2012 brings to a close one of the most politically exhausting times I can remember. The presidential election was the culmination of a campaign that went on literally for years. It ended with the victory of President Barack Obama, just as the nation embarked on a harrowing ride to the fiscal cliff.
Washington is a city that lives and even thrives on stress and the emotional highs and lows that come with it. But the last eighteen months have been unusual, and often especially unpleasant. Despite this, I come to the end of a very tough year buoyed by what I will call the “magic many” – that is, the many personal and public reasons why I am feeling upbeat.
The inspiration for this blog post came from The American Jewish Historical Society’s annual dinner earlier this week. The AJHS was honoring the Monuments Men for the indispensable role these 345 uniformed men and women, from thirteen countries, played during World War II. They saved millions of priceless artistic works, cultural artifacts and documents, including the Mona Lisa. Under orders from General Dwight D. Eisenhower, they were dispatched across Europe — even in the heat of battle – to rescue, restore and return to their owners the treasures that the Nazis had looted.
That evening I was seated next to Carol Wall, a philanthropist and one of the Society’s supporters. “The 1950s,” she told me, “were years of gratitude…. For my family it was a time of vast relief that the loneliness and uncertainty of the war years were behind them.” She talked about the power and poignancy of being able to do simple things again, like barbequing beef on the backyard grill.
Carol’s words got me thinking. Even if there seems to be no relief in sight on the current public policy and political front (the debt ceiling fight is up next), it is never too soon to focus on gratitude. So, here is a small selection of the things that have meant a great deal to me this year. They are not necessarily numbered in order of importance.
- The Opportunity to Interact with Rising Generations: In September I gave the opening address to the incoming class of White House Fellows, an event that has become something of a tradition. This ongoing relationship has given me considerable faith in the caliber of young leaders who are coming into positions of power. This was reinforced in early November when I took four students from Gettysburg College with me to West Point to participate in a conference designed and run by the cadets called the Student Conference on United States Affairs. What a lift it was for me to watch civilian students and cadets discuss together the myriad of issues facing this country. My students reported that the event left them with a “new sense of optimism” about the future. In watching civilian and military undergraduates together, I could only share their confidence and excitement.
- My Father’s New Books: John S. D. Eisenhower’s distinguished career as a military historian has not abated for one moment. This year he came out with two wonderful books: Soldiers and Statesmen: Reflections on Leadership (University of Missouri Press) and Mabuhay: Coming of Age in the Philippines (Ferrous Books). Mabuhay features more than forty original photos taken in the 1930s by John, with a camera given to him by his father, Dwight Eisenhower. The hardback version of the book is a signed, limited edition. It is also available in paperback. Both books demonstrate his remarkable historic reach.
- The Help from My Friends: This year a handful of people gave me unstinting support, for which I will always be grateful. They were also part of a larger group that seemingly appeared out of nowhere and helped my family protest the design for the Eisenhower Memorial, along with hundreds of well-wishers from across the country who contacted us or wrote publically about the memorial. They provided the wind at our backs. These wonderful people know who they are.
- The Lives of Fellow Colleagues: I will mourn the passing but will always celebrate the lives of Greg Guroff and Spurgeon Keeney. Greg was a Russia expert, former USIA official and founder of the Foundation for International Arts and Education. Greg never stopped trying to improve US-Soviet /US-Russian relations. How fortunate I was to call him my friend and colleague. Spurgeon was trained as a Russianist, but had a distinguished career in many high level defense jobs which led him, eventually, into arms control advocacy. Spurgeon and I served on the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on International Security and Arms Control for many years. Throughout his career he mentored many of the leading professionals in the international security field today. Both men will long be remembered.
- The People Who Preserve the Past: After decades of selfless service to the Eisenhower Presidential Library and then the Eisenhower Foundation, Mack Teasley is retiring. He will be impossible to replace. At other institutions, including AJHS (above), I admire the remarkable work of Kim Sajet at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and Tim White at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. I spent three unforgettable days visiting that exceptional museum and roaming Buffalo Bill territory.
- The American Voter: Despite the Super Pacs and the flood of other money, the people who flocked to the polls this November could not be “bought.”
- Glenn Kessler—“The Fact Checker”: No one should be able to get away with misleading statements or lies. Thank goodness they can’t get away with it now.
