HNN Debate: Should Obama Lead from the Center or Not?

Mr. Lichtman is a professor of history at American University in Washington, D.C. His six books include Prejudice and the Old Politics: The Presidential Election of 1928 and The Keys to the White House.

Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and Visiting Scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, DC. He is the author, most recently, of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN.

HNN EditorRecently, Allan Lichtman recommended in a post on the Britannica Blog that Barack Obama should adhere to four simple rules followed by FDR. Three of the rules sounded the same notes being heard all over Washington these days: 1. Strike early. 2. Bring the people with you. 3. Think big and broadly. But the fourth rang a controversial bell: Don't govern from the middle. We thought this fourth point was worth further exploration. We asked historian Gil Troy, author of the new book, Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, to comment. What follows is an exiciting Lichtman/Troy roundtable.

Allan Lichtman

Great presidents don’t move to the middle they move the middle to them by changing the conversation about government and implementing programs that work. That is what FDR did for liberal governance in the 1930s and Ronald Reagan for conservative governance in the 1980s.

No political leader in the history of the government has gained major political success or produced fundamental changes in national policy by attempting to move to the middle. Rather the so-called “center” of American politics is the graveyard of mediocre one-term presidents like William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, George H. W. Bush, and Jimmy Carter. The centrist presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton won two terms in office, but they both lost control of Congress in their first term and failed to pass on the presidency to a candidate of their party.

By following the example of FDR Obama can prove that it is possible to learn from history and not merely be condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Gil Troy

I agree with three of Allan Lichtman’s four “simple rules” suggesting how Barack Obama could be another Franklin D. Roosevelt. Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, among others, also knew to Strike Early. Americans’ desire to see their new president succeed gives an administration a great launching pad. Bringing the People With You is essential in a democracy. Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill described Americans’ insistence in 1981 that he give Ronald Reagan a chance to succeed. Thinking Big and Broadly is the example FDR set, and other successes such as John Kennedy followed. I lost Professor Lichtman on his fourth rule “Don’t Govern from the Middle.” In fact, Obama should lead from the center – but as a muscular moderate not a spineless centrist.

Lichtman builds his case against moderation by mentioning a grab bag of mediocre presidents. Actually, the greatest presidents including FDR led from the center. Being a muscular moderate entails having core principles, thinking big, but mastering the art of compromise too. Franklin Roosevelt understood that, as did the other president whom Lichtman identifies as a success, Ronald Reagan.

To understand Roosevelt as a moderate we have to recall the historian’s favorite text – context. When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in March, 1933, America’s prospects looked bleak, radicals demanded revolution. “Mr. President, if your program succeeds, you’ll be the greatest president in American history,” an admirer told Roosevelt. “If it fails, you will be the worst one.” Roosevelt responded: “If it fails, I’ll be the last one.” Against that backdrop, Roosevelt’s reforms were pioneering but temperate. He preserved private property. He restored American capitalism. The American welfare state he created was a stretch considering America’s past, but a far cry from European varieties, let alone the Soviet model so many American intellectuals desired.

In the historian Richard Hofstadter’s apt metaphor, FDR was a nimble quarterback, always scrambling but usually remaining within America’s constitutional boundaries. Perhaps Roosevelt’s greatest failure – his attempt during his second term to pack the Supreme Court – resulted from running out of bounds. The Court-packing scheme – adding up to six new justices for each justice over seventy – failed because Roosevelt overestimated his own power and the American people’s appetite for revolution. This miscalculation set back the New Deal – but taught FDR a valuable lesson. When World War II broke out in Europe, Roosevelt was a model muscular moderate – advancing forward in an important direction, toward intervention, but always staying half a step ahead of the American people, rather than outrunning them.

