What Abraham And John Could Teach Barack
This coming Monday, Barack Obama will take the Oath of Office for the second time, and give his second Inaugural Address.
His ascent from obscurity to being the most powerful person in the world was so improbable that, when I went into the voting booth in 2008, I carried with me my immigrant maternal grandfather’s pocket-watch, and wore my late father’s over-sized leather jacket. Both of them (and my mother) were patriots in the best sense of the word. They were not uncritical of America’s flaws, but believed deeply in its promise and its goodness. I thought they should be there.
Four years later, it seems we have all been hurtling through a tunnel with kaleidoscope sides. Mr. Obama has presided over the end of one war, the winding down of a second, the death of Osama Bin Laden, and the gradual easing of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Despite the worst words of the worst of his critics, he has done a lot of good. But, along with those accomplishment come the largest deficits in our history, the highly controversial Obamacare legislation, and a relationship with Congress that is strained at best, and often characterized by what can best be described as profound mutual contempt.
Mr. Obama is not the first President who is deeply polarizing, in fact, the end of his first term marks twenty years of intense partisanship--an entire generation of ugliness. If you were born the year Richard Nixon resigned, you have never had the opportunity to vote for anyone who wasn’t deeply and personally disliked by at least a third of the electorate.
Mr. Obama’s election was a historic one. But, there comes a point where milestones and promise must be followed by even more tangible results across a broad spectrum of issues, lest the milestones and the promise become nothing more than last year’s entry in Trivial Pursuit. What matters is what he does now and for the next four years, where he intends to lead the country, what his goals are, and whether he can get consensus. He can start on Monday.
This doesn’t mean a great and soaring Inaugural. The eminent political historian Larry Sabato wrote this past week that Inaugural Addresses tended to be prosaic affairs. Sabato felt that there had been only two great ones; Lincoln’s majestic Second, which we wrote about last July recast the meaning of the Civil War in moral terms and looked outward to a compassionate and inclusive post-war reconciliation, and Kennedy’s. Sabato spoke of the excitement of being a schoolboy in a Catholic school, assembling with classmates and the nuns around a black and white television to watch the first Catholic President inspire and uplift, and of going home that day to grab the evening paper and commit the text to memory. He was proud of himself that, fifty years later, he could recall so many of Kennedy’s words, and proud that Kennedy could show a hesitant nation that a young Catholic could, in fact, speak both to assuage their fears and for their aspirations.
We are no longer in such innocent days. Obama could give the Sermon on the Mount, and many on the Right would call it class warfare or complain all that turning of the cheek was yet another example of a weak foreign policy.
Is this fair? Fair isn’t relevant, and Obama should ignore them, and search for a broader spectrum of people who simply want government to work. More relevant is the criticism from mainstream commentators, and even present and former supporters, for failing to lead. They are, in part, correct. Obama, on certain key issues, hasn’t led. We absolutely have to tackle the enormous gap between the expanding entitlement obligations to an increasingly aging society, and the need for economic growth and innovation. In short, we have to find a way to honor our commitments to both young and old.
This isn’t simple, and, unfortunately, the gist of the advice of many of the well meaning is that Obama should articulate his compromise positions, assuming that the GOP will be reasonable. To lead, in their minds, is to tell the country where we should end up by identifying what you would accept. They are wrong, of course, at least in that analysis. The hard-liners in the GOP are not going to be reasonable, and an Obama offer of any part, much less all, of what he is ultimately willing to give will simply be rejected, and taken as a new starting point in negotiations.
The post election Obama, more assertive, more vocally unyielding, is a reflection of his grasp of this. After getting rolled in 2011 on the first debt-ceiling crisis, he knows he has to be tougher. But it may also be a tacit acknowledgment of another Obama weakness; that when he first came into office, he believed his own rhetoric as a historic bridge-builder. What his Presidency has shown so far is that he is a complex man with great strengths and significant shortcomings. One of those shortcomings is that he is a poor negotiator. It is not for lack of intelligence, or grasp of the intricacies of the deal, but more a deficit in in a particular type of interpersonal skill. In the give and take of negotiation with others who possess some bargaining chips, Obama is neither a bridge-builder nor a back-slapper. He simply isn’t that good at getting to yes.
This is not a fatal flaw, even in a President. He doesn’t have to be Lyndon Johnson. He is the President. He can hire people to do it for him. That is, in effect, what Secretary of State Seward did for Lincoln in “procuring” votes for the 13th Amendment. And it is also what Joe Biden did in the last round of the Fiscal Cliff negotiations. Presidents are rich in power and in resources. Obama should use them.
So, what is Obama’s job on Monday and beyond? He could start by recalling Kennedy’s words to the nation’s enemies abroad. “So let us begin anew -- remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.”
He should remember Lincoln’s vision, to “do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
And, finally, in the privacy of his own time and his own place, he can ruminate on the following; “All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”