Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of
The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and
Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama . His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is giltroy.com. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.
Fueled particularly by Washington, DC’s African-Americans, who came out in droves, Obamania gripped America’s grand but all too frequently cynical capital city. The outer lane of “K” Street, infamous for its slick lobbyists, became a bazaar with hawkers selling cheap knickknacks emblazoned with messianic sentiments: “Yes We Did” on a bumper sticker; “Never Give Up on Your Dreams,” on a commemorative booklet”; “The Healing Process Has Begun” on a banner; “A Legacy of Hope” featuring beatific images of Barack Obama and Martin Luther King on a poster; and “Thank You Jesus, We Never Would Have Made It Without You” on a T-shirt. One Moroccan immigrant kept saying, “Only in America, only in America,” as he watched the self-described skinny kid with a funny name become president amid such a worshipful crowd.
At the inauguration, Obama seemed sobered by America’s unrealistic expectations despite such crushing challenges. While Obama’s inauguration was moving, his address was muted. Now, Obama is such a master speechmaker that, as with Babe Ruth swinging a bat, anything less than a game-winning homer disappoints. Still, Obama seemed determined to manage Americans’ expectations, warning that America’s problems could not be solved simply by sloganeering.
Obama understands that the growing cult of personality surrounding him is a great asset, giving him a mandate to succeed. But he also knows that hope is like a balloon, if properly inflated it soars into the sky, dazzling, delighting, and elevating; but if overblown, it pops. The frenzied hopes his election triggered could sour.
Shrewdly, pragmatically, constructively, Obama wants to channel this energy into a badly needed sense of communal renewal. His campaign slogan was “Yes We Can,” not “Yes I Can.” He is continuing the initiative he began with his lyrical, extraordinary 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, trying to articulate a vision of liberal American nationalism that works for the 21st century. Obama’s repudiation in 2004 of the “red America” versus “blue America” division, his inaugural celebration of “our patchwork heritage” as a “strength not a weakness,” seeks to forge a new nationalist center that heals America’s wounds, and revives a sense of community.
Barack Obama is a great nationalist. He understands that while nationalism can be ugly and destructive, it can also be a force for good. Nationalism is community writ large; it can pull individuals out of their selfish orbits, launching them into a universe of good works and great achievements. In his inaugural address, trying to solve the decades-long debate about the size of government, Obama reframed the question, saying, “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.” He then articulated an activist nationalist vision that empowered the people, saying “For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.”
Similarly, regarding foreign policy, Obama tried to resolve the fight between realists emphasizing America’s needs and idealists hoping to spread democracy and other American ideals worldwide. Thanks to the backlash against George W. Bush’s overselling of democratic hopes in Iraq and elsewhere, the realist school is ascendant – frequently displaying a strong isolationist streak. Obama’s initial campaign focus on just getting out of Iraq played to Americans’ historic isolationism. But minutes into the job, Obama already acknowledged that the world looks very different when viewed from the Oval Office’s big, bullet-proof, picture window. Moreover, the surge’s success in Iraq stabilized the situation, precluding a quick withdrawal. And while Obama relies on some realist advisers, he is imprisoned by his own soaring rhetoric and aspirations. Obama does not just want his administration focusing on what is right for his country; he wants what is right for his country to be right for the world. Just as true isolationism is impossible for the world’s only superpower; neither can any American, let alone Obama the hope-generator, avoid the idealistic impulses in the country Obama’s hero Abraham Lincoln deemed “the last best hope of earth.” For all those reasons, Obama declared when inaugurated: “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”
In launching his administration, Obama has demonstrated that he just might govern as he speechifies, creating a “Yes We Can” muscular moderation that advances a substantive agenda in ways millions of Americans in the big, broad, pragmatic center can applaud. And during this hopeful moment, when the Obama presidency has only happy tomorrows ahead and no embarrassing yesterdays – yet – we should all join in hoping that this extraordinary politician can live up to the best of his rhetoric and the heady aspirations people are projecting on him, in the streets of Washington, and throughout the world.
Facing such troubles, it would seem that mere words can do little. But the magic of American democracy – and part of the alchemy of leadership – is that the right words and even the right gesture can make history. The inaugural address debuts the president’s Bully Pulpit, with hundreds of millions not just listening, but yearning for direction, especially today.
Back in April 30, 1789, a visibly nervous George Washington delivered the country’s first inaugural address. The great man’s humility – his awkward gestures and trembling hands -- moved the crowd. Many rejoiced that they had witnessed virtue personified, with individual and national greatness reinforcing one another.
Twelve years later, Thomas Jefferson entered office during a highly divisive period. He made the moment with words not deeds. Jefferson’s patriotic pronouncement “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists” was healing, reassuring the losing Federalists that they remained Americans.
