN). History's loss. I hope Jeremy retains the good qualities he has displayed to date as he deals with the vicissitudes that can affect people's careers. Regardless of ideological position, we need more people who can model firmness but civility.

Jeremy -- dude, you're solid.

Maarja Krusten - 11/7/2010

I wrote "it works best." I obviously mean civility, not name calling (LOL)

Maarja Krusten - 11/7/2010

Hi, Jeremy,

I haven't see Dr. Troy respond to comments under any of his essays in a while -- months, if not over a year now. I hope you have more luck in drawing him out than the rest of us have but I tend to think he won't respond. Most right leaning scholars are likely to sit this one out, also, given past practices and the sources of the greatest incivility these days.

Do you mind if I offer a few observations? Civility has a number of components, some individual, some structural (as in how an organization functions in terms of its different and opposing elements). In dealing with voters, one has to consider the audience. Civility can win over some people (moderates, swing voters). It won’t work with others.

To the extent that Rush Limbaugh and Fox News represent some voters, civility is likely not to affect those who admire their approach to issues. Limbaugh is a classic marshmellow, soft on the inside, wrapped in aluminum foil, pretending to be a man of iron. You know the poster at a civil right museum that shows young black civil rights advocates from the late 1950s and early 1960s and says they must have been really strong because “we’re still standing on their shoulders?” That’s the antithesis of Limbaugh and his ilk. Limbaugh is unlikely ever to do what the young SNCC students that civil rights leader John Lewis once led in Nashville did.

Or Viola Liuzzo, the white woman who came to Alabama from Detroit to help the marchers at Selma and was shot dead by Klansmen in 1965. Some people then had deep seated values of what is right and what is wrong. The models for such civic courage have faded in America. (I can think of no one on the current scene who matches the sheer courage of the black and white, local and out of state, civil rights activists in the South during 1956-1965.) My friend John Taylor, Nixon’s former chief of staff and former director of the Nixon foundation, told me that his mother, Jean Sharley Taylor, a reporter in Detroit, received threats of violence for writing about Liuzzo. As a little boy, he remembers police protection around their home as a result. Mrs. Taylor, a white woman and mother of a future GOP official, stuck to professional standards and told it like it was. Of course, that was before comfort inducing echo chamber niche sites blinded many Americans to the value of that. And Limbaugh and Fox had sissified some on the right.

When Joe Scarbough wrote “thank you, Mr. President” about Barack and Michelle Obama’s trip to Denmark in a failed bid to win the Olympics for America, Limbaugh called Scarborough "a neutered chickified moderate." Limbaugh often uses such language – the language of a bully. Far from signaling strength and confidence, it shows that Limbaugh fundamentally doesn’t understand manliness and civic courage. Yet it is possible to rebut a Limbaugh firmly and like a man, but without great incivility. John Lewis and Martin Luther King took terrible verbal and physical blows from spiritually and morally smaller men (however hulking the bullies were physically) but prevailed through the core rightness of their cause and greater nobility of character.

Name calling isn’t the only way – but it works best with people who understand nobility of character and who have core integrity. Beating back or outmanuevering those who don’t is much more challenging and requires consideration of the sources of their inherent weaknesses. Which means thinking about what they are afraid of.

Stephen K Mack - 11/7/2010

Professor Troy lives in the Alternate Universe of Centrist Delusion.This geographical location affords a view of the actual that we located in the Real World cannot obtain. Mr. Obama's failure is not that he didn't govern from the Center but that the Center had moved to the left as a result of his election and that the Republican Party, in shock over its losses of 2008, simply became the Party of No. One cannot govern from a political center that does not exist, because the minority party looks upon political compromise as anathema. And its newly elected Jacobin wing looks upon all of Washington as a political Gomorrah-this is the locus of the much prognosticated gridlock. Mr. Obama has governed as a New Democrat which could be defined as evidence of a real political timidity, at least from the perspective of this leftist. Being humble is not what the Presidency is about or what leadership is about.A leader, at the least, must know what he/she believes and be willing to change, in the face of the possibility of new empirical evidence, that can and may be indicative of a paradigm shift in his/her own thinking/believing system. Humble governance is an a contradiction that cannot stand. Substantive governance is an ideal worthy of our aspiration.

Jeremy Young - 11/7/2010

Mr. Troy, I'd like to ask you one question: why is civility more important than any given political issue? Whether you think that what's wrong with America is the ballooning deficit, the growing government, rising unemployment, worrying climate change, a looming battle over immigration, or whatever issue you think is most pressing for Americans to face -- why isn't that issue more important than civility? Do you think anybody cares whether climate change is halted civilly or uncivilly? Isn't the passage of bills the end goal of governance? Or do you really think there's nothing wrong with America a little civility can't fix?

