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Posted by on Feb 16, 2010 in Economy, Health, Media, Politics, Society | 9 comments

An Eminent Historian Looks at Obama—and at Us.

Richard Norton Smith is a distinguished presidential historian and former head of six presidential libraries. He has published numerous books and articles on our presidents and is a nationally recognized expert on “most anything and everything related to the presidency.”

His books include “An Uncommon Man: The Triumph of Herbert Hoover” (1984), “The Harvard Century: The Making of a University to a Nation” (1986) and “Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation” (1993). His book, “Thomas E. Dewey and His Times,” was a finalist for the 1983 Pulitzer Prize.

It was thus with great anticipation that I read his most recent essay in Time titled “Era of No Consensus.” It deals with the trials and tribulations of Obama’s still young presidency.

While I suspect that Dr. Smith is a Republican, I found his essay refreshingly apolitical and, ergo, objective, credible and enjoyable.

Some of his most salient points and observations:

Like Bill Clinton before him, Obama has been criticized for misreading his mandate, spending his political capital on health care reform at a time when millions fear for their jobs. It was as if FDR had devoted his first Hundred Days to promoting Social Security instead of a smorgasbord of emergency relief and recovery measures.

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Obama could have scored cheap political points by leaving such criminally mismanaged enterprises as AIG and GM to their fate. Of course, he might also have touched off an economic smashup

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A persuader by instinct, [Obama] is trapped inside a political culture that has lost any instinct for persuasion. That he is the third consecutive President to polarize the electorate — the fourth in five if one looks beyond the posthumous regard accorded Ronald Reagan — reveals more about us than about him.

Smith also criticizes “the rise of sound-bite politics, of snarky bloggers and strident talk radio, not to mention cable ‘news’ largely preoccupied with the trivial, the tactical and the tawdry;” and how little attention was paid when Southern Republican Senators, representing states with foreign-auto plants blocked a $14 billion federal rescue of GM and Chrysler. “The surprise was that no political price was exacted for such a stand: abandoning assembly-line workers whose requested lifeline was a fraction of what Congress forked over to the financial joyriders who touched off the crisis.”

Smith discerningly concludes:

Far from riding history’s crest, Obama found himself shouting into the wind. A year into his presidency, two things stand out: the easy history has been made, and it’s simpler to change our leaders than ourselves.

Regardless of your political persuasions, I highly recommend this fascinating piece by a man who knows his presidents. I am sure you’ll find plenty to agree with—and probably to disagree with, too.

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Copyright 2010 The Moderate Voice
  • MJDaniels53

    Thanks for posting this. I have the highest regard for Smith. His biography of Washington is the best one I have read…and I’ve read several. I agree that his comments about Obama (and us) are fair and like you, I suspect Smith to be a Republican, making his essay all the more interesting.

    Of course, it would be a mistake to pine nostalgically for a time of less contentiousness. No era of US history has been without contention. But I believe that something different in our culture, which can probably be traced back to Teddy White’s book on the 1960 presidential campaign, is going on today, making persuasion and compromise more difficult and unlikely.

    When White set out to write his book, he was the object of derision and pity on the part of other reporters covering the election. “Who’s going to want to read a book about the campaign after it’s over?” they asked one another. But when White’s book came out, proved to be a best-seller, and spawned a series of sequels, a cottage industry was born.

    Previously, columnists and reporters tended to write about the substance of policy wrangling. After White, whose books were quite good and elevated in their way (though he was too enamored of the Kennedys, no doubt), a punditocracy grew up whose interests were more with the mechanics, the personalities, and the horse races of politics.

    Cable TV and blogs have added to this emphasis. (And as a blogger interested in those kinds of things, I have no doubt been guilty of pouring some gasoline on that fire.) Most political junkies are not policy wonks. And there’s a bigger market for the stuff political junkies crave than what the wonks want…or informed voters need, if their attention could be drawn.

    The pundits now feed the junkies 24/7, their chow a stew of abrasive, elbow-flailing, label-pasting acid poured onto the body politic. It’s a sad situation and it’s only getting worse.

