A habit all presidents should take up

The Thinker by Rodin

No, I am not talking about President Obama’s smoking habit that he apparently has not kicked. I am talking about this habit:

Inside, Obama found crinkled notebook pages, smudged ink, cursive handwriting and misspelled words — a collection of 10 original letters that he considers among his most important daily reading material, aides said. Ever since he requested a sampling of mail on his second day in office, the letters have become a staple of his presidency. Some he immediately reads out loud to his wife; others he distributes to senior staff members aboard Air Force One. Some are from students requesting help with homework; others are from constituents demanding jobs or health care. About half of the letters, Obama said during a recent speech, “call me an idiot.”

I know some of my readers think Obama is an idiot, but in this particular case, he is one smart president. Perhaps other recent presidents have done something similar to this. Some very distant presidents, like Abraham Lincoln, made a regular point of reading and often responding to their public mail. These days with three hundred million Americans and the ability to send the president email at a whim, the president, not to mention the rest of government, is inundated with correspondence from the public. No president can or should even begin to try to read it all. However, reading ten letters a day at least keeps the president somewhat grounded in the life of ordinary Americans.

You can bet to the extent that George W. Bush read public mail at all, it was carefully filtered by staff to reinforce whatever they wanted him to hear. Otherwise, who knows, he might have learned that Iraq was not developing nuclear weapons. Yet Obama’s staff, by his order, actually gives him a representative sample of his official public mail. In a country as diverse as ours, even two friends will not agree on everything. So you can bet that what Obama is reading is often annoying and pedestrian, as well as heartfelt. In any event, if you really want to do the work of the American people, you have to know how they feel. Because Obama takes the time to read a sampling of his public mail, we learn something you cannot say about many presidents: he really does want to make sure public policy aligns with the actual needs of the American people, not what he thinks they need. Moreover, he is using what he is reading from the public is shaping policy.

What a concept! Somehow, you know that if we had gotten a President Hillary Clinton (or a President John McCain) instead of a President Barack Obama, she would not be regularly reading samplings of her public mail. Oh sure, she cares about Americans but this would never occur to her. I doubt she would be holding regular town hall meetings either. Even his critics I think would have to agree that Obama genuinely wants to hear from diverse points of view, and values input from ordinary citizens. Moreover, Obama is making conversations with citizens a part of the ordinary way he does things. It is very refreshing.

Obama, like most presidents, hears criticism that he inhabits an ivory tower. This is simply not true. Few modern presidents with the possible exception of Bill Clinton come from such ordinary roots. President Obama does not have to hear what it is like to live on food stamps. For a time, his family depended on them. He does not have to try to understand racism and multiculturalism. He grew up in a multiracial household. Some would say he came from a middle class family. It is more accurate to say he came from the working poor, which is probably where he acquired the smoking habit. He also understands how hard it is to make ends meet. It wasn’t until his first book sold well that he managed to pay off his student loans. Yet he also understands to some extent the life of the privileged and the wealthy. He worked on Wall Street early in his career.

Consequently, it should not be a surprise that he reads some of his mail and holds regular town halls. This connecting with ordinary Americans is how he has successfully navigated through life. He stays grounded in the real world, which can be almost impossible within the White House and its security bubble. It’s what is making him an effective president, and which might put him in the pantheon of great American presidents.

I hope he takes it a few steps further. One of the problems with being president is that there is no end to the demands on your time. Town hall meetings are fine, but much of the rabble is kept out by the Secret Service. He should also attend focus groups. His staff should contract with a polling firm like Gallup and have them occasionally fly in representative samples of Americans. He should invite them to the White House for focused discussions, or periodically meet groups off site in real America, say a Best Western conference room. Perhaps once a week his staff could pull some random person or family from the White House tour. He could sit down for coffee or a beer, away from cameras and the press, just to hear firsthand what their real life is like.

