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.
Earlier this month, “Organizing for America,” Obama’s organization reincarnated, arranged 3200 Economic Recovery House Meetings to support Obama’s stimulus package. With Republicans attacking the bill as overloaded with pork, even Obama’s supporters needed reassurance. President Obama recorded a forceful, inspiring, four-minute video, followed by a thirteen minute video with the new Democratic National Chairman. Governor Tim Kaine answered a half dozen questions culled from an impressive 30,000 queries supporters sent about the package.
Mobilizing to support the stimulus was a logical first step. If Obama had failed or even lost too much political capital passing the stimulus, his presidency would have suffered. But becoming the stimulus bill’s public lobby risks making “Organizing for America,” part of the “politics as usual” Obama repudiated. What America really needs is a deeper, more transformational conversation about individual and communal values, using home meetings and social action as platforms to achieve real change. Without being rooted in a renewed American nationalism, bipartisanship will remain a slogan.
“Organizing for America” should learn from the initial success – and eventual failure -- of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Blue Eagle” campaign promoting the NRA, the National Recovery Administration. This early New Deal program began flamboyantly. The president invited Americans who followed the NRA’s business, labor or consumer codes to display an iconic blue eagle with the slogan “We Do Our Part.” Suddenly, in the summer and fall of 1933, the image appeared everywhere, on store fronts and front windows, in shops and factories.
The hoopla engaged millions otherwise paralyzed by despair. It confirmed Americans’ impression that Roosevelt was providing a “New Deal.” Alas, all that good will, communal energy, and national vision dissipated quickly. The codes for fixing prices and limiting competition soon had many mocking the NRA as the National Run Around. When the Supreme Court declared the NRA unconstitutional, even Roosevelt was relieved.
The day before Inauguration Day, an estimated one million Americans joined Obama’s national day of service, volunteering for more than 13,000 service projects. At Washington’s Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium thousands assembled 80,000 care packages for American troops. This impressive outpouring, along with the grassroots power of Obama’s Army during the campaign, reflected Team Obama’s talent in tapping Americans’ idealism and nationalism. Millions agree with Obama that President George W. Bush should have mobilized Americans after 9/11, rather than sending us shopping.
Yet the day of service lacked the branding of Roosevelt’s Blue Eagle. Moreover, like the NRA and the Economic Recovery House Meetings, the occasional burst of voluntarism is not enough. One of America’s most famous community organizers used to challenge neighborhood leaders by asking them “where they put their time, energy and money.” Those are “the true tests of what we value,” Barack Obama insisted in Chicago during the 1980s.
“Organizing for America” must be slicker and more profound, better identified as a force calling on Americans to serve their community while transforming all the good will Obama has generated – even after his rough week – into a transformational conversation about how we live our lives and do politics. The times demand more than the brass bands and blue eagles of the 1930s or the house meetings and mass emailings we have seen so far. If President Obama can get millions investing their time, energy and money into fulfilling his vision, with the same enthusiasm they invested into his campaign, his presidency will be monumental, with the occasional hiring lapses and concessions to Congressional pork upstaged by the renewed citizenship covenant he has so far romanticized but not yet designed.
Let’s imagine what would have happened had George W. Bush entered the White House, with one nominee for Commerce Secretary already withdrawn because of an investigation the most basic background check should have uncovered. All we would have heard about was Republicans’ corruption and Team Bush’s incompetence. Imagine it was followed by a trio of tax slobs, topped by a new Commerce Secretary from across the aisle who realized a week after his nomination that he and the administration were incompatible. (One wonders, did it take that long for Judd Gregg to realize that he was a conservative Republican and that the Republicans lost, he was being hired by a Democratic president?) And then, to top it all off, imagine if one of the tax slackers, who, by the way, was now in charge of the Internal Revenue Service, whose services were so in need his careless paperwork was overlooked, launched a critical financial program in such a nervous, vague, hamhanded way, the stock market plummeted after his presentation. This personnel trainwreck would have created a Tsunami of contemptuous laughter, particularly among reporters, pundits, and comedians.
This narrative suggests political bias, that the so-called “liberal media” was tough on George W. Bush, the Republican, and soft on Barack Obama the great liberal democratic hope. But former President Bill Clinton – and any of the many Clinton retreads still getting used to their return to power – could remind us all that Bill Clinton was pummeled mercilessly when his Attorney General nominee, Zoe Baird, had to withdraw because of her nanny problems, and the next leading candidate, Judge Kimba Wood, was caught in a similar embarrassment.
These – by contrast, relatively minor errors – saddled Clinton’s administration with a reputation for buffoonery. Clinton had a terrible time trying to shift the broader narrative and prove that he was indeed ready for prime time. To achieve that, he ended up having to reassign one of his young superstars, George Stephanopoulos, and hire an older Washington hand, David Gergen, within six months.
Careful analyses of the 2008 presidential campaign will discover a systematic bias in favor of Obama. His story was fresher, more compelling, and thus less scrutinized than Hillary Clinton’s, John McCain’s, or the other also-rans. Even some journalists have admitted in retrospect that many reporters liked Obama, loved the idea of Obama, and frequently gave him a free pass.