Similarly, Ronald Reagan proceeded more cautiously than conservatives hoped and liberals feared. From the start of his administration, Reagan demonstrated that he was not the president of the Republican Party or its conservative wing but president of the United States. The Reagan Library has many files filled with letters from conservatives blasting Reagan for being too accommodating. Reagan’s Cabinet, filled as it was with moderates like Alexander Haig and Malcolm Baldridge, let alone Rockefeller Republicans like Richard Schweiker, infuriated conservatives. One of the few ideologues Reagan appointed to a high position, his Office of Management and Budget Director David Stockman, would write a kiss-and-tell book, The Triumph of Politics, complaining that the so-called Reagan Revolution was headed by an amiable former actor more interested in being popular than storming the big government Bastille. Ultimately, the Reagan Revolution slowed the rate of growth of government – but it preserved the New Deal status quo. Stockman’s glum conclusion was that American government was more “Madisonian,” fragmented, temperate, incrementalist, than he had hoped.

This moderation provides essential ballast in a democratic system. America remains a center-right nation – and a country of pragmatists wary of revolution. Even the American Revolution itself was a relatively mild, reasonable affair – compared to the French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutionary bloodbaths. In his victory speech, Barack Obama acknowledged the tens of millions who did not vote for him, whose support he will need to succeed. George W. Bush presidency should be remembered as a cautionary tale warning against the Karl Rove strategy of mobilizing the base and neglecting the center.

When President Bush struck early, thinking big and broadly, one Democratic senator proposed minor changes to Bush’s controversial tax cuts. The senator promised that with those compromises, “I guarantee you’ll get seventy votes out of the Senate.” Rove replied, “We don’t want seventy votes. We want fifty-one.” This polarizing take-no-prisoners attitude alienated many and derailed Bush’s presidency. The writer who recounted that anecdote was Barack Obama himself, in The Audacity of Hope. Obama then wrote: “Genuine bipartisanship … assumes an honest process of give-and-take, and that the quality of the compromise is measured by how well it serves some agreed-upon goal, whether better schools or lower deficit.” This is a great description of what muscular moderation is all about – and what Barack Obama needs to remember as he reads about FDR’s presidency – and plans to lead from the center in an Obama administration.

Allan Lichtman

I appreciate Gil Troy’s positive comments on most of my piece on how Barack Obama could become another FDR. I take issue, of course, with his criticism of my recommendation that Obama should not govern from the middle, but should boldly implement progressive policies.

Troy’s arguments are based on the faulty premise that departure from what he calls the “muscular middle” necessary means the embrace of some sort of radicalism or extremism. This is evident by his contrasting Roosevelt’s policies with “radicals” who “demanded revolution” during the Great Depression. Of course, Roosevelt was no radical or revolutionary, but his policies were decidedly more progressive than the middle-of-the road for his time. Indeed, Roosevelt’s New Deal established much of the modern liberal tradition against which conservatives have been railing against for decades.

According to the acclaimed Poole-Rosenthal index of conservative-liberal ideology (with liberal ratings from 0 to -1 and conservative ratings from 0 to +1) FDR’s rating for the New Deal period -- based on his legislative advocacy -- was -.58. This places him well to the left of the center of US politics at the time. By contrast, the mean scores for all US Senators during the period was +.02 and for all House members -.06.

Likewise it makes no sense to tab Reagan as a centrist because he didn’t mechanically follow the lead of the most extreme right-wingers. As a true conservative and not a middle-roader, Reagan did far more than just slow the growth of government, he engineered foundational changes in tax, regulatory, and defense policies, and in America’s approach to the world. His administration established the modern conservative era of American politics. Reagan’s Poole-Rosenthal rating of +.742 during his first two years places him far to the right in the American political spectrum. By contrast, the mean scores for all US Senators during this period was +.02 and for all House members -.03.

If both FDR with his -.58 rating and Ronald Reagan with nearly his polar opposite rating of +.742 are both centrists then the concept has lost all meaning. By this odd reckoning, all presidents are centrists and have governed from some vast ill-defined middle. However, if Troy means only to say that leading from the “muscular middle” means avoiding the contentious, bitter partisanship of the Bush years, then I heartily agree. However, no political leader and no political party has transformed American politics by leading from the ideological center of his times.