Many find it annoying, but what I admire most about President Obama is his ruthlessly pragmatic way of governing. It drove both sides of the political spectrum crazy during the health care debates. No side got everything they wanted, but when he finally decided to engage on health care reform, he made it happen. Despite whining from Republicans, the laws look amazingly like what Republicans like Newt Gingrich wanted enacted back in the 1990s but now decry. It’s neither left, nor right. It’s mainstream. Moreover, the more I read about the law, the more I find to admire about it. For example, employees can reduce health insurance costs by practicing preventive health care rather than reactive health care. This is not just smart; it is very smart. Not everyone will change lifestyles when given a financial incentive to do so, but many will. Over time, these sorts of strategies move mountains. Over a generation, strategies like this cut our national smoking rate from 50% of adults to about 20% of adults today.

As long as he is president, I hope President Obama continues to read those ten letters a day as well as hold regular town hall forums. This is time that is wisely invested and should be a required practice for future presidents of any party affiliation.

Cutting the Presidential Timber

The Thinker by Rodin

It is that time in the pre-election season. The last thing most Americans want to do now is think about who they will pull the lever for in November 2008. However, serious candidates are already moving their pieces. If Pawn to King 4 is a traditional opening move in chess, forming a presidential exploratory committee is a candidate’s first public move into the complex dynamics of running for president.

Since most candidates come right out and say they are running for President, I am a bit puzzled why they claim their campaigns are “exploratory”. Most have done their homework and know that an exploratory committee is the end result of a long process, not the beginning of one. Most of these campaigns will be felled long before the Iowa Caucus. Many will find that no matter how large their ambitions, they simply will not be able to find enough money to run a competitive campaign. The more sober ones will realize early that they simply do not have the right mixture of personal magnetism and mojo to win, then withdraw. Even this early in the campaign it is easy to see who these will be. One will be Iowa governor Tom Vilsack. In addition, you can bet that Chris Dodd and Joe Biden will be among the first to hang it up. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, although he claims he is running to win, realizes his candidacy is about trying to raise issues that appeal to the ultra left wing of the Democratic Party. He knows he has no chance but he does enjoy his brief moments of in the spotlight that comes from being a candidate.

Timing your presidential announcement is always something of a crapshoot. It is never a good idea to be the first to declare. It is the kiss of death. That is why Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack has no chance. He hopes, like all candidates first out the gate, to gather some name recognition. It is a rule that the first candidate to declare must be someone 99 out of 100 people will say, “Who the heck is he?” It is far better, if you are serious about running for president, to be wealthy enough and have time enough to spend years acting like you are running for president for years before declaring yourself. This has been former North Carolina Senator John Edwards’s strategy. At this point, he probably knows Iowa better than most of its residents. However, his tenacity has paid off. Most early polls of Iowa show him in the lead.

At some point, you must take the presidential plunge. Hillary Clinton took the plunge the other weekend. In her announcement (placed first on her web site, just to show that she is Netroots friendly) she invited Americans to have a dialog with her about their issues and concerns. I am sure I am one of the vast majority of Americans who, when they heard her say this, also heard their bullshit meters clanging. Nonetheless, try to take her up on it. Why not send her an email earnestly telling her your opinions on issues of the day. I am sure in her voluminous spare time she will give you a thoughtful reply.

Hah! Not a chance! Instead, here is how Hillary Clinton is probably spending her days. First, there is probably an hour of exercise somewhere. She may be pushing 60, but you are not elected president by looking flabby. Then there is likely another hour at the hairdresser, blow drying the hair and having her makeup applied. Then it is off to briefings and committee meetings, that is when Congress is actually in session. Otherwise, she is probably whispering to her chief of staff or working her Blackberry during those committee hearings. Perhaps because she is a very special FOB (Friend of Bill) she is not spending her evenings on the phone grubbing money. In her voluminous spare time, rather than opening a dialog with you, she is flying here and flying there in an attempt to be seen to be doing the right things. Right now she is busy being seen in Iowa, where the first caucus will be held. She will likely also be found at rubber chicken dinners at American Legion Halls across New Hampshire. When not engaged in these time consuming and expected activities of a presidential candidate, there are the numerous interviews with the press. This is how she really connects with voters. The conversation is one way and you only get to listen. If she reads a newspaper, it is probably when she is flying somewhere. Do not be naïve enough to think that she actually is busy reading editorials and in depth articles about the issues of the day. She has staff to do that for her. She gets bullet points.