    • DdW

      Thank you for your added reflections on Dr. Smith’s (I referred to him as Mr. Smith, for which I apologize) observations and for the background on the “cottage industry” that arose after White’s book.

      As Dr. Smith does, you also acknowledge and lament the rise of sound bite politics—“The pundits now feed the junkies 24/7, their chow a stew of abrasive, elbow-flailing, label-pasting acid poured onto the body politic.”

      And as you imply, we, bloggers, are part of it.

      And while I am in the process of self-flagellation, I must reiterate a couple of the points that struck me most in Dr. Smith’s piece:

      A persuader by instinct, [Obama] is trapped inside a political culture that has lost any instinct for persuasion. That he is the third consecutive President to polarize the electorate — the fourth in five if one looks beyond the posthumous regard accorded Ronald Reagan — reveals more about us than about him.

      Far from riding history’s crest, Obama found himself shouting into the wind. A year into his presidency, two things stand out: the easy history has been made, and it’s simpler to change our leaders than ourselves.

      (Emphases mine)
      Finally, I left out of my post a Franklin Roosevelt quote Dr. Smith included in his essay:

      It’s a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead, and find no one there.

      Again, thank you for your comments.

      Dorian

  • mattpavelich

    As Obama himself has frequently said, the quality and availability of health care in this country has to be improved if the economy is to be stabilized. The spiraling cost of health care is the one cost that no American business can safely project and that very few can currently manage within profitability. Jobs go off shore. Businesses fold or are never established. It’s more smoke and mirrors by the health care industry to suggest that one issue is not bound to the other. Government intervention to create short-term make-work jobs might be politically expedient, but long-term systemic change is needed.

  • Leonidas

    when another charismatic, inexperienced President prematurely tested the ice of post-Reagan liberalism, only to find it wouldn’t support his activist agenda.

    A fair assessment by Smith, American doesn’t want an activist agenda, it wants measured and well thought out reform.

    • Axel Edgren

      Apparently they do not. Which is why they deserve all the problems and unemployment and petty problems they get – their disloyalty towards the uninsured is heinous and pathetic.

  • WagglebutII

    If the central conclusion that Dr. Smith asserted – ” A year into his presidency, two things stand out: the easy history has been made, and it’s simpler to change our leaders than ourselves. ” were true Barack Obama would never have been elected president of the United States.

    While I respect Dr. Smith, this article leaves much to be desired as a salient contribution other than to observe times are tough and we aint gettin along. That’s a profound scholarly deduction by someone of Dr. Smith’s stature. A conclusion by the way that could describe many eras of American history. A worthwhile discussion on contemporary politics could be better focused on how two American presidents squandered great leadership and unifying opportunities within less than 10 years. George W. Bush’s post 9/11/2001 deeds and Barack Obama’s election. On one hand we have a president with an attacked nation and responsive world at his beckon and call and on the other an inexperienced black man elected to the U. S. Presidency in a time of great economic and diplomatic peril with complete control of the American Congress.

    If that’s cheap history I’ll be damned if I want to be around when valuable history is made given all the choices. Dr. Smith’s article is of little value. He is entitled to his opinion but from a distinguished historian, it’s a wasted occasion and doesn’t rise to achievement. The American people left, center, and right are open to leadership. We swallowed the bulls–t from W, Cheney, Rummy, Wolfie, Rove, Condi and Powell about the Iraq war and jumped right into the abyss on the so-called Bush Doctrine on Preemption. The cabal wasted the positives within the national and international community and plunged the country into a war that decimated our economy and spirit.

    Forced by the constitution to elect another president, within 7 years the unchangeable American people (“it’s simpler to change our leaders than ourselves”) turned over the reins of government to an inexperienced black president in a seismic electoral marjority 365 to 173 with a major popular vote of 53% to 46%. The country shifted the congress to a majority Democratic, veto proof congress. I don’t know what it takes to impress Dr. Smith but I believe we need some leaders to raise to the occasion much like the vaunted Mr. Lincoln.

    • DdW

      While I don’t necessarily agree with all your opinions, I do respect them.

      Thank you

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