Maarja Krusten - 11/6/2010

Someone may point out that there are conservative scholars who blog. Yep, I know that. If there is one who has spent, no strike that, risked his professional capital and perhaps his job by rebuffing Fox's and Limbaugh's and The Corner's approach by reaching out to conservative voters to explain that fact based analysis is not the purview of unpatriotic elites, I haven't seen it. Or that you can't praise the business model of executive action and management without acknowledging that if you don't have access to data, you can't study what worked and what didn't and learn lessons. I’ve seen professional capital wasted on low risk “my kind are good, your kind are bad” stuff that follows the lead of the cable and radio blowhards. I haven’t seen many stand up and be counted in pushback against lies by their ideological brethern outside the academy.

Even if they don't use triumphalism and emotivism in their own writing, conservative scholars have seemed very timid about pushing back against demagoguery on their own side. Unlike Peggy Noonan, who wrote this week that "You have to be able to bring people in and along. You can't just bully them, you can't just assert and taunt, you have to be able to persuade." Which is exactly what I have argued for a long time.

Links, please, to any conservative scholar who has pushed back against right leaning private sector attempts to fire or topple National Archives' officials and the use of character assassination to resolve archival public access and exhibit issues. Or expressed dismay at the reported threats from former private sector GOP operatives of "we'll get you for this" after segments of Nixon's tapes were released by NARA a few years ago? Or even posted a low risk, noncommittal "thanks for providing an account of your experiences" under any articles about NARA by the two or three people who have authored some for HNN.

It's not as if some of the hardball tactics haven't been made public. Not just by me. Go back in Nexis and read the expressed support by The Washington Times in 1994 for "limited access policy" and the accompanying snark about "liberal activists" wanting access to Reagan's records. Or the article this summer in The New York Times about Dr. Naftali's efforts to mount a Watergate exhibit. Or Sy Hersh's "Nixon's Last Cover-up."


Maarja Krusten - 11/6/2010

Dr. Troy, when you started this blog, we had some nice exchanges about the need for scholars to water the seeds they planted. (Engage with readers at their blogs.) Jill Lepore's analysis of the roots of antihistory demonstrate some of the results of the withdrawal into the Ivory Tower by many liberal, conservative, and moderate scholars.
See "The Party of Antihistory" at

Is it too late to undo the disdain for historians we see among many voters? And the casual acceptance of lies and factually unsound premises that Timothy Burke has worried about? I don't know. But since you studied Reagan, you may want to consider some of the differences between the present and what past presidents faced.

Elements to consider from someone who once considered herself a conservative and voted for Nixon, Ford, and Reagan. Conservatism once relied on acceptance of personal responsibility and foundational Christian values, including a rejection of false witness. Presidents such as Nixon could call on a Silent Majority, the backbone of America, to be a force for moderation and support for his administration. Extremists were on the fringes and could be painted as outliers.

Things are very different now. After Reagan left office, many on the right fell into a morass of blame shifting, victimology and grievance and embraced a very superficial version of personal responsibility. Some conservative voters now happily embrace lies and non-factual presentations. And as Ta Nehisi Coates observes, too many voters now have become addicted to “the comfort food” of being told they are good, nothing is their fault. http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/11/toward-a-populist-obama/66126/

Add to that the superficially strong and patriotic but really weakening and divisive, tribal rather than national, appeal of some cable tv and talk radio blowhards on the right and you can see how values have corroded. Can humility work against such corrosion?

George W. Bush has said that while he is on the other side on many policy issues, he wants the President to succeed because when he does well, the country does well. Is this quaint or mainstream in an age when Limbaugh’s call for Obama to fail appealS to many right leaning voters? As Charles Blow observes today in the NYT, "That ripping sound you hear is the fabric of a nation."

Where are the scholars on the right on tough issues relating to character and the value of fact based presentations? Missing in action, as they have been for years, and not just on issues such as Timothy Naftali’s current struggles in the face of extreme adversity (only partly visible in public) to mount a fact based exhibit at the Nixon Presidential Library. The National Archives' struggles with the presidential foundations represent a microcosm in the battle between factual analysis and triumphalism. Through their silence since the early 1990s on NARA public access issues, conservative scholars have helped undermine the public's ability to understand the value of studying the good, the bad, and the ugly. They paved the way for emotivism.

Why did it take a former Republican member of Congress and tv host (Joe Scarborough) rather than a conservative scholar on HNN to write this commentary

Why did I have to give up on Richard Jensen’s Conservativenet mailing list, after seeing one reference too many to teleprompters, guesses about Obama’s past actions which even a high school student with access to Google could have corrected, and comparisons of the present economic situation to that after World War II? (Um, no, That pent up demand after World War II boosted the economy offers no model for the present, however. It was based on artificially induced wartime saving and deferral of purchases, not on credit related issues. Credit cards did not start to be used very widely among the broader populace until the late 1970s or 1980s.)

Policy aside (not an area I can discuss), Obama thought he had a mandate to govern as a grown up. He himself has admitted that he concentrated on outcomes, not on selling them. What seemed in 2008 like acceptance by many Americans of his (in my view) heartfelt rhetoric about Americans being a strong, resilient, noble people was to some extent illusory. In high school terms, the bully boys and mean girls of cable tv and talk radio proved more appealing to many in the crowd than did his somewhat remote, intellectual approach. In a world where many voters have been conditioned to believe that everything is someone else’s fault, and that facts don't matter, humility may or may not work.

