Archive for the ‘Truman’ Category

Action This Day

The (Almost) Case for Unilateral Action

In September 1940, just in front of the election that would make Franklin Roosevelt the first and only third-term president, FDR engineered an audacious deal with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

In exchange for gifting 50 aging, World War I vintage U.S. destroyers to the besieged British, Churchill granted the American president 99 year leases on a number of military bases in the Western Hemisphere. The destroyers for bases deal was loudly condemned by FDR’s critics who called it a raw presidential power play. As critics correctly pointed out, Roosevelt acted on his own motion, going behind the back of Congress to cut his deal with Churchill. History has for the most part vindicated FDR’s power play and many historians think the U.S. actually got the better of the deal.

The 1940 action by Roosevelt may be one of the greatest examples of a president acting unilaterally, but our history is replete with similar examples of presidential action on a unilateral basis. One of Theodore Roosevelt’s gutsy unilateral moves as he was nearing the end of his term created millions of acres of forest preserves – today’s National Forests – and protected the Grand Canyon. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was an act of presidential leadership that is almost universally praised today, but at the time the Great Emancipator cut Congress out of the loop and acted alone.

Now come criticism of Barack Obama’s unilateral action to order the end of deportations for certain young people who might otherwise be sent packing for being in the country illegally even as they have gone on to get an education, or work in order to become contributing members of our society. Critics charge the president acted for the most transparent political reasons or that he acted unconstitutionally or that he has now made legislative action on immigration more difficult. That last charge seems a particularly hard sell given the inability of Congress to act at all regarding immigration, but the real beef with Obama is that he acted alone.

Jimmy Carter used presidential action to protect the environmental crown jewels of Alaska, an action that ultimately forced Congress to get off the dime on that issue. Harry Truman informed Congress, but did not seek its approval regarding his 1948 decision to desegregate the U.S. military.

Of course all presidents overreach, but most do so by acting unilaterally in the foreign policy field, and that a place were unilateral action is often decidedly more problematic, at least in my view. It may turn out that Obama’s immigration action will be successfully challenged in a court of law or the court of public opinion, but don’t bet on it. I’m struck by how often in our history when a president has taken a big, bold step on an issue were Congress can’t or won’t act that the bold step has been vindicated by history.

The American people have always tended to reward action over inaction. Ronald Reagan’s unilateral decision to fire striking air traffic controllers near the beginning of his presidency in 1981 is a good example. Now celebrated, by conservatives at least, as a sterling example of a president acting decisively in the public interest, the decision was enormously contentious at the time it was made. Now its mostly seen as an effective use of unilateral action by a strong president.

The early polling seems to show that Obama’s recent “dream act-like” action on immigration is widely accepted by the American public. The lesson for the current occupant of the Oval Office, a politician who has displayed little skill in getting Congress to act on many issues, might be that a little unilateral action on important issues is not only good politics, but good government.

George W. Bush got this much right about the power of the presidency: the Chief Executive can be, when he wants to be, the decider on many things. The great Churchill frequently demanded “action this day” in his memos to subordinates. The great wartime leader knew that power not used isn’t worth much; but action properly applied is indeed real power.

 

 

Mitt’s Real Problem

It’s Not Etch-a-Sketch, But Something More Serious

Typically in politics the most painful wounds are self-inflicted. Candidates shoot themselves in the foot and hobble around for days trying to change the subject, while the political media, the opposition and YouTube repeat the gaffe over and over again.

Rick Santorum had his shoot the foot moment with ill-considered remarks on college and contraception. Newt Gingrich went into the high weeds with his colony on the moon moment. Barack Obama had his “cling to God and guns” diversion in 2008. GOP front runner – and I say again, almost certain nominee – Mitt Romney’s gaffes have been so numerous it can be difficult to keep them straight. He likes to fire people, the wife has two (2) Cadillacs, he isn’t a NASCAR fan, but knows rich guys who own racing teams, etc.

Romney has a strange – and I’m sure to him mind boggling – ability to step on his own good news. He won the Florida primary and then had the CEO moment that resulted in the “firing people” language. He buried Santorum in Illinois, got the coveted endorsement of Jeb Bush and then one of his top people suggested that for the coming general election campaign Romney would just hit the reset button, shake the Etch-a-Sketch and present himself as a more acceptable candidate to moderates and independents. Ouch.

All of this is embarrassing and does reinforce the by now well established notion that Romney is a shape shifting, out of touch Richie Rich.

But here’s a novel theory for the real problem Romney faces as he finally wraps the GOP nomination with a ribbon and it’s not Etch-a-Sketch. Romney lacks a compelling rationale for his candidacy against an incumbent president. Let me explain.

Back last summer when Romney announced his candidacy it looked to the world – at least the political world – that not being Barack Obama and having a business heavy resume would be more than adequate against an unpopular president burdened by a high unemployment rate. Now, nearing the end of a bruising primary campaign it has become much more obvious that Romney’s calculation last July is faulty. Romney needs a program, a plan for the country, neither of which he has provided in any detail so far. What Romney has offered – a resume and a I’m not the other guy message – is not enough to excite either the GOP base or appeal to the Etch-a-Sketch-prone moderates.

Some might consider it an old school notion, but a candidate for president or the school board simply needs more than a resume. A friend of mine put it well, when the Obama troops really start unraveling Romney’s resume this fall he’ll find he has no rationale for his candidacy.

You can almost hear Romney’s campaign brain trust arguing to the candidate that he needs to present himself as the anti-Obama, the experienced business guy facing off against the community organizer turned law professor. In fact, Romney used that approach in his most recent election night speech. But the trouble is that its all resume and no policy.

Romney does have stump speech talking points about cutting government and taxes and repealing the health insurance reform, but his speeches sound more like cable news talking points than a program. The presumptive GOP nominee is playing the political equivalent of former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith’s four corner offense. He’s trying to run out the clock by doing nothing flashy, risky or interesting. Romney is holding the ball when he should be launching a few from beyond the three-point line.

Whether he knows it or not, Mitt Romney, and the people giving him bad advice, have adopted the same basic strategy that the Republican candidate in 1948 adopted against Harry Truman. In that election, a northeastern (dare I say it – moderate) governor ran on his resume. Thomas E. Dewey, a rather stiff, formal, but very intelligent man, calculated that he would take no risk, propose no real policy or program and beat Truman by just not being Truman.

That strategy helps explain why you’ve never studied about or read a book on first term of that great Republican President Thomas E. Dewey.

As the candidate weathers the Etch-a-Sketch moment, there is a little good news for the U.S. economy. Etch-a-Sketch sales have soared. Amazon lists the red plastic game as its biggest “mover and shaker” selling for $13.44. Romney ought to visit the Etch-a-Sketch plant in Ohio, a swing state, and announce a new initiative to return American toy manufacturing to world prominence. Really. This guy needs some policy to go with his resume.