- The Readers of This Blog: For every person who leaves a comment on this site, many more people find a way to reach me privately. What fun I had this year, sharing my thoughts and hearing your responses. Not only did the number of readers rise exponentially, exceeding 50,000 readers on some days, but it was read regularly in 74 countries.
As the year draws to a close, I will stand back and reflect with gratitude on the many people this year who enriched my life. I hope you will, too.
Happy holidays and very best wishes for a productive and happy new year.
On December 7, 2012, Susan Eisenhower gave an interview to Sky News on Hillary Clinton’s legacy as Secretary of State:
When I was a young adult, people used to joke that if the political situation got any worse they would simply move to Australia. When I notified a few of my friends that I would be taking a trip to Canberra and then Sydney after the election, several people wrote me and asked: “Are you planning on coming back?”
Who can blame anyone for such wise cracks? Despite feeling relieved that the election is finally over and that the nation has spoken decisively, we are left with addressing now a series of divisive, dispiriting issues. This is not being helped by the fact that the conduct of the campaign was often brutal or unbecoming. In addition, too much money was spent and there was little debate about how to tackle the nation’s problems. The thrust of the election for both sides was all tactical, with the principle aim of proving the unsuitability of the other candidate. In the end, I believe the voters selected the right candidate. But ultimately, the vote was driven more by fear and contempt (for the other party) than an endorsement of a coherent national direction.
This offers both an opportunity and a danger for President Obama. If he doesn’t set an entirely new tone and give Republicans a way to “save face,” his second term could be imperiled – and this could have a lasting impact on his legacy. His alternative is to seize some obvious openings.
Here are several thoughts on what Obama should do:
1. Save political capital for when it really counts.
History has shown that second presidential terms can be perilous. That’s why Obama must be careful to pick the right fights. The “trial balloon” of Susan Rice for Secretary of State, for instance, should not be one of the places Obama spends his hard-earned political capital. He must preserve it for tackling one or possibly two big transformational challenges.
2. Bind the wounds.
The president needs to turn the atmosphere created by the negative presidential campaign into something positive: a national approach to our long-term challenges. Simply trying to empower the middle class is not an overarching strategy. With another war winding down, global economic shifts underway, and debt and recovery challenges in the U.S., the country needs the president to articulate a broad vision for the nation – not just a dissertation on tax policy or the government’s relationship with its citizens.
As soon as is feasible, the president would do well to travel to one or more of the Red States. Though Obama lost the Midwest and the South, he may have more in common with the residents of those rural areas than his handlers might think. Of strong Midwest stock himself, Obama has the opportunity to demonstrate some political bravery by wandering into seemingly hostile territory. He has been the epitome of a family man; this can help provide some useful touchstones. He can also make the case to those in conservative small-town America that, like their urban equivalents, he understands they suffer from limited opportunity and wants to do something about that.
Now is also the time to start talking with the business community. During the election, big-moneyed interests used the GOP’s social conservatives and working ranks to try and ratify arrangements that were primarily for their benefit. But Donald Trump and Jack Welch, for instance, are hardly icons of conservative lifestyles or values. Many of the unfounded conspiracy theories they advanced during the campaign were aimed at rallying those “impressionable others” into voting against their own economic interests. While this may be a sad and cynical turn in our electoral politics, they do not represent the views of all of America’s wealthy. More should be done to gather their ideas for moving forward. Raising taxes will never be enough. The future of everything, from economic prosperity to reducing income inequality, cannot be achieved without an economy that is growing. For this, it will require all hands on deck.
3. Give Americans a new way to think about the economy.
The president and the country will be helped considerably if the current fiscal crisis is put into context. It is more important than ever for us to understand the nature of our national strategic challenges and to see tax and revenue policy as only a means to an end. Finding the right balance of income and expenses is not just a way to avert a debt crisis; it is one of a number of measures that will assure our national strength and security. Under such a banner all Americans would be willing, as they have been in the past, to sacrifice something for our country’s national security.
On my recent visit to Australia I could easily see why people, in jest or otherwise, would hold out the island continent as an alternative to home. The country is beautiful and the Aussies are fun and unpretentious. These are tempting attributes for any modern society.
That’s why we cannot allow the United States to become a nation of “farnarklers,” a word they use Down Under for talkers who never get anything done. We, who live in the United States, need President Obama to lead and inspire us all – so we can ensure that America will remain the envy of the world.
