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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.


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


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.