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.
The downgrading of America’s credit rating just days after the debt ceiling fight ended risk branding Barack Obama’s presidency as an historic failure. The S and P analysts made it clear that they were passing political judgment on the United States, not just making an economic assessment. While Republicans clearly share the blame for American political gridlock, Obama shoulders most of the burden as the Chief Executive of the United States of America.
The perception of American paralysis reflects deep ideological divisions in the country as well as disturbing management failures in the Oval Office. Barack Obama is smart, eloquent, talent but inexperienced as an executive. As a community organizer, an academic, a senator on the state and national levels, he has led but not managed. The presidency is an executive position and it is not a place for on-the-job-training, especially during times of economic catastrophe.
The debt ceiling fight and the ensuing downgrade proved yet again that few politicians fear the current President. Barack Obama seemingly skipped the section in Machiavelli which teaches “it is much safer to be feared than loved.” So far, he has proved himself to be as tough as terrycloth.
Obama’s dainty presidency will continue drifting until both Democrats and Republicans, in Congress and in the Executive Branch, learn that crossing the President has a cost, and that this President, like other strong leaders, will wreak vengeance on errant allies as well as political enemies.
Petulance is not enough. President Obama has repeatedly denounced the Republicans as obstructionist. But these displays of presidential piqué backfired, legitimizing Tea Party claims to being independent trouble makers. Moreover, Obama’s denunciations risk becoming ritualized, more like the fulminations of a substitute teacher who cannot control the class rather than the commands of the disciplinarian assistant principal who restores order.
Obama has long struggled with this problem of presidential wimpiness. Rahm Emanuel swaggered into the Oval Office as White House Chief of Staff to be Obama’s enforcer. Stories about Emanuel’s toughness, such as the time he repeatedly stabbed a steak when talking about Bill Clinton’s political enemies, suggested that Obama understood the need for forceful leadership and the need to compensate for his own conciliatory instincts. But years in the House leadership softened Emanuel, making him too deferential to Congress. Congressional Democrats acted with impunity during the two years they enjoyed a majority in both Houses. The result was the health care bill, among other Congressional concoctions, a bill so complex because it indulged so many legislative whims it is difficult for the President to explain clearly in popular terms.
Obama’s most successful predecessors cultivated reputations for toughness. Theodore Roosevelt conceptualized the White House as a bully pulpit for national leadership while understanding the need to bully the occasional critic. Franklin Roosevelt’s famous challenge, "judge me by the enemies I have made," today sounds like a wartime boast to contrast his virtues with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. In fact, Roosevelt made this defiant statement during his 1932 campaign visit to Portland, Oregon, vowing to confront greedy public utilities. As president, Roosevelt perfected various techniques for rewarding friends and punishing enemies. He distributed federal goodies like a tyrannical father doles out love, attention, and allowance, favoring the districts of loyal legislators such as Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson, whose constituents then prospered. Conversely, while historians often emphasize Roosevelt’s failure to unseat the conservative Democratic Congressmen he opposed in 1938, targeting some kept others in line.
Ronald Reagan, like Obama, was constitutionally unable to bully party members who strayed or opponents who obstructed. But Reagan, the great delegator, had aides strong-arm others when necessary. Reagan’s Legislative Strategy Group, the LSG, was particularly effective at tracking allies, enemies, and flip-floppers.Early in Reagan’s tenure, when one Republican, Iowa Senator Roger Jepsen, threatened to stray on a difficult foreign policy vote to sell the air force’s sophisticated AWACS to Saudi Arabia, the LSG kept him in line. “We just beat his brains in,” the White House political director Ed Rollins exulted publicly, if indiscreetly.
More broadly, Reagan knew he had to telegraph toughness, especially because many underestimated him as a mere actor and a political amateur. Reagan entered office at a time of economic upheaval, following the presidency of Jimmy Carter, whose pessimistic sermonizing was mocked in the infamous headline a Boston Globe copyeditor jokingly set and then mistakenly ran: “MUSH FROM THE WIMP.” In August 1981, when members of the Air Traffic Controllers’ Union, PATCO, went on strike, Reagan gave the controllers’ 48-hours to return to work. Two days later, he fired those who continued striking. “I’ve asked so many leading European financiers when and why they started pumping money into this country,” a British businessman based in Washington said years later, “and they all said the same thing: when Reagan broke the controllers’ strike.”
President Obama, like all effective leaders, must remain authentic. Seeking to play the role of the moderate is natural for him, and commendable. But many of America’s most successful presidents understood they had to be muscular moderates, building consensus without playing the patsy. The political scientist Richard Neustadt characterized the power of the Presidency as the power to persuade. In fact, presidential power also comes from the ability to reward and punish, to create careers and destroy others – demanding a ruthlessness in domestic politics Barack Obama has rarely displayed. Celebrities just want to be loved. Leaders, even muscular moderates, should be feared, respected, and, if possible, as an added bonus, loved too.