In short, most presidential campaigns are about giving the appearance of connecting with the voters without actually following through. Those she connects with are likely to be people who already support or admire her in the first place, so their opinions are hardly a representative sample. If you take the time to attend one of her events (not that any are likely to be near you, unless you live in Iowa or New Hampshire), expect to listen and not speak. Perhaps if you leave a comment on her website’s blog an earnest staff member will take the time to reply. Do not hold your breath.

I do not know why but so far, Hillary’s candidacy has me under whelmed. This is a shame, because she is an articulate and principled woman who would be one of the better-qualified women in the country to be president, in spite of her long association with Bill. She certainly knows what the job is like, having already lived in the White House. Still, her candidacy to date feels stage-managed and slick, a product more of Madison Avenue than from genuine passion and interest. One gets the feeling that Bill is helping her furiously triangulate. It is hard to pin her down on very much at the moment. She is upset with the War on Iraq, but not upset enough (yet) to renounce her vote for the war. She wants to have it both ways. She remains very articulate but is not passionate.

If you want passion with a touch of charisma, John Edwards is likely your candidate of the moment. At least he comes across that way, and he projects the right combination of passion and eloquence on the campaign trail to both connect with voters and appear to have a comprehensive vision forward for the country. In addition, unless he is a remarkable faker, he has convinced me that he cares for the average person. It is unlikely you will find Hillary Clinton rehabilitating housing in New Orleans.

Some potential candidates are making motions like they will not run while not absolutely excluding it altogether. Al Gore comes to mind. It is a shame that he seems uninterested in running, but he may be playing his cards very close to his chest. He now has the conviction and gravitas he did not show in the 2000 campaign. With his tenacity and eloquence educating the world on global warming, he has proven himself as being a leader well ahead of the curve. Moreover, among only a handful of candidates he can claim he was right all along. He spoke out against the Iraq War Resolution at the time Congress was considering it. At some personal risk, he endorsed Howard Dean early in the 2004 presidential campaign. Whether Howard was more electable than John Kerry may not matter. What matters is that Dean was right about Iraq and correct on the issues then that matter so much now. If you have ever heard his speak lately on politics, you know he can speak with a special eloquences. The old stage managed Al is gone.

Others who should run are also being mum. As I survey the field, Al Gore would be my first choice. Lacking him, Wesley Clark strikes me as the person with the necessary combination of military experience and common sense to be an effective president at this perilous time. Bill Richardson, another dark horse who is also unlikely to get far in his campaign, would be another fine choice. Like Clark, he has the credentials in the foreign policy area including a stint as U.S. Representative to the United Nations. Richardson has a unique ability to get along with people than no one else can stand. He counts as a personal friend none other than North Korean Dictator Kim Jong-il. Richardson has also traveled to Darfur to speak to the leaders on all sides of the conflict, in a personal attempt to ease the crisis there. He has a combination of the pragmatic experience of running a state along with the right mixture of federal foreign policy experience.

To me Barack Obama, who also recently jumped into the race, remains an unproven commodity. He has certain advantages including eloquence, youth, and handsomeness. (The latter is an unspoken requirement for presidential candidates.) Yet his resume is thin. It would be exciting to have an African American or a woman as president, just for the novelty. Nonetheless, the challenging times we live in require someone not just with the eloquence but also with the skills and common sense to deal with a myriad of complex issues that challenge us. I suspect Obama needs another dozen years proving himself in the Senate before he will truly be qualified to say he is presidential timber. Americans though often prefer style over substance, so he may well run away with the nomination.

I will not speak too much of the declared Republican candidates. I do this frankly because I don’t think a Republican candidate will have a serious chance of winning in 2008. This is because President Bush, probably unknowingly, is putting a stake through the heart of the Republican Party. There is no candidate out there except possibly Chuck Hagel or Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee that would not be tarred by association with him. Right now Rudy Giuliani polls best, but this is among Americans at large, not among Republicans. Nonetheless, his star should dim significantly once more Americans are aware of his seamier side. It is not every candidate who will openly cheat on his wife while being mayor of America’s largest city. In addition, he is likely way too gay friendly to win the Republican nomination. The Republican conservative Christian segment is still too large.

