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Can Obama achieve his sweeping goals?

His conciliatory approach and tendency to move to the middle ground have profound limitations in today’s polarized political climate. Although we’re not as bitterly divided as we were in the 1850s—when one member of Congress clubbed another with a cane on the Senate floor, and congressmen were carrying side-arms— the extremes are driving more and more of today’s political debates.


The congressional districting system has created one-party election districts that heavily favor the return of incumbents. This means that legislators are vulnerable to primary challenges by ideologically intense members of their party and are motivated to take extreme positions. This is exacerbated by the media environment, which enables a party’s true believers to get their information from like-minded cable channels.

How does that change politics?

It leads people to cut themselves off from centrist positions and broader cultural influences and limits their willingness and ability to compromise. We’ve reached a point where being ecumenical is very hard.

Is it impossible?

No. I think the population at large is politically like a bell-shaped curve, unlike the u-shaped curve that describes the politicians. This enables Obama to be policy-oriented and focused on achievement, particularly with 60 Democrats in the Senate, though the Blue Dogs and the liberals both have to be placated. Remember, Lincoln’s America wasn’t divided by cable channels. He took office with the Confederacy formally set up. But he still managed to be astonishingly ecumenical.

How have other presidents dealt with polarization?

One strategy is assembling cross-party coalitions on specific issues. George W. Bush did this on No Child Left Behind, and Clinton did it on welfare reform and NAFTA. It’s possible that Obama will manage this on some issues—for example, climate control. It was far easier for presidents to work across party lines when there were a good number of Republican liberals and moderates and a host of conservative Democrats. But that’s not the hand Obama has been dealt.

What trait is crucial in a time of crisis?

You want a level head. You need the ability to control your emotions. Lack of impulse control in a president can be fatal in the nuclear world.

Which president had the best method for making decisions?

Eisenhower. There is a misperception that Ike was trapped in a rigid bureaucracy that kept him from attending to a wide range of viewpoints. But one of the things that came out of the notes from meetings and phone calls recorded by his personal secretary, Ann Whitman, is that he had a well-structured format for fostering sharply focused debate among people prepared in advance to debate a range of options. Eisenhower also made sure people aired their views and didn’t slip into agreeing with what they sensed to be the prevailing view. They couldn’t keep their doubts to themselves. Eisenhower practiced what I have described as a hidden-hand leadership style. He maintained his public support and kept from boxing himself in by delegating much of the political side of his leadership to carefully programmed subordinates.

How does Obama compare to Eisenhower in style?

He can and does work behind the scenes, which was very much Eisenhower’s mode, but Obama is not a hidden-hand president on the Eisenhower model. A good example of Eisenhower’s hidden-hand leadership is the quiet manner in which he eliminated racial segregation in the District of Columbia and his low-profile enforcement of Truman’s executive order integrating the military. There are some elements of that in how Obama has delegated the framing of health-care legislation to Democrats on the Hill. Obama, however, is out front more than Ike.

Which president had the greatest impact on the office?

Under Franklin Roosevelt, the machinery of the presidency expanded, a trend that continued under Truman and his successors. Before FDR’s time, there was no provision for figures like Rahm Emanuel in the budget. Roosevelt and Truman also advanced legislative programs rather than simply responding to Congress. They changed the president’s job into being like the pitcher rather than the catcher on a baseball team. The presidency also expanded in the time of FDR and Truman in that chief executives began to preside over a huge government that administers major policies, and the United States has become a world nuclear power.

How does Obama compare to FDR and Truman?

It is too early to tell. Obama is an activist president with enormous ambitions. He sacrificed support by backing controversial health-care reform, but how this will play out remains to be seen.

Which early president does Obama resemble most?

He is probably most like Thomas Jefferson, in his intellectuality and fluency—although Jefferson’s fluency was with the written, not the spoken, word. He is also like Jefferson in setting out to reverse many of his predecessors’ policies. Obama’s pragmatism resembles James Monroe’s, but the times and norms of that early period were very different. Because they were expected to defer to Congress, presidents who had explicit goals tended to work through intermediaries.

Which early president does he resemble least?

He is least like the volatile John Adams and his son, the rigid John Quincy Adams. And he doesn’t at all resemble the angrily emotional Andrew Jackson. This is a function of what psychologists call “emotional intelligence.” Obama is sometimes referred to as “no-drama Obama.” In his autobiography he discusses his efforts as a young man to come to terms with his racial identity and his early flirtations with drugs and alcohol. But he somehow came to terms with his hang-ups and became emotionally secure. He is the antithesis of a president with Richard Nixon’s tendency to lash out against real or perceived enemies and Bill Clinton’s lack of impulse control.

Is Obama too controlled?

I suspect he’s learned the lesson of humility from Lincoln: When Lincoln was waiting for General McClellan at McClellan’s home, the arrogant general just went up to bed, and Lincoln told his secretary of war, “It’s not time to stand on ceremony,” so he simply left. That is an important lesson for anyone governing in a time of polarization.

What presidential model should Obama avoid?

He could learn a great deal about the dangers of asking for too much from John Quincy Adams, who advanced a program that was too far ahead of its time to be realistic and did not build adequate congressional support for those of his policies that might have been feasible.

What would surprise the early presidents most about the modern presidency?

The White House today faces north to the Lafayette Square townhouses that are filled with presidential offices. It is also adjacent to a presidential office building that once housed the State, War and Navy departments and a nearby modern executive high-rise building. The very early presidents didn’t have anything like that infrastructure and had virtually no staff. Jefferson read every letter that was addressed to him, and he hand wrote about 1,000 letters a year. He even wrote executive orders himself. The early presidents wouldn’t recognize the city without swamps and flies and with air-conditioning.


Originally published in the February 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here