Conrad Black: Obama's Spurious Course Change

Roundup: Historians' Take

Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom,Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and, just released, A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at

...Every presidential nominee who has been elected in a party regime change in the last century has defined a course change in his campaign, even if it proved to be spurious. Woodrow Wilson was going to end Taft’s “dollar diplomacy,” attack monopolies more strenuously, and found a central bank (and he did so). Warren Harding was going to avoid “submergence in internationalism” and adopt policies for economic growth including tax reductions (and he did so). Franklin D. Roosevelt promised “a New Deal for the American people” and delivered it. Dwight D. Eisenhower promised that he would “go to Korea,” by which he meant end the Korean War, and he did both. John F. Kennedy promised a rather vague New Frontier, which came to include tax reductions and promotion of civil rights for African Americans, as well as closing the alleged “missile gap.” He proposed tax-cut and civil-rights bills, which his successor, Lyndon Johnson, passed after Kennedy’s death, and they discovered that there was no missile gap, so it was indeed closed. Richard Nixon said, “I have a plan” for Vietnam, patting his breast pocket as if he had it with him. He didn’t; it was a complete and amiable fabrication, but he developed one and implemented it. Jimmy Carter promised to end the moral climate of Watergate, and his apologists claim that he did so, even though Gerald Ford had already achieved this. Ronald Reagan promised tax reductions and an arms build-up and delivered them, and they were successful in delivering immense prosperity and the end of the Cold War. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush promised less profound changes, as there was less that the public was worried or angry about when they became president, though Bush promised that there would be no more complaints of sexual harassment or inconstancy against the president, and, of course, there weren’t. Barack Obama promised “hope and change,” including energy conservation, green jobs, “spreading the wealth” around a bit, and increased financial regulation and comprehensive obligatory health care. Mr. Obama has made an effort and some of this has been at least partially achieved, although most voters and observers, including me, don’t think it has worked well....

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