01.19.10

Following in JFK's Footsteps

In some ways, Obama has outperformed Kennedy, the president to whom he’s most often compared. But Doris Kearns Goodwin argues his gains are offset by his tenuous hold on his base.

Probably the most important thing to think about in evaluating the first year is what it reveals about the temperament of the leader. The events and challenges may change in years two, three, and four, but the style of leadership, the strengths and weaknesses of the leader have usually been revealed in that first year.

If you look at John F. Kennedy’s first year from the outside, it was a disaster. There was the Bay of Pigs, a tough summit with Khrushchev when he seemed weak, and the construction of the Berlin Wall, which lost America credibility.

When Kennedy heard that several reporters were planning to write books about his first year, he joked: Who in the world will want to read about a series of disasters?

Yet, if we look more closely at what the first year revealed about JFK and his style of leadership, the evaluation is much more positive. He immediately acknowledged failure at the Bay of Pigs and took public responsibility for it, which allowed him to learn from his mistakes. He learned to not rely solely on military advice. He learned to seek out a broader range of advisers to question assumptions, weigh costs. He learned to reach below the Cabinet to the deskmen at State and Defense to really figure out what was going on. Through the failed summit, he understood more clearly the limits of engagement and took a tougher line with Khrushchev. All these lessons became critical during the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later: He was prepared for the largest challenge of his presidency.

More Daily Beast opinion on Obama’s first year In contrast to Kennedy, Obama’s first year has been much more successful. But even more important is that he has shown some of the same temperamental qualities that should allow him to keep learning on the job as Kennedy did. And we have learned a great deal about him.

There’s a fascinating contrast, for Kennedy ended his first year, as troubled as it was, with a public approval rating at 78 percent. The partisan atmosphere was not as poisonous in 1961. I remember hearing a statistic that something like 90 percent of people thought the government would do right 90 percent of the time. Over the decades since, that trust in government has deteriorated. Today, the media delights in charges and countercharges. The loudest voices on both sides of the aisle get the most coverage. Criticism is relentless and it takes a toll on presidential approval.

The most important thing Obama had to confront was the historic collapse of the economy and the financial system, the likes of which had not been seen since 1929. In 1929, because of the insufficient and mistaken steps taken, the economy continued to decline and ended up in the Great Depression. I think most economists would agree that between the combination of stimulus and bailout steps, the economy is on the road to recovery. That alone would be an historic marker of success in Obama’s first year.

Even with the need to prevent economic collapse, Obama has been able to move forward with progressive domestic goals. What has been overlooked is that the stimulus bill includes substantial investments in energy, education, infrastructure, and anti-poverty measures, adding up to the largest social investments since LBJ’s Great Society. On top of that, is the promise of health care. Obama has come closer to achieving a health-care overhaul than any president. If he passes a national health-care bill that has eluded every president since Theodore Roosevelt, it will be an historic achievement.

Finally, in foreign policy, he has set the stage for engagement and multilateralism. He has reset relations with Russia, made overtures to the Muslim world in his Cairo speech, and provided a philosophic discussion of war, peace, and human rights in his Nobel speech.

Beyond those concrete achievements, we’ve learned a good deal about his leadership style. He’s shown an ability to juggle a number of pressing issues. He’s made very few rookie mistakes, the kind that you would have expected from a junior senator. He has revealed a willingness to listen to advice from all quarters. His administration has been remarkably free from internal feuding. He has delivered a number of compelling speeches, revealing an effective use of language. And despite all the challenges, he still seems to be enjoying the presidency.

In making the decision to send more troops to Afghanistan, he made good on his campaign promise to hear from all sides and have people in the room who would challenge him. He weighed options and costs and consulted a range of opinions. In the end, after carefully weighing all options, he was willing to make a hard decision that he knew would anger the base.

He’s made mistakes, but like JFK, he’s owned up to them. With Tom Daschle’s nomination for the Cabinet, he said, “I screwed up.” There could not be a double standard on taxes for ordinary people and people in government. With Skip Gates, he was able to get beyond his original statement that the policeman acted stupidly by calling both men to the White House. So often it’s not our mistakes that hurt us the most but our failure to acknowledge them and learn from them…

Some have suggested that he has compromised too easily. It’s always a fine line to figure out when refusing to compromise will destroy the chances for success entirely, and when compromising too early diminishes what could have been achieved by holding out.

