Sunday, January 18, 2009

Barack to the Future

Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune combines some appropriate history lessons in today's column, which starts by asking, "How many of you are going to miss the George W. Bush years? Can I see a show of hands?"

Appropriately, he observes that Bush, in his farewell address last week, quoted Thomas Jefferson: "I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past."

Of course, in Jefferson's day, the republic was still new. Jefferson was only the third president. Bush came along 40 presidencies and 200 years later. It wouldn't surprise me if a majority of Americans feel like the country has aged another 200 years in Bush's eight-year tenure.

Actually, it wouldn't surprise me if Bush really feels that way about the future and the past. He didn't seem to have much regard for history during his presidency.

But Page clearly does.

"[T]here is a lot that Obama can learn from Bush's past," Page writes, "if only to avoid taking the sort of plunge that Bush's approval ratings took from the great heights he achieved after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks."

But Page's Tribune colleague Patrick T. Reardon offers a common-sense "reality reminder." At one point or another, he says, everyone, even Obama's supporters, will be "upset by or turned off by something he'll do over the next four years." It is unavoidable, really.

As Abe Lincoln might say, you can please some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time but you can't please all the people all the time.

They didn't assess presidential approval ratings in Lincoln's day, but his re-election wasn't assured until the tide had clearly turned in the Civil War. Only then did the voters of the North endorse his candidacy.

Lincoln received 55% of the vote and carried 21 of 24 states in the 1864 election. He owed much of his success to his willingness to listen to everyone and make the best decisions he could make with the future of the nation hanging in the balance.

He did not take a rigid stance. He did not defy his critics with a "my way or the highway" attitude. There were times when Lincoln had to follow policies that were different from what he preferred, but he did so with the best interests of the nation in mind.

Obama will have to do that at times.

And there were times when Lincoln made controversial decisions.

"The novelty of this guy with the interesting life story will wear off," Reardon writes. "He'll be just another president — like the 43 who preceded him. We'll judge him on what he does."

Fair enough. It seems like it's taking long enough to get on with it, though, like that nine-hour train ride from Philadelphia to Washington yesterday.

Let's get started with the future.

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