Last week the Associated Press ran a story about the Eisenhower Memorial and the delay of its consideration by the National Capital Planning Commission. Since this issue is a public matter, our family is publishing the full letter quoted in the story. The letter, posted below, was written by John S.D. Eisenhower to Senator Daniel Inouye, vice chairman of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission. My father, John S.D. Eisenhower, is the only surviving child of Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower and executor of his father’s will.
On Monday, November 5, Susan Eisenhower appeared on the Sky News show “Boulton & Co” to discuss her endorsement of President Barack Obama. Rounding up the 2012 campaign season, she reflects on the challenges of the past four years, offers a last-minute prediction for Election Day, and shares her thoughts on the future – regardless of America’s choice today.
Chris Matthews asked me to appear on Hardball to discuss my endorsement of President Barack Obama’s reelection. In the course of the five-minute interview, David Brooks’ recent article on the election outcome came up. Like Matthews, I have misgivings about Brooks’ thesis that Romney could get more done because he would be able to persuade Republicans to work with him and therefore, by extension, with the Democrats. Does this mean we have to vote for a presidential candidate so that his party won’t obstruct the governing ability of his opponent?
Brooks also advances the notion that Mitt Romney would be able to count on his party’s full support because Republicans would not want to “destroy a GOP president.” I think that Brooks misreads the fervor of some of the newest Republican members of Congress. He also fails to note the continuing impact of the pledges many of them signed, which committed them to never raise taxes. History tells us that those who have an ideological world view are often dogged and uncompromising. While the issue was different, Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy nevertheless wreaked havoc in American life during the late ’40s and early ’50s and spared no one, including President Dwight Eisenhower, a member of the senator’s own party.
Finally, Brooks takes it as a given that in this atmosphere the Democratic Senate would be malleable to compromise. However, there may be no incentives to cooperate with the Republicans if they think Romney could be subject to a primary fight within his own party in 2016.
The country will continue to suffer if this zero-sum game continues. No matter who is elected, cooperation and compromise will be required. Americans should select for president the man who best represents their views. It is up to Congress to act like a Congress should: to take their responsibilities seriously and get their jobs done. This includes giving the president — no matter who he is — a chance to govern.
Four years ago, I left the Republican Party of which I was a lifelong member and became an independent. Not long after, I supported Barack Obama in the 2008 election for president. I made this decision determined to look at the issues not as a Republican or a Democrat, but as an American.
It is through that lens that I consider my choice in the 2012 election. Like many other voters who crossed party lines to vote for Barack Obama in the last election, I have watched the 2012 campaign carefully and listened closely to what the candidates have said. I believe that President Obama should be re-elected.
Very few American presidents have been truly prepared to assume that job. Four years ago, Obama, a relatively inexperienced public servant, became the 44th President of the United States during one of the most difficult times our country has faced. The nation’s economy was on the brink of collapse. Our image overseas was tarnished, and our military was bogged down in two unpopular wars. I supported Obama then because I thought that he was unflappable. I saw him as a man with a keen intellect and a cool analytical head. I believed he would also be able to inspire those who had suffered most from a recession unparalleled since the Great Depression. In doing so, I reasoned, he would go a long way towards reuniting a nation deeply divided.
Obama was elected and took office, building on a number of stabilization programs initiated by the Bush administration. He took many other vital steps that reestablished our economic footing, including saving America’s automobile industry.
In the last four years, and despite the global downturn, America has come back from the brink. While pain is still being felt in far too many sectors of the economy, from a macroeconomic standpoint the situation in the United States is better than it is among our allies. According to the International Monetary Fund, today the United States is poised for 3 percent growth, which would make our economy the strongest of the other richest economies, including Canada and Germany. Other influential studies, cited in a recent column by Fareed Zakaria, show that debt in the U.S. financial sector, relative to GDP, has declined to levels not seen since before the 2000 bubble. And consumer confidence is now at its highest levels since September 2007. The housing market is also slowly coming back. While there is still an enormous amount to do to assure a recovery, the president deserves credit for a steady hand during this dangerous and unpredictable time.