Barack Obama has a golden opportunity to implement such progressive policies as establishing universal health care coverage, weaning us off the fossil fuel economy, vigorously protecting civil rights and liberties, reforming the tax code, and instituting a more cooperative and multilateral approach to international affairs. He should not be dissuaded from pursuing these commitments by misguided advice to govern from the middle.

Gil Troy

I appreciate Allan Lichtman’s reaction to my response to his initial, thought-provoking post. We disagree both about whether successful presidents have led from the center and whether Barack Obama should be what I call a muscular moderate. Our disagreement manifests itself in three important ways: methodologically, historically, and politically.

For starters, I am too much the historian and not enough of a political scientist to settle historiographical disputes with the “Poole-Rosenthal Index of Conservative-Liberal Ideology” or any other formulaic attempt to reduce the complexities of reality to a simple batting average. Such approaches would have made graduate school a whole lot easier – but a lot less interesting.

Of course, the P-R index and others help assess a presidency. My conception of a muscular moderate acknowledges that the FDRs of the world will tack left while the Reagans will tack right – but the question is how much? And here, we plunge into our historical clash. I agree that it would be simplistic to give Roosevelt, Reagan, or other presidents centrist merit badges just for not being as extreme as the most fanatic elements of their respective parties. But in placing a particular president on the spectrum, and divining the secrets to his success, we must factor in the tug-of-war of the political process.

The center is, of course, an elusive target (just as definitions of liberalism and conservative or left and right have shifted over the decades). But we can deem a president a centrist when he acts more as a pragmatist than an ideologue, when he compromises on key measures if not core ideals, when he uses his bully pulpit to forge as broad a coalition as possible both in Congress and among the people. Simply seeing the FDR years as a lurch -.58 to the left and the Reagan years as a lurch +.742 to the right not only misses the subtleties but overlooks the serious ways in which the president’s and party’s ideological wings were clipped in both eras.

We need not fully embrace Barton Bernstein’s characterization of the New Deal as a “conservative achievement” but I always have been struck by Roosevelt’s discipline – most of the time – in not overstepping during an era when cries for more radical solutions were mainstreamed. And I link FDR’s triangulation process to a broader American leadership tradition rooted in George Washington’s enlightened approach to mobilizing Americans behind a “common cause,” Abraham Lincoln’s pragmatic focus on of first keeping the country united and alive, then freeing it from the stench of slavery, and Theodore Roosevelt’s bully-bully romantic nationalism seeking to make America more progressive without alienating big business, too much. The result in the 1930s – as I argued in my last post – was the uniquely American welfare state that stretched our constitutional limits but was a far cry from the European reality or homegrown leftist dreams.

Similarly, I echo the analysis of James Patterson, Alonzo Hamby and others in viewing Ronald Reagan as more of an incrementalist than an ideologue. This centrism of Reagan’s, this understanding of the need to compromise and sell his program broadly, accounted for his success. At the same time, Bill Clinton’s tenure is a cautionary tale for moderates. Simply being a finger-to-the-wind spineless centrist, lacking big ideas and core principles which you can at least compromise on, leaves you with little more than the policy bandaids of the Clinton years and the impression he created of tremendous potential unfulfilled.

So, to end by focusing on the political differences this exchange uncovers, I desperately hope that Barack Obama leads from the center, appealing to what he has called the “pragmatic, nonideological attitude of the majority of Americans.” I discovered by analyzing America’s centrist tradition that the search for moderation is really about reinvigorating a new broad vision of American nationalism – and advancing policies that reinforce a big, broad tent approach. It starts with repudiating the George W. Bush-Karl Rove 50-percent-plus-one strategy of simply mobilizing enough partisans to ensure re-election. But it entails picking moderate, non-ideological advisers – as Obama has done so far. It entails reaching out symbolically and substantively to Republicans and more conservative Democrats – as Obama has done so far. And it entails singing a song of centrism while advancing constructive, bridge-building policies that are rooted in the ideas of one camp but acknowledge the concerns of the opposition. It requires complex solutions to complex problems, mindful of Dwight Eisenhower’s warning to John Kennedy that only the thorny questions end up on the president’s desk, the easy ones are solved before they get to the chief executive.

