Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Freedonia: Land of the Spree, Home of the Knave

"The greatest, most obvious mistake that American administrations make is to overcompensate for the flaws of the previous one. The pendulum should come to rest in the middle, not swing to the other extreme."

Robert Kaplan
The Atlantic

Robert Kaplan makes an observation, in his piece in The Atlantic, that is similar to one I have made in the past, that I have seen others tap dance around and that comedian/commentator Bill Maher made directly earlier this year.

Simply put, that observation is this: For whatever reason, at some point Americans reached the conclusion that a new president must represent a complete break with that president's predecessor. That notion was well entrenched when Barack Obama was elected president last year.

And new administrations take power believing that is at the heart of their mission. But, as the answer to the woes facing America, that is every bit as fictional as the make–believe nation of Freedonia from the Marx Brothers' "Duck Soup" movie.

I don't think it has always been that way. This was before my time, but, from what I have heard and read, many people were concerned that Harry Truman would not be enough like Franklin Roosevelt when he succeeded him in 1945.

Maybe it was because they were from the same party, but Americans seemed to want Truman to do things the way they had expected Roosevelt to do them when they elected him for the fourth time the year before. I guess many Americans had grown comfortable with Roosevelt — in fact, most Americans under the age of 20 probably had no memory of any other president — and their expectation was that Truman would make the same choices, the same decisions that Roosevelt would have made.

That was unrealistic, of course. Every person on this planet does things just a little differently. If anyone expected Truman to be a clone of FDR back in 1945, they quickly learned otherwise — even though he was largely faithful to Roosevelt's agenda.

In my lifetime, though, it seems that most new presidents have been expected to be polar opposites of the presidents they succeeded. There have been rare exceptions to this rule — for example, when George H.W. Bush was elected in 1988, many people believed he was a stand–in for Ronald Reagan, who was barred by law from seeking a third term.

In recent times, though, new presidents have entered office keenly aware of the public's perception of the shortcomings of their predecessors. Bill Clinton was expected to be completely different from George H.W. Bush. After Clinton was impeached and his extramarital dalliances had become fodder for late–night TV monologues, George W. Bush was elected as the anti–Clinton.

And, when Obama was elected last year, it was with the expectation that he would be a 180–degree shift from the Bush years.

Bush had some really bad ideas for leading the nation, but, as Maher pointed out, Obama needs to take the good ideas he wants to implement — and merge them with some of that "Bush swagger." Bush's party had congressional majorities that were far below what Obama has today — in fact, initially, the GOP's hold on the Senate was so shaky that Republicans lost it for 1½ years when Vermont's Jim Jeffords left the party and became an independent in 2001 — but he was still able to push through virtually everything he proposed.

Obama has huge majorities in the House and Senate so why is it so problematic for him to push through his proposals? Perhaps, as Maher suggested, he needs to tell the American people, "Jesus told me to fix health care!"

"Be Like Bush," the headline on Kaplan's article says. I agree with that. I'm not saying — and I don't think Kaplan is saying — that Obama needs to be exactly like his predecessor.

But he needs to be more insistent upon the things he believes to be right — and less concerned about appeasing those who cannot be appeased.

No comments: