During his first term, Barack Obama invited historians to the White House so he could learn about Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and other American presidents. History teaches us valuable lessons and Obama looked for guidance from some of America’s greatest leaders.
Lincoln and Roosevelt still have much to teach us, but a better model for Obama’s second term is another Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower. History doesn’t repeat itself, so Eisenhower’s trials and tactics are no perfect guide for today’s leaders. But Ike offers useful principles from both his three years as supreme Allied commander in Europe during World War II and from his eight years in the White House. Democratic and Republican leaders both need to be more like Ike.
During WWII, the common goal was defeating Nazi Germany, but to win the war, Ike had to coordinate a coalition of Yanks, Brits and Frenchmen, each with different interests and strategies. To keep everyone onboard, he bended to useful ideas and held firm against the foolhardy during long, contentious meetings that would have tested the patience of Job.
Today, the overarching task of our national politicians is creating a long-term framework for our federal budget. Most issues that divide us are contained within those contentious numbers: who pays taxes, how and how much, what we spend on and how much. We can no longer keep kicking the can down the road; a comprehensive budget guide for the coming decades must emerge now. Every other contentious issue should be put on the back burner.
To defeat Hitler, Ike deftly balanced the agendas and outsize egos of Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle, not to mention the senior generals and admirals from each country. Each man was used to getting his own way, yet Ike succeeded. When put in that historical context, Obama’s parallel task is relatively easy. He only has to unite John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell and a majority of their followers.
After being elected president, Eisenhower usually chose a middle path on both domestic and foreign policy, which is the only appropriate response today, considering how evenly divided the electorate was in November. Ike rejected extremists from both parties and that’s what each side must do today.
Ike had to share power with Democrats, who controlled Congress for most of the eight years of his presidency. With bipartisan help, he balanced the budget and invested in the future, by creating the interstate highway system and launching federal support for local public schools. Time and again, Ike the centrist held back a National Security Council eager to use nuclear weapons to resolve regional conflicts.
Ike was far from perfect. His sins included unleashing the CIA to overthrow democratically elected governments in Iran and Guatemala. But, in most cases, he remained cool and relatively non-ideological, traits Obama has also shown, and that will be essential in the months ahead.
Lincoln had to defeat the South in war before reunifying the nation. Teddy Roosevelt bulled his way over obstacles. They are not the best models for uniting a nation that is divided almost 50-50 by the two political parties. It’s time to look to Ike for a way to move us forward. Our job as citizens is to recognize that the middle road is the only way.