At times, it seemed that he was compromising too early; yet as we watched the lengthy, messy process, and recognized the obstacles placed by the way Congress is structured, with different committees reporting different bills, and with the need for 60 votes in the Senate to avoid a filibuster, it may well turn out that he got all he could from this Congress. Theodore Roosevelt once said, “If you are cast on a desert island and need to build a boat in order to get off, it would be better if you had a saw, but if you only have a screwdriver and a chisel then you have to go with the tools you have. And so,” he said, “it is with men.”

The progressive base, comprised of muckraking journalists, religious forces committed to social justice, and progressive academics pushed at Washington from the outside in, giving Roosevelt strength as he struggled with a conservative Congress to take action of the trusts, on child labor, on food and drug violations and on railroad abuses. It seemed when the 2008 election took place that we had that same kind of potential for an activist base to push our leaders in Congress from the outside in, but it did not materialize as many hoped it would. The question now for Obama going forward is how to mobilize that progressive base more effectively. Taking a tough stance on financial reform, tougher even than what we’ve seen so far, is a good place to start, for it would allow him to get ahead of the populist anger.

The health-care debate consumed so much energy inside Washington, as did the need for making a big decision of the war in Afghanistan. The challenge in the years ahead will be to recapture his emotional connection with his activist base, not just because the midterms depend so much on turnout, but for the success of all his other goals as well….

If you think about his steadiness under pressure, the excitement that his young family has brought to the White House, and his ability to use language to inspire his countrymen, there is some resemblance to JFK. So, too, the cool demeanor.

That he still seems self-confident and still enjoys the job is reminiscent of FDR. FDR was once asked how he was able to sleep with all the tough decisions he had to make. He answered that so long as he knew he had gathered all the information possible and had considered the question fully, then he put his head on the pillow and went straight to sleep. Obviously, the combination of problems that Obama faced turned out to be far more difficult than he had foreseen. Yet, he has not seemed terribly rattled and has been able to juggle a lot of complex things.

There is one way he reminds me of LBJ and that is in setting large goals. LBJ was once asked, when he was deciding to go for the Civil Rights Act in 1964, why are going to do that? It will split the party. His response: What’s the presidency for if it doesn’t tackle big problems? Obama, too, has set a number of interconnected big goals. When criticized for trying to do too much, his reply was similar to LBJ’s: That’s what I’m here for.

Yet, there is much he could still learn from LBJ in dealing with Congress. LBJ said you’ve got to court the Congress more carefully and lovingly than you courted your wife. He would call them at 7 a.m., at noon, at 2 a.m.; he never let them go. And in the end, LBJ wasn’t just simply a brilliant pragmatist making deals; for he appealed to the higher instincts of the senators and congressmen. When he needed Republican Minority Leader Everett Dirksen to help break the filibuster on civil rights, he told him: Everett, if you come with me on this bill, 200 years from now schoolchildren will only know two names: Abraham Lincoln and Everett Dirksen. In other words, he appealed to Dirksen’s sense of history.

That was, I think, the kind of message that Obama delivered to the senators before their vote on health care.

The question remains whether he could have done more to mobilize the base to push Congress to get done the things he wanted to? The Tea Party movement showed the power of grassroots pressure; that same pressure should be mobilized from the left. Emotionally, was he connected to them throughout the year?

Obviously he came in hoping for a bipartisan presidency. He had Republicans to the White House, he courted individual Republicans assiduously. He tried to bring Judd Gregg into his Cabinet. Perhaps the lopsided vote on the stimulus bill should have taught him earlier that his hopes were likely to be rebuffed. But he kept trying during the health-care debate. Now, especially with the midterms looming, which will make bipartisanship even harder, it is time to return to his Democratic base, to mobilize the activists who helped him win the election, to make them a part of his goals on energy and financial reform.

Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin won the Pulitzer Prize for No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II and the author, most recently, of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.