The only thing certain in this presidential race today is that too much remains uncertain this far out. Surprises come with the territory. Expect a scandal or two to surface. Expect candidates who are perceived to have the edge now to flounder, and a candidate or two in the third tier to move up a notch or two. There may be some drama with an unexpected late run, perhaps from Al Gore. Moreover, expect that national and international events between now and the conventions will also affect voter’s perceptions.

My sense though is that neither Barak Obama nor Hillary Clinton will win the nomination. Those perceived at the moment to be first tier candidates will likely flounder. I do not know whom the Democrats will eventually nominate, but I suspect it will be someone that will disappoint those who place faith in conventional wisdom. For us political junkies, it will still be a lot of fun updating our scorecards.

Continue reading “Cutting the Presidential Timber”

Goodbye President Everyman

The Thinker by Rodin

I am still on my annual two-week sabbatical from real life. I have spent it doing many of the usual things I do during the holidays: eating too much food, putting up and taking down Christmas decorations and doing time-consuming chores you cannot finish in a weekend. Currently I am in the midst of a bathroom repainting project. This involves a lot of tedium (for I had to remove a lot of wallpaper). To keep myself awake I am spending a lot of time listening to the National Public Radio. Today, I was listening to the funeral services held at Washington’s National Cathedral for former President Gerald Ford. I was getting a bit misty eyed.

It was not so much the eulogies or even the glorious singing of the National Cathedral Choir that got me teary, but simple nostalgia for Gerald R. Ford. He is one of a handful of Republicans for whom I ever voted. I was a newly minted voter in 1976, barely nineteen. At the time, I viewed Jimmy Carter as something of a horror. I lived in Florida then, a state dominated by wacky, in your face Southern Baptists. Jimmy Carter struck me as someone straight out of that weird and dangerous Jesus-Land. Gerald Ford may have been Republican, he may have pardoned our most crooked president, but at least he was mainstream. As with all but a handful of my presidential votes I, of course, voted for the loser. Jerry Ford retired to play golf somewhere, Chevy Chase had to find someone else to parody, and I had to finish college.

Although Ford served for less than three years, I always felt very comfortable with him as president. It was not until he was out of office that I figured out why: he was Ward Cleaver in the Oval Office, right down to the pipe and the sweater. Some call Ford the accidental president. This was, of course, nonsense. He was the only president to serve who was not elected to either the office of president or vice president, but his presidency was hardly accidental. President Nixon nominated him following the resignation of his scandal-plagued vice president, Spiro Agnew. Congress got a chance to try out the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which had been ratified only seven years earlier. The amendment allowed Congress to approve the nomination of a new vice president in the event of the death or resignation of the vice president.

President Nixon by that time was up to his eyeballs in Watergate, and needed to find a vice president to whom no one could object. Gerald Ford, the House Minority Leader at the time, fit his criteria to a tee. Even Democrats liked the man. There was nothing to dislike about Jerry: he exuded the ordinary mainstream American. It was as if Ward Cleaver had been elevated into the Oval Office.

For a baby boomer like me, Gerald Ford was a breath of fresh air. It was not just because he put the Watergate and Vietnam era behind us, but it was because in the era of the Un-Cola (7 Up, in case you forgot) he was the un-President. He was the man who should never have been president. He was the type of man who simply lacked the ambition to even try to run for Senator, let alone the Presidency. He was not entirely bereft of ego, but he certainly was well grounded. He was the sort of congressman who seemed genuinely surprised to be House Minority Leader, and was even more surprised to be nominated for Vice President.

If you grew up in the Baby Boom era, as I did, Gerald Ford was a very different kind of president. I was born in 1957, but have no memory of President Eisenhower. President Kennedy was an inspiring president. President Johnson was a somber president. President Nixon was an evil president. What they all had in common though was ambition and ego. They were determined to remake the world grounded in their values.