Barack Obama turns fifty today, August 4th. Both he and his country appear battered these days, as Obama's White House recuperates from the bruising debt ceiling showdown and the United States remains stuck combating two wars along with one long-lasting recession. But the progress Obama and America have made since 1961 is extraordinary—and should remind Obama, along with other doubters, that it is premature to count out America.
The United States into which Barack Obama was born in 1961 was deeply segregated due to an endemic, seemingly unchangeable racism, and profoundly scared due to an implacable, seemingly indestructible foe, the Soviet Union. Just days before young Obama’s birth, on July 25, President John F. Kennedy addressed the nation about the growing showdown in Berlin, warning that the United States would go to war, even nuclear war if necessary, to stop the Soviets from overrunning West Berlin. Nine days after Obama’s birth, on August 13, the Soviets began building the Wall dividing Berlin which would symbolize the Cold War stalemate for the next three decades.
Obama was also born into a world still shellshocked by World War II and the Holocaust—in Israel, Adolph Eichmann’s trial for crimes against humanity was winding down. Demographers count Obama as a Baby Boomer, part of the population explosion and surge in family building that began in 1946 when more than 16 million American GIs began demobilizing. And it is sobering to compare America’s family stability, traditional values, and communal interconnectedness in 1961 with today’s age of disposable relationships, indulgent impulses, and self-involvement. Still, Obama is not a classic Baby Boomer, like Bill and Hillary Clinton. He was too young to watch Howdy Doody as a child, too young to draft-dodge or fight in Vietnam, too young to march for civil rights, too young to lie about having been at Woodstock—in 1969 when he was nine. Instead Obama, and his wife Michelle, watched the Brady Bunch when they were kids—it was Michelle’s favorite show—and came of age politically during Ronald Reagan’s 1980s.
Becoming an adult in the Reagan era—Reagan became president in 1981 when Obama was twenty—Obama learned from liberalism’s excesses in the 1960s. In his book Audacity of Hope, Obama shows a sensitivity to cultural forces that his politically-obsessed Baby Boomer elders lacked. He saw the failures of the Great Society, economically, politically, culturally. He learned the limits of liberalism and Big Government, discovering that politics cannot shape everything, that culture, tradition, patriotism, religion, community matter. Yet, as a product of the politically correct 1980s—and by the late 1980s Harvard Law School at the height of PC-mania—Obama absorbed a series of assumptions that continue to color his worldview. Domestically, the intense opposition to Ronald Reagan caricatured the Republican Party as the party of greed, corporate America as more irresponsible than innovative, and white male culture as bitter and bigoted. Regarding foreign policy, the fights against nuclear proliferation, South African apartheid, and Reagan’s policies in Central America, crystallized biases against American power and in favor of the Third World, even as Reagan’s military resurgence helped bankrupt the Soviet Union, leading to America’s victory in the once-seemingly unwinnable Cold War.
This mishmash of impulses, recoiling from classic Sixties liberalism and the Reagan counter-revolution, explains some of the paradoxes and blindspots in Obama’s presidency so far. He can infuriate his liberal allies by accepting budget cuts, and by championing moderation, because he saw in 1980, 1984, and 1988 how addictions to liberal orthodoxy killed Democratic presidential prospects. But by blaming the financial crash on corporate greed and Republican deregulation, without acknowledging Democratic culpability in demanding easy access to mortgages, he could fill his team with Clinton-era retreads who helped trigger the crisis, and, when pressured, resorts to a politics of petulance and finger-pointing that belies his more moderate impulses. In dealing with the world, his PC-politics explain his apologias for America’s alleged sins, his unconscionable preference for an illusory engagement with Mahmound Ahmadinejad rather than bravely endorsing freedom when Iranian dissidents first rebelled, his instinctive sympathy for the Palestinians, his inexplicable dithering on the Syrian file, and his penchant for disappointing American allies. At the same time, he learned enough from Reagan’s assertiveness, and was traumatized enough a decade ago during September 11th, that he has given the kill order when confronting pirates at sea, intensified the technique of assassination by drone aircraft, reinforced America’s presence in Afghanistan, and hunted down Osama Bin Laden unapologetically.
The poet T.S. Eliot called the years between fifty and seventy “the hardest” because “You are always being asked to do things, and yet you are not decrepit enough to turn them down.” For the next year and a half, and possibly for the next five and a half years, Barack Obama will be asked to do heroic things, daily, lacking the luxury of refusing most requests. When he started campaigning for the presidency, had he anticipated how devastated the U.S. economy would be, he would have shorted the market. Instead, he has had a much tougher slog in office than he ever anticipated. As he passes his personal milestone, and anticipates his re-election campaign, he should reflect on all the changes America has experienced in his brief lifetime. In particular, communism’s defeat, and racism’s retreat, along with the dazzling array of technological miracles Americans engineered, should remind him of America’s extraordinary adaptability, steering him toward a more Reaganite faith in the American people and American nationalism, and away from his current, Jimmy Carteresque doubts about Americans and their ability to continue to prosper and to lead the world.