As you are probably aware, the first year of President Barack Obama’s presidency has officially come and gone as of today, and everyone who considers him or herself a news commentator worth listening to will have something to say about the year that “made history.” (As if there were years that did not make history.)
The major networks are all predictable in their discussion of each moment of any president’s term — How did he look when presented with this crisis or that crisis? Was he calm? Did he lose his temper? How did he got along with his spouse? Did he honor his campaign promises? Was he a “winner” or “loser” in advancing his agenda and passing legislation? This is called the scorecard system, and is much like the system used by baseball scouts who rate the performance of a player for future reference.
Many of the criteria are interesting in a gossipy way, but do not often get to the heart of the matter. As a result of their prominence, though, many people tend to think that leadership is literally tied to the man, just as they look upon the heroics of a sports hero as he or she relates to his or her team, school, city, or sport. Consequently, what the man eats, what he wears, and what he does for entertainment all matters. What is lost here is the continuity of leadership, how it fits into the philosophical strategies of public policy, and whether the president has any authenticity in relation to the historical framework he has inherited.
I would like to relate Barack Obama’s presidency to an incident I consider one of the most important in modern American history — the refusal of President Lyndon Johnson to seek another term in 1968. Just as I had witnessed so many other political events in my life, I sat with my father at home in the living room and watched Johnson tell the world he would not seek re-election. As a man, Johnson looked tired, like a man at the end of his journey.
The meaning and consequences of this act were enormous. At the time, everyone blamed his refusal to run on the unpopularity of the Vietnam War. That may be true–Johnson was also losing the Democrat-solid south over civil rights–but what mattered most was the reality that a presidential candidate could not win if his own political party began to turn against him. As obvious as this sounds, this should not necessarily be the case since presidential politics should rise above party, involving debates over issues of national and international importance. Johnson found himself in the midst of a terrible rift in the Democratic Party between the old, union, pro-defense wing and the newer, burgeoning anti-war, ecological pro-feminist pro-gay rights wing of the party. Johnson saw no way to reconcile the two or otherwise survive that battle, and the violence and discord of the 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago showed he was very much correct.
President Obama is in the midst of a similar party war of his own. Hilliary Clinton, currently Secretary of State (but perhaps not for long!), ran in 2008 as the representative of the old guard last led in its full glory by Lyndon Johnson, while Obama ran in 2008 as the personification of the anti-war wing that began its ascendancy in 1968. This anti-war wing believes President Obama has betrayed his campaign and the party as a whole because of how he has handled Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Pakistan, presidential powers and socialist particulars on the domestic front, such as public health care and Draconian energy policy. Obama is finding out the lesson the Democrats learned too late in 1968 — if a President takes his party faithful for granted, thinking they will vote for him no matter what, he could end up losing. After all, if Obama isn’t acting how the base wants him to act, why not at least vote for someone like that who actually knows what he is doing?
By 2008, President George W. Bush had lost the conservative base of the Republican Party because of his out-of-control domestic spending and the liberals all hated him anyway, so he left GOP nominee John McCain in the proverbial no-man’s land. President Obama will certainly not go the way of Lyndon Johnson and refuse to run, but one of the political lessons of his first year should be that people within a political party actually take seriously what a presidential candidate says he intends to do. They gauge the candidate’s promises against their own political beliefs, and expect him to stick to them when elected. This runs against a great many inherently skeptical Americans who believe that a politician will never fulfill his campaign promises.
So, what should President Obama do? If he follows George W. Bush’s strategy, he will do a few things to appease the party faithful–like appoint liberal judges to the federal bench–and figure that when the next presidential election arrives the liberals in the Democratic Party will vote for him anyway. This strategy places the off-year Democratic Party congressional candidates in jeopardy, since a group of voters within a particular district may turn against the liberal within their district. This happened to the Republicans in 2006 when they lost congressional races to the Democrats.
If Obama tries to make his liberal constituents happy, he will be forced to carry out policies he apparently does not want. You see, in historical context, President Obama is trying to overturn sixteen years of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in the White House. Bill Clinton wanted to move the Democratic Party toward the center. Clinton felt the left had lost too many elections by staying left, and after absorbing a nasty loss in his own health care debate, he consciously moved to the middle. But guess what happened? His party lost the congress during his presidency.
A few years later, George W. Bush wanted to move the right to the center with his brand of “compassionate conservatism.” And guess what happened? That’s right — his party lost the Congress during his term. Obama ran his campaign with the intention of going left, but like his two predecessors has found out if a president moves too far from his party base he ends up with everyone mad at him. His own party thinks he betrayed them and the opposing party never liked him anyway, so he loses with everybody. The Republicans accuse him of being a communist, which tells how far left his base really is if it believes he is too conservative.
When looking toward 2010, I think there are two questions that will dominate the discussion: First, does the fact that America ended up with Clinton, Bush, and Obama as presidents show there is a serious flaw in the election process? Many analysts all over the Internet place the blame on the American two party system. This has even been raised on America’s Right in commentaries and reader responses, but the door on that particular discussion should be closed given the result of yesterday’s special election in Massachusetts.
Second, how does a president lead America when he holds a political perspective that is not shared by the majority? I believe the answer to this question drove Lyndon Johnson mad. Johnson understood that if the peace party controlled the Democratic Party it would end up in a never-ending statistical minority, much like the socialist parties in various European countries that have a solid twenty-five percent of the vote which makes them an annoyance but does give them winning elections. Poll after poll after poll have consistently showed that the majority of Americans consider themselves to be conservative in their political beliefs. President Obama won the election because American elections are often won by the likable nature of a candidate and the utter disgust the public has for the candidate’s predecessor and opponent. If he tries to run the nation with twenty-five percent, he will destroy himself as a leader.
I wonder if President Obama gave any thoughts to President Lyndon Johnson when Chris Dodd, a leading Democrat, recently announced he would not run for re-election. I wonder if President Obama knows enough about history to place himself in a historical perspective rather than solely be concerned about how he looks in People magazine.
Ronald Glenn has worked in real estate and law for more than twenty years. He now works in Philadelphia, and lives outside the city with his wife. Ron has been writing for America’s Right since January 2009.