Cary Fraser - 11/6/2010

There may be many criticims of Barack Obama but I am not sure that his leadership has demonstrated either a lack of substance or a lack of humility. One of the fundamental issues that is at the root of his current predicament is that he leads a society which has deluded itself for several decades that it was entitled to live beyond its means. He seems to have assumed that reassuring the American people that he is serious and seeking long-term solutions to American fiscal and intellectual bankruptcy would be enough to persuade them that he should remain President. He is not an historian but he may need to start thinking about the consequences of unrestrained demagoguery for the fate of the Weimar Republic.

Bernie Kubiak - 11/6/2010

or so the old saying goes. The "Obama fail" campaign began hours after the election and continues today. Obama is a centrist, much to the chagrin of many (myself included). We can expect the government will grind to a halt, endless investigations, unfilled vacancies and a failed attempt by the Democrats to reform the Senate rules that should have been tossed out two years ago.

Tim Matthewson - 11/6/2010

Humility never plays well in politics. In fact that's been the problem with the Obama Presidency to day. Too much humility.
Now is the time to take a page form George W. Bush's play book. Just because you position is weak and you have no mandate, don't go limp.
Declare war on the Republicans! Ram thru all project; force the opposition to relent!
Humility will lead to defear in 2012!

Tim Matthewson - 11/6/2010

Humility never plays well in politics. In fact that's been the problem with the Obama Presidency to day. Too much humility.
Now is the time to take a page form George W. Bush's play book. Just because you position is weak and you have no mandate, don't go limp.
Declare war on the Republicans! Ram thru all project; force the opposition to relent!
Humility will lead to defear in 2012!

Ning Zhou - 11/5/2010

UGG Shoes is a kind of healthy shoes which can make your foot health and reduce your back pain of body. At beginning, it is accepted by official person who rare have time to walking. But nowadays it is accepted by more and more people outside. I introduce a good online store which sales the UGG shoes to you, and there are some different type you can choose:UGG Classic Tall 5815,UGG Knightsbridge 5199,UGG Classic Tall 5802,UGG Classic Short 5825,UGG Bailey Button 5803,UGG Ultra Tall Boots 5245,UGG Sundance Ⅱ 5325,UGG Night Fall 5359,UGG Classic Tall Roxy 5818,UGG Classic Cardy 5819,UGG Classic Tall Stripe Cable Knit 5822,UGG Classic Mini 5854,UGG Classic Argyle Knit 5879,UGG Suburb Crochet 5124,UGG Mayfaire 5116. All the shoes are high quality and cheap. You must be satisfied with it!

Jonathan Dresner - 11/5/2010

Unless the definitions of right and left have changed radically recently, Obama's been quite consistently - and shockingly modestly given the expectations on the left & right - working from the center more or less since he started. The absurdity of Fox/Beck rhetoric aside, Obama's pro-business, effective government, negotiate-until-the-cows-come-home-from-a-starting-position-which-would-have-made-Republicans-jump-for-joy-ten-years-ago style is the very definition of centrist.

Theo Prinse - 11/4/2010

McConnell says nothing on Shariah; the threat to America. Lets asume Mitch is aware that East Coast, Upper West Side postmodern, culture relativist, multi culturalist pastiche-taqiyya intellectualism is paving-by-flirting the way for the islamicization of the USA and therefore, the stealth & kinetic Jihad just diversionary tactic. Thats why accusations on marxism, socialism, 44 Carz supported alienation of the Kenyan etc is moraly legitimized critique. (Prinse - the Netherlands)

Jonathan Pine - 11/4/2010

“Obama must learn his lesson from this political drubbing. To redeem his presidency, he must do what he originally promised to do, lead from the center—humbly and substantively.”

Despite getting a severe beating Obama recently declared that he would follow the same strategy – so apparently no lesson has been learned unless he soon decides to grow balls.

What’s the point of Obama leading from the center when a genuine Republican will be able to do the same thing in 2012? And he’s been pretty humble already the last two years with his bipartisan drivel. And what did that get him except disrespect, sneers and irrational personal attacks from many Republican politicians. With tears in his eyes, the next speaker of the house declared he will not let his party down, in effect declaring war against Obama. The Republicans in Congress will now be able to block all policy proposals for the next two years. This destruction is their declared goal. True centrism will NEVER be possible like this.

“Barack Obama did not just promise “hope and change,” he promised a new kind of politics.”

We are all entitled to our own interpretation but I haven’t seen any new politics unless you count the new level of volatility of American politics. As for promises. During his campaign I read what Obama posted of what he would do if elected and from what I read there where no definite promises in print, except that he would increase the number of troops in Afghanistan and that we would all have to buckle down to a program of austerity while the middle class paid the bills for Wall Street bailouts. The promise of “Hope and Change” a pastor of a mega-church throws out to his marks while he empties their pockets, in Obama’s case it was a concept vague enough to attract uniformed and informed to confect whatever they thought it meant.