In the last four years, President Obama has also had to contend with a rapidly changing international environment. He ended the war in Iraq, was the first Democratic president to ratify an arms control treaty with the Russian Federation, and rallied global leaders to put nuclear security at the top of the international agenda. The Obama Administration has also been responsible for decimating the top leadership of al-Qaeda and introducing biting sanctions on Iran. Today the president has significant experience in managing foreign relations, experience that GOP candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, do not have.
As a result of this campaign I am more confused than ever about what Mitt Romney stands for. I know little of his core beliefs, if he even has any. No one seems to agree on what they are, and that’s why I do not want to take a chance on finding out.
Given Romney’s shifting positions, he can only be judged by the people with whom he surrounds himself. Many of them espouse yesterday’s thinking on national defense and security, female/family reproductive rights, and the interplay of government and independent private enterprise. In this context, Barack Obama represents the future, not that past. His emphasis on education is an example of the importance he places on preparing rising generations to assume their places as innovators and entrepreneurs, workers and doers, and responsible citizens and leaders. He recognizes, as many of us do, that access to opportunities must be open to every American, regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. This is not an entitlement, but a sound investment in the future.
Barack Obama’s record as president has not been perfect, and there have been frustrations for all of us during this time. Nevertheless, I believe that he deserves four more years in the White House. If the voters on November 6 give him that chance, we should expect and demand, if necessary, that members of both parties work closely with him to find a way to avert the “fiscal cliff” and other pressing and possibly destabilizing problems.
As I said in 2008 and will say again: “Unless we squarely face our challenges as Americans—together– we risk losing the priceless heritage bestowed on us by the sweat and the sacrifice of our forbearers. If we do not pull together, we could lose the America that has been an inspiration to the world.”
Last night I almost felt sorry for presidential aspirant, Mitt Romney. You had the impression he was in the middle of an oral exam – rattling off population statistics and geographical facts as if to prove he’s got foreign policy down cold. At the same time, Romney was unable to differentiate his views from those that have been advanced by the president in the last four years, thus leaving his position diminished. “What you just heard Governor Romney say,” Obama observed, “is he doesn’t have different ideas, and that’s because we’re doing exactly what we should be doing to try to promote a moderate, Syrian leadership and a — an effective transition so that we get Assad out. That’s the kind of leadership we’ve shown. That’s the kind of leadership we’ll continue to show.”
Why did Romney get caught in this strategic bind? The answer lies in two places. First, women have become increasingly important in the last stages of this campaign. While mostly male commentators hailed Romney’s command of the first debate and claimed a tie in the second, what appeared to be excessive aggressiveness was a “turn off” for many women. By moderating his tone, Romney aimed at making women more comfortable with his candidacy, which simultaneously helped his move to capture the middle ground.
As Romney’s messages have become more centrist over the last few weeks, his poll numbers have improved. That’s why his implied commitment to finding bipartisan solutions was central to his closing arguments. “America’s going to come back. And for that to happen, we’re going to have to have a president who can work across the aisle,” he said. He went on to relate his experience in Massachusetts where the statehouse was controlled by Democrats.
This is a classic. But beware.
Just because Romney now says he wants to cooperate in a bipartisan way doesn’t mean other members of the Republican Party will agree. If Romney is indeed the centrist he once was in Massachusetts, there are structural reasons why as president he would have difficulty governing from the middle. A Romney election may well bring, on his coattails, many more conservatives to Congress. His base there will determine a great deal of what he can accomplish. In the foreign policy realm, where Romney has little personal experience, he will be heavily reliant on his advisors, most of whom are neocons as well as former Bush administration officials. On the domestic front, Romney will also be indebted to the party faithful. He will need to give many of them top spots in his administration. Since he will undoubtedly wish to seek a second term he will also be constrained by how close to the center he is allowed to get. Even John Boehner, as Speaker of the House, has not been able to restrain the effects of the Tea Party on his own capacity to lead.
It is worth remembering that George W. Bush ran a noteworthy centrist campaign in 2000. In the Bush- Gore debate at Wake Forest University on Oct. 11, 2000, Bush said: “I am worried about over-committing our military around the world. I want to be judicious in its use. I don’t think nation-building missions are worthwhile.” A little more than two years after his election, the United States preemptively attacked Iraq—spurred on largely by the GOP’s neo-cons. Before Bush’s second term was over the United States was in engaged in what would turn out to be the two longest wars in US history, costing trillions of dollars to execute, and subjecting our troops to three, four and even five deployments. Read more…
Mitt Romney’s performance earlier this week was every bit as aggressive as his demeanor in the first presidential debate—something that was a big turn-off for me and many others. But Tuesday night, Romney outdid himself in two other ways. First, he displayed a kind of manic rudeness. When Obama thought that the governor had asked him a question, Romney snapped: “You’ll get your chance in a moment. I’m still speaking.”