What that means more concretely (to follow Lichtman’s agenda) is constructing a health care reform that avoids triggering the big-government fears Republicans exploited so effectively in killing the Clintons’ program. It means using government stimulus to find alternative energy sources but not in such a heavyhanded way as to smother individual or corporate initiatives – or trigger another great inflation thanks to soaring budgets. It means tax reform that does not return us to crushing burdens of the 1950s or the 1970s. And it means protecting civil liberties and working together with allies without being afraid to treat terrorism as a military problem not simply a crime and without forgetting how in the Middle East cooperation and diplomacy can be perceived as weakness.

This summer, Barack Obama demonstrated the kind of muscular moderation America needs, when he endorsed a different FISA domestic surveillance bill from the one he initially opposed. This nuanced approach angered many of his core supporters. In a remarkable on-line exchange with thousands of his field workers, Obama explained why the new legislation did not cross his red lines – while affirming his commitment to defend civil liberties if legislation did. As one volunteer who participated told me, he showed he was willing to listen to the complaints, he understood the disagreement, but he was comfortable with his decision. George W. Bush rarely showed he was willing to listen. Bill Clinton too frequently caved in on core issues. At that moment, and many others, Obama demonstrated that he just might walk the walk as well as talk the talk – governing as he speechifies, creating a “Yes We Can” muscular moderation that advances a substantive agenda in ways millions of Americans in the big, broad, pragmatic center can applaud.

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More Comments:

Maarja Krusten - 12/16/2008

I'm currently reading Tom Brokaw's Boom! (a year or so late, as it came out last year and then was on my Christmas list). Here's what John McCain said in the chapter in Boom! on "The war without end." Brokaw quoted McCain as saying of the Sixties, "I think the Sixties probably broadened our society and our views. I think there was a swing towards liberalism, and then the pendulum swung back with Reagan. But I don't view him as a particularly right-wing ideologue. . . . I still think there's a great center in America, and it doesn't budge a helluva lot."

Louis Nelson Proyect - 12/16/2008

After looking at a description of Troy's written record on the Internet for just a few minutes, I can say that he is a raving rightwing ideologue. Part of the problem with American politics over the past several decades is that when the agenda keeps going to the right, the "center" goes along with it. That is why a DLC politician like Obama can be mistakenly identified as a liberal. If being a liberal means being a few degrees to the left of the politicians to the right, then Mussolini was a liberal in comparison to Hitler.

Robert Lee Gaston - 12/15/2008

Consider the following if he doesn't.

He is the president of a generally center-right country.

The Senate Democrats have a worse exposure in 2010 than the Republicans did this time around.

The current house has a 7% approval rating. There is no way of knowing what it will be after planned tax increases. (Remember 1994.)

Does he want to be just another one term Democrat president?

Arnold Shcherban - 12/14/2008

No fundamental changes promised by Obama cannot be practically achieved
by ruling from the center, especially in the far-right environment of a crisis America is in now - this should be clear to 10-year-old.
Broad public support that led to Obama'a electorial victory was itself based primarily on the hope he would deviate from routinal centrist mainstream (business-as-usual type) that was (and still is) associated with current Washington's practices. It is enough to refer to the Washington's handling of the bail-out package to realize that the very theoretical and practical principles of Washington's policies have to be revised; just some beautification of the old ones won't suffice. Moreover, centrist reforms will definitely lead to even worse crisis (wolves always eat sheep, so you cannot save sheep, i.e. majority, by keeping neutral, centrist position.)
That's my two cents on a declining

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