Barack Obama: Whig in the White House?

tags: Barack Obama, Whig Party



Robert W. Merry is political editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.

David Brooks, the New York Times columnist who is billed as the conservative op-ed voice at the paper, reached back into the far regions of American political history the other day in search of a bit of advice for President Obama. He said the president should embrace the tradition of the American Whig Party, which operated on the country’s political scene from about 1834 to 1856.

This is a curious analytical illustration for any conservative, which raises the question whether Brooks is truly a conservative. The answer is that he isn’t one. He is a thoughtful and often creative political commentator with some conservative instincts but also an overarching penchant for sidestepping the messy political clashes of our time and pursuing instead ancillary lines of thinking that keep him above the fray. Nobody ever seems to make him mad, certainly not liberals.

The columnist’s sojourn back to the time of the Whig Party illustrates this aspect of Brooks’s work—but also offers an occasion to ponder just what might be the lessons to be derived from the brief story of the Whigs, founded by Henry Clay as a counterweight to the hated Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson, and crushed just two decades later in the crucible of the country’s fearsome slavery debate.

Brooks portrays it as focused on "enhancing opportunity and social mobility" and dedicated to giving "marginalized Americans the tools to compete in a capitalist economy." It fought against the "divisive populist Jacksonians" in championing big public-works projects—roads, canals, bridges—designed to propel America into greatness. Brooks adds the party "believed in expanding immigration along with assimilation and cohesion."...



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