During the Reagan years, one of my politically attuned daughters always refused to voice her opinion on the president’s speeches until she’d read the full text in the newspaper the next day. Smart girl. On Monday, minutes after President Obama gave his Second Inaugural Address, my take on it was more positive than it was after I had read the written copy.
Inaugural addresses, given every four years, are opportunities for a president to make history by articulating a vision for the country that will resonate now and possibly through the ages. President Barack Obama’s Second Inaugural Speech got off to a good start, but ultimately fell short. Rather than helping to unite the country, by speaking to all Americans, he chose to energize primarily his party. He did not speak to the Republicans he will have to negotiate with in the coming months and years, nor did he focus much on global security issues. I wanted the president to outline the grand strategy he will advance in leading this country and the world through the perilous times ahead. But his remarks were mostly domestic in nature. And the only time he alluded to leadership was in the context of clean energy.
What President Obama did do was demonstrate energy and resolve. These are welcome attributes, which will serve him well if he remembers that his job performance and his legacy will depend on moving all Americans forward, not just constituents of his own political party.
Interviewed within minutes of the speech, I spoke to Jeremy Thompson in London on Sky News:
In 2008, just after Barack Obama was elected president, I gave a television interview regarding what the Obamas might expect on becoming the new first family. I was asked specifically how Malia and Sasha’s lives would change. For a start, I said, they won’t play outside anymore without armed guards.
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On hearing of the birth of his granddaughter, President Herbert Hoover was reputed to have said, “Thank God she doesn’t have to be confirmed by the Senate.”
In that regard, perhaps not much has changed in Washington since the 31st president’s time, although the whole process seems more fractious than ever before, especially in today’s media-drenched environment.
In the past month we have seen an unprecedented public vetting, a virtual “trial in absentia” of two potential cabinet nominees: U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice for secretary of state and former Senator Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense. These searing spectacles were painful to watch, and they will make more than a few future public servants think twice about subjecting themselves to such battles.
Last week, President Obama did the right thing and finally nominated Senator Hagel for secretary of defense. Whatever happens, President Obama is in a no-lose situation. If Hagel is confirmed, the president gets his choice—a brave and seasoned foreign policy and defense expert. If Hagel is rejected—and this move would only be led by Hagel’s own party—President Obama will likely watch the inevitable weakening of the GOP, as disgusted Republican moderates think yet again about the direction of their party.
Most of the opposition to Hagel’s nomination has been centered around his views on Israeli security and his attitude toward gay public servants. By now the country’s A-list of elder statesmen and analysts have refuted the accusations against the former senator. Additionally, both AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel interest group, and the Human Rights Campaign, the influential gay-equality group, have indicated that they will not oppose Hagel’s confirmation.
Despite what should be a resolution of these concerns, there are still those who charge that Hagel’s thinking on military policy is “outside the mainstream” on defense spending and nuclear developments in Iran. Ironically, even the Defense Department has acknowledged that it is “bloated,” and while some policymakers have blasted Hagel for seeking direct negotiations with Iran over its contested nuclear program, they would do well to look to the past. Throughout the Cold War, Republicans and Democrats alike met repeatedly with their Soviet counterparts, even though the Communist ideology and the Soviets’ possession of the hydrogen bomb were existential threats to the United States.
On the issue of sanctions, Hagel’s approach also has its place in our national security traditions. All thinking politicians have grappled with finding the right balance between diplomatic pressure and the threat or use of military force. Unilateral measures, without an international agreement to impose them, can potentially have counterproductive results—which might range from reducing the U.S.’s maneuvering room to producing an indigenous groundswell of support for a besieged authoritarian regime. Hagel has been right to think in a nuanced way. In policy terms this has always been, apparently until recently, a highly prized attribute. This also happens to be where most ordinary Americans stand today.
I have known and worked with Senator Hagel for decades now, first when he served as a board member of the Eisenhower Institute, later during his time in the Senate, and then again when we both served on the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. He is a man who has always put his country first. Like those of the greatest generation before him, he knows of the cost and unpredictability of war. He is ready to wage war if necessary, but not until other measures have been tried. He is a veteran, a pragmatist and a staunch supporter of this country’s allies, including Israel. The smear campaign that has been underway is the work of a small group of people in pursuit of their own power. A vocal minority should not be allowed to derail his nomination.
At the end of the day, however, the impact of the Hagel nomination could well be about the future of the Republican Party.
The Republican Party is now at a crossroads. Over the last decade moderate Republicans have felt increasingly out of place in its ranks. If the GOP confirms Hagel, it could bolster the idea of a “big tent” Republican Party. A GOP-led rejection of a Republican war hero with impeccable centrist credentials, however, could well be a fatal blow to that concept, along with some of the party’s longest and most successful traditions.
On the nomination of Hagel, GOP Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—who has been an admirer of Senator Hagel in the past—vowed that Hagel would get a “fair hearing” when he comes before the Senate. This is reassuring indeed. President Obama deserves to have his selection of Hagel confirmed by the Senate. But if the Republicans block his confirmation, watch while more loyal rank and file GOP moderates flee the party for independent status.
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.”