The View From 1776

Obama’s Quest To Transform Our Constitutional Federal Republic

In Search of Greatness

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 08/08 at 07:45 PM
  1. While I don’t disagree with Mr. Reshon’s ultimate judgment, I must question his reasoning in coming to that conclusion. His entire argument rests on his choice of weak and unusual criteria (2). First of these is his assertion a president is remembered most by issues he faces on entering office, and his own choice of presidential precedents bears out the falsity of such an assertion. None of the presidents he cites as exemplars of greatness are remembered according to prevailing campaign issues, and one isn’t even associated with the election that made him president (LBJ). FDR is best remembered for getting us out of the Great Depression (a complete myth) and for having ‘saved Democracy from the fascists’ (less than accurate).

    His criterion ignores major problems that arise while in office. Bush’s legacy, for example, rest far more on his response to terrorism than on restoring dignity and confidence to high office (i.e., the many Clinton scandals). Mr. Renshon’s choice of standard leaves out an awful lot that occurs between a book’s covers. Moreover, new presidents have some ideas about how they will handle existing problems on entering office and have just been handed a national vote of confidence (aka, plebiscite) on said handling. They have, therefore, great latitude to quickly resolve those problems and move on, thus consigning them to our collective memory dustbin. It is the problems for which they have no mandate which tarnish (or enhance) their legacies, therefore that define their legacies.

    Regarding the popularity decline, can we really lay this on Obama alone? One problem modern presidents face is a surfeit of exposure (TV, movies, internet) which, taken collectively, disparages government and exposes its many shortcomings more than it inspires confidence. Reagan was one of the more popular of modern (i.e., post-war) presidents, yet even he does not measure up to this particular standard because he faced the same over-exposure dilemma. Moreover, is over-exposure resulting in a decline in confidence really a problem if it serves to educate voters to government’s inherent limitations and gets us to lower our expectations of it to something more reasonable? I agree too little confidence can be a problem if it goes on too long as that can result in violent unrest (e.g., Ferguson Mo). But the solution for a lack of confidence in government is not greatness but solid performance. The President who does his duty without squandering time and resources on burnishing his legacy may not win the glories of a Caesar, but will win genuine respect and some thanks for leaving us, at least, no worse off. Thus, this one can be read more than one way, and a drop in confidence is not always something to be dodged.

    Mr. Reshon’s choice of FDR as a model against whom we measure Obama reveals an incredible (if somewhat forgivable) naiveté regarding that famous president. FDR and Obama share more traits in common than Reshon realizes, and not for the better. Assuming FDR was a truly ‘great’ president (which I don’t), then Obama has a similar claim to greatness; his only failing being circumstantial in that he never had a world war to fight, the success of which places him beyond further reproach. In fact, Roosevelt was as sloppy, tone-deaf and as heavy-handed as Obama, and as much criticized. Prior to the war (despite winning 3 elections) his popularity was suffering as the nation began to wise up to his many faults and cronyism. His handling of the war was just as sloppy and tone-deaf, and that we won it anyway is little short of miraculous (the real credit should go to the American people and to our manufacturing). Historian Thomas Fleming presents FDR as inept, conniving, mischievous, vindictive, and a double-crosser. FDR relied on staff to run the war for him, so, perhaps, we should be looking there for what was done right or wrong with the war because FDR was obviously no war strategist, and the few times he got involved in strategy it caused major upsets among allies and our generals alike. America won that war primarily because our resources were far greater than any other country on the planet, and we used them to overwhelming effect. Roosevelt squandered a good deal of those resources by micromanaging war production and logistics rather than leaving those to producers. He also could have won the war without consuming 90% of GDP.

    Consider what would have happened had Roosevelt been premier of France instead of the USA. Does anyone seriously believe he would have fared better against the Nazis than had Reynaud, Daladier or Lebrun (say who?). As a French president, I have no doubt his legacy would have been any more illustrious than that of these gentlemen, all of whom shared his political philosophy and machinations.

