Barack Obama, god bless him, was swept into office on a wave of hope and optimism, fueled by the despair of eight murderous, corrupt, Constitution shredding years known as the Bush administration. On 12:01 p.m. January 20, 2009, Mr. Obama already had a jam-packed agenda, not only with his own programs, many of them reversals of other programs, but with monumental calamities he was required to mop up courtesy of the prior tenants – no doubt in the cynical hope it would hobble his efforts long enough to be defeated in 2012. It was to be Bush and the Republicans final political calculation, and in the case of the financial meltdown, final robbery of the U.S. Treasury.
In what turned out to be Mr. Obama’s most ill-advised matters on the “to do” list was some vague notion about returning civility to the national political discourse, by being “bipartisan”. Perhaps next in line of ill advisement has been the ill advisement of one Rahm Emmanuel. A vocal DLC’er from the Clinton era, evidently, other than being a Chicago pal and inside operator, he was officed to be the junkyard blue dog. His ethos is all about campaign funding, and re-election. Thus, never mind Lieberman, or Nelson, he became the real annoying guy in the health care ointment by evidently striking a deal with “big pharma”: The non-nuanced version is they can continue to mark up their drugs 3000% if they don’t pour campaign funds into the coffers of the Republican opponents. Rahm’s concern is, of course, continued election of Democrats – including his boss.
Well, unlike Cheney’s secret energy confabs, word got out, and it sort of has come to typify the disconnect between heroic, can- do change agent Obama, and political “reality”.
What we really need is a total separation from that “reality”, even if it means only for four sweet Obama years instead of eight bittersweet ones. (But of course my chess-not-checkers strategy is caring by not caring, winning re-election by not caring about being re-elected).
And that brings me to Mr. James Knox Polk. He was the 11th President of the United States, serving in the dark ages of 1845-1849. The republic was young, idealistic and hopeful, and so was in many ways Polk, despite being a very savvy politician. He was the youngest man elected to the Presidency to that point, literally an Andrew Jacksonian Democrat; in fact one of his nicknames was “Young Hickory”. Although he had served a couple of years as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and two years as governor of Tennessee, he was neither well known nor charismatic when, with a big boost from his Old Hickory himself, he was the compromise nominee of a fractured Democratic Party (what else is new?) for President in 1844, beating out such weighty candidates as ex President Martin Van Buren (“Old Kinderhook”), and Michigan senator Lewis Cass (“Sweet Lew”).
I’m kidding about the “Sweet Lew”. For all know his nickname was “The Cass Man”.
Heck, James Polk was just hoping for the vice presidential nomination. Therefore getting nominated big dog because the Dems couldn’t decide on the who was the lesser evil of the better known guys imbued Mr. Polk with no small amount of humility.
Polk did his first great thing even before he was elected. Given that he was a “compromise” candidate, he declared that he would serve only one term, and not run for re-election in 1848. He thought it was better the Democrats get unified by the next election. Yeah right, Jimmy. Some things never change.
In the election of 1844, his Whig opponent was the certainly better known Henry Clay (and the namesake of my junior high school) – “The Great Compromiser”. But compromising became Clay’s liability in the national contest. Polk, by contrast, was firm and stalwart (never mind the pros or cons of the issues of the day – among other things, there was something called “manifest destiny”, i.e. land grabs from territories held by Mexico and England, and increasingly heated debate about whether to have slavery in the new territories and states). And another instance, poor “Harry” Clay waffled about annexing Texas – sure to piss off Mexico; Polk was unabashedly for it, along with the rest of the country. This decisiveness may have been his greatest appeal. But Polk was simply running like all he had was four years, and he was going to get it done.
Narrowly elected, Polk set his agenda early and clearly in what he knew would be his only term. He was determined to get disputed southwest and northwest territory into the United States, giving meaning to the lyrics in America “from sea to shining sea”. Some say it was trumped up, but after trying to negotiate a deal for California, New Mexico and Arizona, Polk went to war with Mexico, scoring a quick and monumental victory. Meanwhile, he threatened, then eschewed war with Britain over the Oregon territory. He successfully won that land without bloodshed. Polk added fully one third of the present day United States.
In another part of his agenda, Polk created an independent Treasury (too arcane to go into now), serving as the economic system for the U.S. government until 1913.
Additionally, he created the Department of the Interior in 1845. Postage stamps arrived in 1847. Three states joined the union. Gold was discovered in California in 1848. Things were going well. His only big “failure” was he couldn’t strike a deal to buy Cuba from Spain. More is the pity on that one.
Polk walked the tightrope on the slavery issue, which was kicked down the road like health insurance has been these days. As it turns out, despite fears of abolitionists, there would be no slavery in the states carved out of the new territory he added.
What was Polk up against in congress? Democrats held majorities in both houses, but then, like now I say, “and your point is…?” The Democrats were eating each other as usual, and there was plenty of Whig obstructionism.
But the force of Polk’s “hair on fire” approach was a winner.
The comet Polk faded as quickly as it emerged. True to his word, and his agenda completed, he left office in March of 1849, and died in June from cholera – supposedly contracted on a “good will” visit to New Orleans. He was only 53. Perhaps that also hastened his urgency; he was not a healthy guy.
And thereafter, yes, Polk slipped into obscurity. He was followed by several inept presidents prior to Lincoln and the Civil War 12 years later.
The Democrats never really got it together. But James K. Polk got him some shit done.
How might this apply to Obama? Perhaps not at all. Times are different, the opposition is organized and evil.
Obama came into office on a certain amount of mythology as to what he could do and when he could do it. He indeed set an ambitious, high-minded agenda that was all a breath of fresh air to us who voted for him. But he has, it seems, trusted too much of the task of implementing these lofty plans to others who are not so keen on things like integrity or eptitude (which I assume is the opposite of ineptitude). While despite the actions of Bush, we actually cherish a three-branch system of government, furious focus accounts for a lot. The Peace Prize was no mistake – it was representative of the world’s hope.
Polk had four years, and could not, and did not have to be, conscious of Tea Baggers or Cheney – and such opposition certainly haunted the politics of the late 1840’s (in fact it’s amazing how little has changed).
Anyway, I’ll take a kickass Obama for four years than a watery Obama for eight. Yes FDR is a good model, but the real lesson of getting things done may be the obscure guy who came along precisely 100 years earlier.
Harry Truman on Polk: He was great because he knew what he wanted to do and he did it.
Barack, I think it’s time to be like Jim.
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Reprinted with permission from the Valley Democrats United newsletter, Margie Murray, Editor, where the article first appeared.