THE IKE PHASE
DAVID BROOKS | NYT NEWS SERVICE
ON January 20, 1961, John Kennedy delivered his rousing Inaugural Address.
But this speech was preceded, as William Galston of the Brookings Institution has reminded us, by an equally important speech: Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address.
Kennedy’s speech was an idealistic call to action.
Eisenhower’s speech was a calm warning against hubris.
Kennedy celebrated courage; Eisenhower celebrated prudence.
Kennedy asked the country to venture forth.
Eisenhower asked the country to maintain its basic sense of balance.
While Kennedy gloried in the current moment, Eisenhower warned the country to “avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow.” We cannot, he said, “mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage.” Furthermore, Ike warned, the country should never believe that “some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties.” He reminded the country that government is about finding the right balance — between public and private, civic duties and individual freedom, small communities and big industrial complexes.
I suspect that most of us can, in different moods, sympathise with both the Kennedy and the Eisenhower speeches, with both the rousing idealistic call and the prudent words of caution.
The Obama administration has tried to emulate both impulses.
During the first two years, it hewed to Kennedy’s seize-the-moment style.
Now it seems to be copying the Eisenhower mood.
The campaign of 2008 was marked by soaring calls for transformation.
Now the administration spends much of its time reacting to events and counseling restraint.
The Arab masses have seized control of the international agenda with their marches and bravery.
The Republicans on Capitol Hill and in Madison, have seized control of the domestic agenda with calls for spending cuts.
The Obama administration has reacted to both of these movements by striking a prudent, middling course.
Internationally, the administration has sought a subtle (overly subtle) balance between democracy and stability.
Domestically, the president offered a budget so tepid that it effectively ceded center stage.
He called for a few cuts but asked people not to get carried away.
On Friday, President Obama gave a press conference that perfectly captured his current phase.
He acknowledged rising gas prices but had no new energy policy to announce.
On Libya, he emphasized the need to deliberate carefully our steps ahead but had no road map to propose.
On the federal budget fight, he spoke passionately about the need to reach a compromise.
But when given the chance to talk about what it might look like, he rose above the fray and vaguely counseled balance and moderation.
It is easy to see why the president should be striking this pose now.
Prudence is always a nice trait in a leader, especially in the face of a thorny problem like Libya.
At a time when the nation is anxious, Obama is coming across as a cautious and safe pair of hands.
The man is clearly not going to do anything rash.
Politically, this is a style that seems to appeal to independents.
Obama is not going to get sucked into a left-versus-right budget battle and see his presidency get washed away.
On budget matters, he seems to be playing rope-a-dope — waiting for the Republicans to propose something courageous and foolhardy like entitlement reform, thus giving him an opening to step in as the bulwark against extremism.
It’s likely that he can win the next election simply by force of personality, by overshadowing his opponent.
Yet this current cautious pose carries dangers, too.
Eisenhower was president at a time when American self-confidence was at its zenith; Americans were content with a president who took small steps.
Today, most Americans seem to think their country is seriously off course.
They may have less tolerance for a president who leads cautiously from the back.
Prudence can sometimes look like weakness.
Obama said his cautious reactions to the Libyan revolution amounted to “tightening the noose” around Qaddafi.
Yet there is no evidence that Qaddafi is feeling asphyxiated or even discomforted.
As he slaughters his opposition, Western caution looks like fecklessness.
Prudence is important, but Americans do have an expectation that their president will be the one out front, dominating the agenda, projecting strength and offering vision.
All in all, President Obama is an astoundingly complicated person.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, and during the first two years of his term, I would have said that his troubling flaw was hubris — his attempts to do everything at once.
But he seems to have an amazing capacity to self-observe and adjust.
Now I’d say his worrying flaw is passivity.
I have no confidence that I can predict what sort of person Obama will be as he runs for re-election in 2012.