Excuse me? That was the President of the United States you just barked at, not just your political rival.
Second, Romney displayed a surprising breach of loyalty. Apparently, the former Massachusetts governor wants the presidency so badly he was prepared to throw George W. Bush under the bus. In an answer to a citizen’s question for Romney on how he would differentiate himself from the former president, the GOP candidate cited several things. The most important of them was the Bush administration’s high budget deficits.
“President Bush and I are different people, and these are different times,” he said. “And that’s why my five-point plan is so different than what he [Bush] would have done… I’m going to get us to a balanced budget. President Bush didn’t. President Obama was right. He said that that was outrageous to have deficits as high as half a trillion dollars under the Bush years. He was right…”
Even though Romney went on to criticize Obama for even larger deficits, the GOP candidate fell into a strategic trap: Romney showed that on deficit spending the Republicans have been talking out of both sides of their mouths.
In answering a question about the former president of your own political party, most of us might have expected that any criticism from Romney would, at the very least, have come with a qualifier. He could have easily said: “Although the Bush deficits were far too high, the president was dealing with a national emergency—September 11.” This would have been smart since Romney also challenged Bush’s record on China, another sensitive matter.
Romney owes the GOP nomination – in large measure – to the Bush family. As pillars of the current Republican establishment, they still wield enormous power. Read more…
During the U.S. invasion of Cambodia in 1970, I volunteered in Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott’s mailroom. My school had gone “on strike” to protest the incursion, and the Pennsylvania Republican was happy for the extra help. Some days later, I was dispatched to the White House mailroom, which was truly under siege. I will never forget the experience.
The political turmoil surrounding the Vietnam War, including the invasion of Cambodia, brought an avalanche of angry public opposition. In those days the main outlets for protest were taking to the streets, shutting down public places and writing public officials, which Americans did in the millions.
At the White House, all letters were read and sorted into piles. Volunteers then categorized them and sent some up the chain of command. But not every letter was a complaint or an expression of disapproval. President Nixon also had his supporters. Some writers offered fiery endorsements of the president’s policy, while others penned cards to tell the president he was in their prayers.
Perhaps it was a good thing that people were praying for the Commander-in-Chief, because countless others ascribed the most far-fetched and contemptuous motives to the president’s military action. Many letters I read called the president every expletive imaginable. A number went immediately to the Secret Service. Most shocking of all were a surprisingly large number of envelopes that included not just profane notes, but also everything from burned American flags to human feces and semen.
Even though Watergate was years away, it was a tumultuous time and the nation’s anger was firmly fixed on the president. I felt dizzy from the hatred and was left to wonder who these Americans were. Rather than discuss the serious business of war or withdrawal, many ordinary Americans seemed so intolerant, so unrestrained, so beyond rational debate.
It took me years to get over what I had seen. But eventually I realized that even the ugliest letters in that mailroom had little to do with the invasion or the foreign policy implications of the war itself. Except for the psychologically disturbed, most of the writers were really expressing fear, uncertainty or powerlessness. These people felt alienated from those in elected office, and they responded cynically and bitterly to a system that was apparently unresponsive. Many of them latched on to the president himself, who had in fact inherited the war from his predecessor.
In more recent years, I’ve wondered what the Congressional and White House mailrooms must be like now. While letters are still written, many of the outcries or endorsements are sent by email, including standardized messages generated by PACs or special interest groups. Election time, however, raises the public temperature. A number of histories of the 2008 campaign, for instance, tell us that the Secret Service expressed noteworthy alarm at the uptick in threats, especially after large-scale, aggressive campaign rallies. I presume that this year has been just as extreme.
Last week I gave a lecture on leadership in transformational times at Gettysburg College’s Eisenhower Institute to students from the Lutheran College Washington Semester, a group of undergraduates from a consortium of thirteen Lutheran colleges. Since most of them were political science majors, I asked how many of them would consider running for public office. Read more…