The Distant Horizon of a President

Eisenhower Obama KennedyWhat a difference a month makes. It now seems like ages ago that pundits were calling Barack Obama’s presidency a failure after only one year. His signature health care initiative was stalled; his inner circle had begun to show indiscipline by way of embarrassing leaks; and foreign leaders from Nicolas Sarkozy to Vladimir Putin to Benjamin Netanyahu were suggesting that the pensive, cautious, thoughtful Obama was just plain weak, or worse: incompetent.

Well, health care legislation has passed, the White House looks like a smoothly run machine, and leaders from nearly half the world have just paid homage to Obama in Washington during what was billed as the most significant meeting on the subject of nuclear weaponry since Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev called for their abolition more than 20 years ago.

No doubt everything will look different in another month’s time. This is the curse of the modern presidency: momentary ups and downs look so consequential and permanent. Everyone’s attention span is short. But the complex job of the president adheres to a different time horizon — extending not merely four or eight years but rather several decades into the future.

Obama seems to be grasping this fact in ways that have begun to impress a few skeptics who now sing in praise of his patience, discipline, far-sightedness. By contrast, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton appear more and more as sprinters, impatient to chalk up as many wins as possible before the clock ran out.

The emblematic presidential biography for the Clinton and Bush years was David McCullough’s Truman — the story of an impetuous, underqualified leader who, by luck, pluck and force of personality, seemed to find himself vindicated by history. If only history repeated itself so easily.

Obama, on the other hand, is playing for keeps, taking his time (except when he senses that the moment is ripe for a win), content to lose a few points while reformulating the game itself over the long haul, even to the extent of asserting un-interest in a second presidential term if that meant better, more lasting achievements generations down the way.

Of course, we can’t know what Obama really thinks. But his references to other presidents suggest a pattern and a time horizon that goes beyond the usual obsession with legacy.

Whom does Obama admire? He speaks often of Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Reagan. Future historians of today’s zeitgeist will note that the best-selling presidential biographies are now of Polk and Wilson. These presidents had in common the setting of a few clear goals and great persistence in achieving them, sometimes against tremendous odds. The results only became evident years after they left office.

Leaders who seek to replicate the lessons of the past almost always find themselves learning new ones. Obama has already acknowledged this. That should reassure his more prudently minded supporters, who worry that the man’s reach for a legacy has exceeded his grasp of political necessity.

Or it’s possible that Obama may most resemble none of the presidents he has invoked but two others from the mid-twentieth century: Kennedy and Eisenhower. He has Kennedy’s charisma and wry sense of his own place in history, not quite tragic (we pray) but with the manner of a man riding a wave rather than charging forward on a horse.

Obama also possesses what Kennedy lacked and what Eisenhower had in abundance: organization, executive competence and discipline. He also has a bit of Eisenhower’s aloofness and a gift for dissembling which, in retrospect, has revealed itself to be a shrewd method for drawing the ranks together while giving opponents greater opportunity to self-destruct.

It cannot be entirely coincidental that the Obama administration has spoken often of laying a new “foundation” at home and abroad. That is precisely what Eisenhower did after the postwar muddle of the Truman years.

If the Roosevelts invented the modern American presidency, Eisenhower and Kennedy refined and enriched it. They did so by mastering the basics.

The president must do three things well: manage, inspire and persuade. So far Obama has shown himself artful at the first two — a fortuitous fusion of Ike and JFK. If he can find a way to do the third, or to keep his failure to do so from destroying his capacity to lead, he’ll find that his legacy will look after itself.

Kenneth Weisbrode

Kenneth Weisbrode is a historian at the European University Institute in Fiesole, Italy, and the author of The Atlantic Century (2009). He is a writer for the History News Service.

Reprinted with permission from the History News Service.


  1. in_awe says

    The reason sales of biographies of Wilson have surged is that for the past 6 months Glenn Beck has been urging his viewers to read them to get a grasp of the history of the progressive movement in the US. Trust me, those reading them aren’t doing it out of admiration for Wilson, nor his ideals.

    • Marshall says

      gee you sure have this right. here are the words of Abe Lincoln, which are nothing like the words of FDR in 1945 address to congress, so I wonder how a person can be like both

      You cannot permanently help men by doing for them what they should and could do themselves.
      You cannot build character and courage by taking away man’s initiative and independence.
      You cannot further the brotherhood of man by encouraging class hatred.
      You cannot help the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer.
      You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than you earn.
      You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.
      You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift.
      You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich.

      • Elaine says

        I want to agree with Marshall. I could not have said it better my self. I feel we are going to be exactly like Greece in two to three years if someone doesn’t do something now. Greece is the perfect example that a welfare state, socialism does not work. If the unions start taking over especially without a 50+1 vote they are going to destroy what little we have left. They are going to destroy the country in either form. The leaders of these unions are all a bunch of crooks & take too much money from their members & blackmail the companies their members work for & it is not for the members it is for their own pocketbooks.

    • Elaine says

      You are ever so right. Woodrow Wilson drew a pretty strong description out of Glen Beck’s mouth that got my attention. It is good to study history. It is good to see how we misinterpret things over the years & how people’s views begin to start coming to life again when they start refreshing their memories. I am in my 60’s. I feel that maybe between my books we had in school & my grandparents & parents & sitting around on Sunday afternoons listening to them talk about WWll & the old days helped me learn a lot. We had big families with big reunions & lots of uncles that served in WWll. I do not think children get information on our previous Presidents. They need to read everything they can. There are several volumes of Our Times that my daughter is reading & finds very informative of life back in the late 1890’s & upward. In_awe may or may not like Glen Beck but I do. He is wanting people to learn about things again that may help us see what we are loosing.

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