Still, there may also be a more benign explanation. The financial meltdown has sobered Americans – and reporters. Barack Obama’s call for a new, more constructive politics have resonated. This really is not the time for the kind of partisan, “gotcha” bickering that has marred our politics for so long.
All this makes Obama’s repeated missteps so disturbing. The stakes are too high for amateur hour. Obama needs to explain why his personnel process has been so spectacularly incompetent, what he is going to do to fix it, and what he has learned from this experience. There is a lot of goodwill and desperation out there, both of which Obama has been able to tap effectively. But rather than just talking beautifully, he must start governing competently.
In a recent HNN posting, Professor John Grigg urged President Obama to stop seeking consensus, characterizing bipartisanship as “often a cynical effort to silence dissenting views.” Professor Grigg’s article is worth dissecting because he captures the current – dare I say it – consensus among academics to dismiss bipartisanship and consensus-building while romanticizing partisanship and radicalism. In fact, President Obama should press for a genuine consensus, building as much bipartisan support for his proposals as possible. As I argue in my book, “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents,” this approach is not just what we need today – especially amid the economic downturn and the continuing terrorist threat – but that moderation has often been the secret to presidential success and broader American good feeling.
Professor Grigg’s indictment rests on three pillars. For starters, he tries to apply the shortcomings of the consensus school of history to the broader effort at consensus-building. He notes that the historians from the 1950s who emphasized America’s center-seeking tradition often painted a one-dimensional portrait of American development that minimized some of the constructive conflicts that made this nation great. Moreover, Grigg continues, seeking consensus breeds political complacency. Rejecting a status quo politics, he argues that “the extension of liberty in American history has come not from consensus but from confrontation.” Finally, he claims that the current chorus for consensus comes from a few insiders who seem “to welcome political debate; but only within a narrow field of vision.” The result, he insists, is a politics that gets intensely personal not because it is too partisan but because it not partisan enough.
Grigg’s critique of the consensus school has merit. There was a tendency in the 1950s – among academics and others – to assume that the unity Americans achieved at the height of World War II was typical. Fortunately, waves of historical revisionists since the 1950s have painted a richer, more complex portrait of America’s history. But, it is possible to acknowledge conflict, even constructive conflict, while still appreciating the strong, consensus-oriented, pragmatic streak in American history? Modern historians have been so successful at charting America’s disagreements – and dysfunctions – they often fail to answer the most basic question about American history – how has the country succeeded? A new, more sophisticated, post-consensus-history understanding of American consensus can incorporate diversity and conflict into the broader narrative of a country that functioned best when leaders sought to find the center – or, as we are currently seeing and have seen before – tried to forge a new center.
Grigg is correct that seeking consensus can often degenerate into simply maintaining the status quo. But to inflate a tendency to avoid into a permanent condition is like complaining about the common cold as if it were cancer. Historical change in America at its most constructive has occurred when consensus-oriented politicians like Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy played off against more radical voices fomenting division. A great president takes the strong, occasionally divisive currents agitating for change and tames them, making them more mainstream, more primed for domestic consumption. Currently, Barack Obama seems to be doing just that. He is making dramatic moves, but by trying to build a consensus, he is making them more palatable politically. Such leadership goes way beyond cheap political posturing. When done correctly it fosters the kind of engagement and support we need in a democracy, rather than the bruised feelings and alienation we have seen far too frequently in recent decades.
Grigg should not be so quick to dismiss the healing possibilities of bipartisanship – or the broad cries in the country for such leadership. The success in 2008 of bridge-builders like Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Barack Obama suggests that the desire for center-seeking goes beyond the Beltway insiders Griggs seeks to demonize. And the Clintons, among others, would be the first to testify to the fact that the “politics of personal destruction” which they so famously denounced came from the harshest of Republican partisans rather than the moderate, David-Gergen-like Washington types I am assuming Griggs targeted – without naming any names or offering up any evidence.
Bipartisanship and consensus-seeking need not mean namby-pamby leadership. The American political tradition we need to appreciate is one of muscular moderates, proud nationalists, who understood that in forging a national consensus they were maintaining democratic legitimacy and nurturing nationalism. This center-seeking is the call of George Washington, urging squabbling partisans to remember Americans’ “common cause.” It is the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln, understanding that first he had to keep the North united before he could end the blight of slavery. It is the romanticism of Theodore Roosevelt, using the White House “bully pulpit” to position the president as the tribune of the “plain people” building consensus for progressive change. It is the experimental incrementalism of Franklin D. Roosevelt, introducing enough reforms to silence working class cries for revolution but not so much change that capitalism vanished and America’s Constitution became unrecognizable or moot. And, with any luck, it will be the Reaganized liberal pragmatism of Barack Obama, restoring a sense of community and self-sacrifice, reinvigorating government where necessary, without forgetting all the lessons of the last 40 years so that America does not end up saddled again with inefficient big government programs offering delusional solutions rather than constructive change.