Not Jerry. He was content to think of the presidency as another 9-5 job. You gave the job earnest attention, did your best for the American people and let the rest of it go. His presidency never soared but except for his very unpopular pardon of President Nixon, it never dived either. He was our cleanup president. He hauled out the trash left by the last four occupants. By the time he assumed office, our loss in Vietnam was inevitable. Nixon’s pardon was simply a part of the process of moving the country forward. Instead of dealing with a bloody war, he was deeply concerned about inflation and swine flu. Those of us at a certain age cannot think about Ford without thinking of his absurd WIN (Whip Inflation Now) buttons and his rolling up his sleeve to get a swine flu shot. That pandemic never occurred, but he felt it was better to be prepared. For the most part, America preferred to take the chance on catching swine flu.

His greatest gift was simply healing a nation torn asunder by Vietnam and Watergate. He let us move on and for the most part, we did. We happily went back into 1950s mode, but without the rabid anticommunism and with even worse taste in clothes. Inflation though refused to yield much to government trickery. It would help him lose a bid at election, as it would in his successor’s attempt at reelection. In retrospect, it is clear that America just had to readjust to a new global reality, and inflation was the price we had to pay. It was manifested in lives, jobs, houses and cars that were downsized.

Still, like everyone in America, I liked Jerry Ford. I still do. I admired his simple Midwestern values, his candor, his transparency and his basic decency. We may never see his likes in the Oval Office again. However, having seen a man who did not really aspire to be president as president, and seeing how well it worked out, has left me with feeling that maybe there is a better way to choose our presidents. I often wonder if we would be better off if instead of a president we had a Prime Minister selected by Congress instead. At least we could quickly get rid of them when they failed to meet our expectations.

Therefore, as I painted and heard the heartfelt eulogies, I got teary-eyed. Like some obscure pope, Gerald Ford will forever be listed in the pantheon of American presidents, but mostly we will skip over his presidency, because not much happened during it. Gerald Ford did not inspire. He did not do great things. Yet he governed with humility and decency. His mettle was never fully tested. We will never know, of course, but I suspect that had his mettle been tested, he would have risen to the occasion.

I do know one thing: of all the presidents who I will live under during my lifetime, I will never identify more closely with any president than I will with Jerry Ford. President Bush claims the ability to read a person’s soul. The nation could read Gerald Ford’s soul, and it was obvious that he was an honest and decent man. In that sense, perhaps he was singularly unique among our modern presidents.

So Jerry, in a way you will always be my president. So rest in peace, Mr. President.

Our Greatest 20th Century Republican President

The Thinker by Rodin

Sorry, he was not Ronald Reagan. I will give you a hint.

President Theodore Roosevelt

If attitude were more important than actual accomplishments then perhaps Ronald Reagan’s effigy should be chiseled into Mount Rushmore. However, Reagan had many faults. Partisans tend to excuse his gross misjudgments, of which Reagan had plenty. These included:

  • The bombing of our Marines barracks in Lebanon and his subsequent decision to cut and run from Lebanon entirely
  • Support for terrorists (which we renamed freedom fighters) in places like El Salvador and Nicaragua that killed hundreds of thousands. His obsession led to the Iran Contra scandal, wherein we deliberately broke the law by selling arms to our avowed enemy Iran to fund terrorists in Central America.
  • An executive branch lead by so many people with no moral compass that the his administration was arguably the most corrupt presidency in modern history
  • A savings and loan fiasco that cost the treasury more than $120 billion
  • The largest peacetime deficits in American history

Nor was it the general who won the Second World War our greatest 20th Century Republican President. President Dwight D. Eisenhower also cut and ran, in this case from the Korean War. He “ended” the violence by threatening to use nuclear weapons on North Korea if they did not agree to a truce. If you are wondering why North Korean Dictator Kim Jong-il is so anxious to build a nuclear arsenal and lob missiles at the United States, now you know why. In fact, North and South Korea are still technically at war. Both sides essentially agreed to stop fighting but never agreed to a peace. To this day, fifty years later, we keep tens of thousands of troops in South Korea on a hair trigger alert.