    The one thing FDR did right was to push Lend Lease, which helped keep Britain in the war long enough for us to get our act together. Beyond that he gave far too much away to questionable allies we knew would turn against us at war’s end. He also enabled those same ally/enemies to infiltrate our government with the result they became an enduring post-war threat we could not contain short of nuclear exchanges.

    A case can be further made FDR (along with those of his generation) made WWII inevitable by promoting socialism here while approving its initial usurpations there. FDR and the New Dealers drew their ideas and adopted policies from the same ideological pool as did Europe’s corporatists, communists and fascists. It has been forgotten FDR and his followers were part of the same transformational crusade as Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin to replace republicanism with popular socialism, and to replace limited with unbridled governance. If so, then FDR’s credit in winning the war should be discounted by whatever contribution he made toward its initiation.

    Reshon’s use of Lincoln isn’t much better, at least not based on the dual qualification he makes for a) resolving inherited problems (containing without quashing slavery) and b) declining popularity (Lincoln was elected with less than 40% of popular vote, his popularity then quickly plummeted and remained low until early 1864). I do not here disagree Lincoln was a great president, it’s his choice of criteria that I find problematic. He, likewise, lists LBJ as a great president, but there too, he fails to make a case for such a selection. LBJ was a reluctant supporter of Civil Rights until late into his political career. Prior to the 1960 election, he’d consistently opposed race equality and only shifted with the political winds. As such, his sudden conversion must be seen as opportunism. Credit for the Civil Rights Act, therefore, rightly belongs to Republican Congressional leaders of that time, and only incidentally (and opportunistically) to LBJ.

    As I recall, there was some question Carter’s role was much more than playing host and contributed little to the outcome other than persistence. Carter jumped at the treaty as proposed by Israel, only after Sadat signaled his interest in resolution. It was Sadat and Begin who should get primary credit for the treaty. Yes, Carter should also get some of the credit, but it should be remembered Carter went on from there to play the broker/bully against Israel, trying to force Israel into making outrageous unilateral concessions to the PLO, undermined Israel’s (valid) territorial claims and its sovereignty, thereby setting the stage for perpetual Palestinian unrest. Moreover, he has never ceased meddling in affairs that no longer concern him other than as a private citizen.

    Reshon cites Nixon’s China initiative as his great moment. However, it should be noted China is now our greatest competitor while remaining a threat and preparing to push us aside as world leader. This makes the Nixon initiative more a monumental strategic mixed-bag than a boon, discounting the Nixon legacy as less positive than is long credited.

    Reshon introduces economic conditions Obama faced to make the case against him. However, Reshon raised without actually showing Obama failed to resolve that particular issue. I agree, Obama hasn’t really dealt with the problem, but that is not the same as having failed in all respects or dealt with it in ways as support his legacy among core backers. Legacies, as I have shown, are funny things and often more perception than reality. Obama no doubt counts on partisanship perception upholding his. Supporters have made the case (albeit a weak one) that boomers exiting the workforce account for the low participation rate. This has been disproven several times, and yet the perception remains and will be difficult to dislodge long after he exits office.
    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/19  at  09:01 PM
  2. Further reading to #1 above:

    Are boomers driving the decline? 1 yes, 2 no

    The Carter files

    LBJ files - opines LBJ only championed civil rights after the popular groundswell for started. Opposed as late as 1957 (Eisenhower initiated Civil Rights Act defeated by Democrats including LBJ). - Apologists temporize his opposition wasn’t wholehearted, but he led the 1957 Senate opposition and the final quote in this article gives us a clearer picture of LBJ’s personal views of the matter.

    The FDR files

    Lincoln files
    • contain slavery without abolishing it (i.e., preserve slavery in southern states)
    • suppress popular sovereignty
    • high tariffs
    • favored railroad expansion (similar to green technology cronyism today)
    • homesteading

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/19  at  09:12 PM
  3. Although Bob is detailed in his criticisms of what constitutes the makings of a great president, it would be interesting to hear whom he believes fills the bill. Bob, can you tell us who you would nominate?
    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/20  at  06:43 PM
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