These two founders paved the way for a rich history of tone-setting inaugural moments. In 1861, Abraham Lincoln tried uniting the country by rhapsodizing about the “mystic chords of memory” binding Americans. Even though the effort failed and a bloody Civil War ensued, four years later, Lincoln welcomed back Southern rebels “with malice toward none and charity toward all.”
In 1933, facing horrific economic conditions, Franklin Roosevelt did three important things Obama should note. First, he reassured Americans, famously saying “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Next, he reoriented Americans away from materialism and excessive individualism back toward core and communal values, saying: “The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.” Finally, and practically, Roosevelt reaffirmed faith in the Constitution as enduring but flexible, suited to meet any emergency.
More recently, in 1961, John Kennedy defined the idealism of a generation by saying “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” And twenty years later, Ronald Reagan rejected Kennedy’s liberalism, launching the age of budget cutting and skepticism about government, saying: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
As Barack Obama speaks on Tuesday, he will repudiate Reagan’s skepticism and resurrect Kennedy’s idealism, endorse Roosevelt’s flexibility and display Lincoln’s humanity, echo Jefferson’s call for unity, and hope, amid all these grandiose aspirations, to channel Washington’s humility. A tall order, indeed. Then again, whoever expected Barack Hussein Obama to be elected?
Most notably, Thomas Jefferson’s ghost was missing. Obama mentions Jefferson admiringly numerous times in “The Audacity of Hope.” Obama cherishes Jefferson's commitment to separation of church and state, his willingness to expand the country and America's governing powers with the Louisiana Purchase despite preferring in principle to keep government small, and his appreciation for an occasional revolutionary breeze blowing through government to shake things up. Jefferson entered office during a highly divisive and unstable period. His inaugural vision saying “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists” was healing and reassuring. This formula of bipartisan unity was essential during America’s first peaceful transition from the governing party to the opposition. Whatever awkwardness George W. Bush and Barack Obama may experience on Inauguration Day will pale compared to the tension between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in 1801. Vice President Jefferson had just defeated his old friend – and boss – in a harsh contest. They only reconciled years later. Finally, Jefferson also confronted sobering challenges overseas and at home, and had to adjust many intellectual and philosophical impulses to the brutal realities.
Harry Truman was a great choice because Obama admires Truman's boldness and vision in forging a postwar order, in creating powerful, effective international organizations and adapting to an entirely new status quo. Obama liked the way both Truman and Dwight Eisenhower focused the nation on addressing big challenges and launched big government programs when necessary, including NASA and the great Federal Highway under Eisenhower.
Reagan was an essential addition. Interviewed in Reno, Nevada, in January 2008, Obama praised Reagan -- as the Times noted – for changing “the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it." Obama wants to be that kind of Reaganesque leader. Obama also learned from Reagan not to rely too much on big government programs, and to value family, faith, and community. Obama respects Reagan as what I call in my book a muscular moderate, understanding the importance of leading from the center.
Obama also hails Clinton for leading from the center, and approved of Clinton’s Third Way attempt to move beyond the 1980s’ polarizing politics. But Clinton is like Obama's sloppier, more fun-loving, older brother. Obama also fears replicating Clinton’s failures. Obama's discipline contrasts with Clinton's appetite for excess. Obama wants to accomplish great things and is wary of Clinton's ultimate legacy as the woulda, coulda, shoulda kid -- a president of tremendous talents but of unrealized potential.
Both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton came into the White House triggering great, what we might now call Obamaesque, hopes – and disappointed millions. Both these Democratic presidencies should serve as cautionary tales for Obama even as he admires Carter's commitment to human rights, and Clinton's centrism (along with his extraordinary political skill). In fact, in “Audacity of Hope,” Obama slams Carter for responding to tremendous challenges including the energy crisis and the great inflation with feeble suggestions to lower the thermostat.
Finally, Obama admires George H.W. Bush for skillfully forging a broad worldwide coalition during the first Gulf War -- and for his innate decency. Obama sensed Bush's discomfort amid Republicans’ hyper-partisanship and hopes to inject more of that decency into American politics. Obama’s respect also reflects the general boon in George H.W. Bush’s reputation, as many built up the father to denigrate the son.
Obama loves presidents who embarked on big ambitious, visionary projects: Jefferson founding the University of Virginia and wanting that on his tombstone, Abraham Lincoln not just freeing the slaves but using government to aid laborers and homesteaders, Eisenhower responding to Sputnik by doubling federal aid to education, shaping a generation of engineers and scientists, then presiding over the formation of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA. These to Obama justify his sweeping vision for a grand national energy project, although he tries to avoid sounding like just another Lyndon Johnson Big Government liberal. Obama wants ambitious projects that harness American creativity not big government bureaucracies. He will happily commune with whichever predecessors he needs to define and promote his own grand legacy.