Eisenhower had many noteworthy accomplishments as president. The one I give him the most credit for was the creation of the interstate highway system. In addition, he was very savvy about the consequences of the emerging military industrial complex. On the other hand, during his presidency, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary and we did not lift a finger. In 1953, he sent the CIA into Iran to kill its elected prime minister, and then helped put a Shah in his place against the wishes of Iranians. This resentment set up the conditions for the Iranian Hostage Crisis some twenty-five years later. It is one of the main reasons the state of Iran still hates us today. If it is part of an “axis of evil” we were instrumental in its creation. Eisenhower was also the first American president to send our troops into Vietnam. It would take more than fifteen years before we would get them out. Tens of thousands of American soldiers would die in the fiasco along with millions of Vietnamese. Perhaps most shameful of all, while Senator Joseph McCarthy terrorized the nation with anticommunist hysteria, the same general that fought tyranny in Europe turned a blind eye. In addition, he oversaw three recessions while in office.

Most of the other Republican presidents I can dismiss for obvious reasons. William Howard Taft would not be seen as a true Republican today, since he introduced the first federal income tax. However his time in office was both short and undistinguished. Warren Harding’s name is synonymous with the Teapot Dome Scandal, not to mention his moral misgivings. Harding had at least two long-term affairs while in office, including a documented fifteen-year affair with a woman named Carrie Fulton Phillips. Calvin Coolidge was too boring to be noteworthy. Herbert Hoover oversaw the start of the Great Depression. Richard Nixon: nuff said. Gerald Ford: an aberration of a president who was never actually elected, nor was he in office long enough to accomplish much.

Which leaves George H. W. Bush and Teddy Roosevelt.

I was tempted to give the nod to our current president’s father. Granted, of all the Republican presidents in the 20th century, I do not think any of them reached the stature of a man like Franklin D. Roosevelt. However, George H. W. generally did what needed to be done, even though it was not popular. In response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, he showed the sort of leadership and wise judgment at which his son floundered. He organized an international coalition of forces to oust the Iraq army from Kuwait. He did it at minimal cost to the United States taxpayer and without pushing into Iraq itself. He even agreed to a modest tax increase, which was necessary, but which earned him the external scorn of the Republican Party.

However, his four years were not without other major controversies. Like Reagan, he was not amiss to a little gunboat diplomacy. He used our military to illegally invade Panama and put its dictator Manuel Noriega into a Florida prison. While he was instrumental in NAFTA, a treaty that became law under his successor, he failed to staunch a severe recession. Perhaps most troubling is that he left office by granting pardons to many who clearly broke the law, including his Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger along with five others implicated in the Iran Contra scandal.

Consequently, I give the nod to Teddy Roosevelt, who was also the first president of the 20th century. Teddy Roosevelt would be seen today as a Democrat. Indeed, he coined the word “progressive”, which is a label many liberals like me now prefer. He was the original trustbuster. His obsession with reigning in the power of corporate interests and the powerful in general would horrify most Republicans today. He coined the term “square deal” to describe a mutually beneficial relationship between business and labor. He passed the Pure Food and Drug Act along with its companion, the Meat Inspection Act to address problems in our food safety system that today would seem unfathomable. Perhaps most startlingly, he was our nation’s premier conservationist. He set aside more land for national parks than all other presidents before him did. In addition, with much arm-twisting he was able to create the Panama Canal. To do it though he had to break a few eggs. It took some gunboat diplomacy to convince Columbia to allow us to “create” the state of Panama.

He was a man that in retrospect did have some faults. He believed in active United States imperialism. In addition to the “state” of Panama, which was largely our invention, he also invaded the Philippines. His reasoning would seem familiar to our current president. He wanted to “uplift” these poor souls toward “Christianity” and “democracy”. Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guam became U.S. protectorates, but it is hardly clear that the natives welcomed our protection. Teddy though was hardly atypical for his time. Manifest Destiny seemed hardwired into our national consciousness in the early 20th century. It would take more than fifty years before we would fully appreciate the downsides of imperialism.

Still, among all our 20th century presidents, Teddy Roosevelt, not Ronald Reagan, stands out as our best Republican president. Perhaps he blazed a trail for his distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was inarguably the best president of the 20th century, yet who has only belatedly gotten the recognition he deserves.

Not coincidentally, Teddy Roosevelt’s graven image is already on Mount Rushmore, as it should be. If anyone deserves to be added to that modern American pantheon though, it should be Teddy’s distant cousin Franklin, not our 40th president.