Clarence Mohr: History and Obama ... Notes for a president who reads

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Clarence Mohr is chair of the University of South Alabama History Department.]

Of the many adjectives used to describe America’s new chief executive, none seems more fitting than the word "literate." Well before the Democratic nomination was decided last fall there were clear indications that in Barack Obama the nation had discovered something quite rare — an ambitious politician who both wrote books and devoured the work of serious thinkers. Articles in The New York Times and other publications revealed that Mr. Obama’s reading tastes ran to philosophy, theology and serious literature, with a smattering of history and public policy journalism. As Inauguration Day approached, press reports noted that the president-elect was studying both Lincoln and FDR as he prepared for the challenges of leadership in a moment of crisis.

History (and historians) can, in fact, offer useful guidance to the new administration. Over and above the television superstars providing historical commentary for cable news programs, one may point to a number of 20th-century scholars whose works speak to larger questions of policy and leadership.

During the 1950s, for example, a group of historians arose who stressed the uniqueness and the indigenous origins of American values and institutions. Their argument, which presumed a longstanding consensus on core values, had clear implications for Cold War policy makers. Daniel Boorstin, a leading spokesman for the "consensus school," argued in his 1953 book "The Genius of American Politics" that the uniqueness of American history offered a compelling argument against seeking to transplant American institutions to other parts of the globe. Instead of seeking to convert other nations to an "American theory of government," Boorstin urged the United States to lead by example. "In the past we have wanted to be judged not by what we could tell the world but by what we could show the world," Boorstin wrote. "It is our experience, not our dogma or our power, that may be the encouragement and the hope of the world." Apparently such books failed to make the reading list of those who formulated the "Bush Doctrine."

If Boorstin’s work offers a cautionary note for those seeking to repair the damage of post-9/11 foreign policy blunders, other writers speak with equal clarity about domestic politics. Much has been made of the parallels between the crisis facing Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 and the circumstances confronting President Obama in 2009. The similarities are real enough but it is important to keep in mind that most of what is commonly called "Roosevelt’s New Deal" did not originate in the White House. In "The Roosevelt Presence" (University of California Press, 1998) and other writings, Patrick J. Maney has stressed that while FDR commanded the spotlight, Congress actually took the lead in drafting New Deal legislation. Only two of the 15 major programs enacted during the celebrated "first hundred days" actually originated with Roosevelt. What made Congress’ accomplishment all the more remarkable, Maney reminds us, was the lack of ideological cohesion at a time when the new Democratic majority contained a strong bloc of Southern conservatives who were opposed by Republican liberals from the Midwest. Then as now, partisan majorities did not translate into automatic legislative support. Maney also provides a lucid discussion of subsequent events including rising public impatience when initial New Deal measures failed to produce quick economic recovery and Roosevelt’s steadily deteriorating relationship with Congress in the years preceding World War II. "The Roosevelt Presence" is a relatively short book, and it should make for highly interesting presidential reading.

In America much can depend upon a president’s personal style. Certainly this was true of FDR, whose executive talents received vivid treatment by the late Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. in his 1960 book "The Coming of the New Deal." Franklin Roosevelt, one learns, came to the nation’s highest office with a clear understanding that members of the executive branch must want his programs to succeed. As president he embraced a competitive approach to administration that encouraged open debate and healthy rivalry among highly talented subordinates. Unwilling to become a prisoner of Washington’s bureaucracy, he insisted upon having multiple sources of information outside of official channels. None of these statements, however, fully captures Roosevelt’s executive skill. "To visualize Roosevelt in action," Schlesinger explains, "one must conceive ... things happening all at once, in chaos and urgency, from NRA, AAA, relief, conservation, and monetary policy to disarmament, the Good Neighbor Policy, Manchuria, Ethiopia, and Hitler, an incessant series of explosions, major and minor, at the presidential desk, with the President nearly always in touch, generally in command, and never disturbed." Like President Obama, FDR had a full plate of problems. Temperament then was an indispensable ingredient of presidential success, as it is now....

Schlesinger’s insights about the presidency deserve particular attention because he combined the roles of scholar and political actor. He took an active part in the 1952 and 1956 presidential campaigns before joining the inner circle of the Kennedy White House in 1961. Combining this practical political experience with deep research into the presidencies of Andrew Jackson and Roosevelt, Schlesinger had much to say about the nature of political leadership. He discerned the quiet power of intellectual demeanor and personal grace in his political hero Adlai Stevenson, whose two unsuccessful presidential bids have often obscured his enduring influence on the Democratic Party. In a diary entry of July 15, 1960, Schlesinger explained the matter as follows:

Under his [Stevenson’s] leadership a revolution took place in the Democratic Party. Almost single-handedly he wrought a transformation in the party’s ideas and style and sense of purpose. Thus no one [at the Democratic convention] in Los Angeles sounded like Harry Truman; all the contenders, even [Lyndon] Johnson were speaking in the spirit and often the idiom of Stevenson, and none more so than Kennedy. Under Truman the essence of the Democratic appeal was to promise benefits; under Kennedy it is to demand sacrifices; what conclusive evidence of the Stevensonian triumph! Kennedy is the heir and executor of the Stevenson revolution.

There is much to indicate that President Obama has an opportunity to play a similar role in refashioning the ideals and refocusing the energies of Americans who have grown weary or cynical about partisan politics. He has already made an excellent beginning, and success in this endeavor might prove his greatest legacy to his party and the nation.

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