President Obama loves to channel the spirit of past commanders-in-chief.
He freely draws on their words to explain his own philosophy, often uses lines from Republicans such as Lincoln, Eisenhower, and Reagan to remind Americans—and his opponents—that ideas are not out of left field. The quotes unabashedly serve as a guide for how Obama thinks, not just what he is thinking.
But in Monday’s inaugural address, Obama reached back to an era when the nation’s capital was just mud on the banks of the Potomac River.
The president chose to ground his thoughts in the spirit of 1776, as if to rebut his strongest critics in the Tea Party movement who draw their energy from that revolutionary era. He riffed on phrases every school child knows: the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and the empowering first three words of the Constitution, “We, the people.”
“Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time,” Obama said yesterday. “For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing.”
In other words, the principles of the Founding Fathers must adapt to the moment – whether that means fighting a Civil War to abolish slavery, building highways and schools, or redefining marriage. Not everyone views the past through the same liberal lens as Obama, but the president often depends on history as a quiet ally. He roots his agenda in the remarks of leaders who are celebrated by his conservative adversaries. The president frequently relies on this type of outreach – though as witnessed by the recent brinksmanship, it has done little to sway the opposition.
Just last week, Obama drew on the words of Republican icon Ronald Reagan to rally support for his gun control agenda.
“Weapons designed for the theater of war have no place in a movie theater,” Obama said at a White House press briefing. “A majority of Americans agree with us on this. And by the way, so did Ronald Reagan, one of the staunchest defenders of the Second Amendment, who wrote to Congress in 1994 urging them — this is Ronald Reagan speaking — urging them to listen to the American public and to the law enforcement community and support a ban on the further manufacture of military-style assault weapons.”
Reagan signed a letter with Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford that endorsed the decade-long assault weapons ban that lapsed in 2004. Obama has also gone back to the Gipper, when advocating for a tax increase to reduce the deficit, among other instances. But in an inaugural address that highlighted climate change, gay rights, and government investment as a source of prosperity, Obama’s ideas seem antithetical to those who revere Reagan.
Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer told Fox News on Monday that the president’s words were a “rebuke” of Reagan’s desire to limit government. “The speech today was an ode to big government,” he said.
The challenge is that past presidents often benefit from the gloss of their successes, rather than the day-to-day nitty-gritty that political leaders must contend with today. So when Obama latched onto Abraham Lincoln as a role model a few years back, he set impossibly lofty expectations for his own tenure.
“But the life of a tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer tells us that a different future is possible,” Obama said when declaring his presidential candidacy in February, 2007. He tells us that there is power in words. He tells us that there is power in conviction. That beneath all the differences of race and region, faith and station, we are one people. He tells us that there is power in hope.”
Both hailed from Illinois, educated in politics by its state legislature and possessing little experience with Washington. Obama suggested his cabinet would – like the rail splitter’s – be composed of a “Team of Rivals,” the title of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography that inspired the recent film “Lincoln.” Out of division would flow union.
Former campaign foe Hillary Clinton joined Obama’s first cabinet as Secretary of State and Bush holdover Robert Gates continued atop the Pentagon, but the cabinet largely looked and sounded like a “Team of Mascots,” Todd Purdum mused last July in Vanity Fair. History, as many political leaders know, is easier to recite than emulate.
By the time Obama was actually in office, he turned to the example of Dwight D. Eisenhower. The former World War II commander warned in his farewell address about the growing military-industrial complex.
“I am mindful of the words of President Eisenhower, who – in discussing our national security – said, ‘Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs,’” Obama said in his 2009 speech announcing that 33,000 troops would surge into Afghanistan so that the United States could then begin to exit the war and return more of its focus to an ailing economy.
But while the “military-industrial complex” remains in the lexicon, Ike’s advice was ignored as the country expanded its overseas ambitions in Vietnam, Chile, and elsewhere.
Obama alluded to another Republican in 2011 while gearing up for his re-election campaign. He stopped to deliver a speech about the economy in Osawatomie, Kansas, where Theodore Roosevelt – that legendary patrician, populist and cowboy – spoke in 1910.
Obama recalled a line from his predecessor’s address: “‘Our country,’ he said, ‘…means nothing unless it means the triumph of a real democracy … of an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him.’”
“Now, for this,” Obama continued, “Roosevelt was called a radical. He was called a socialist, even a communist. But today, we are a richer nation and a stronger democracy because of what he fought for in his last campaign: an eight-hour work day and a minimum wage for women, insurance for the unemployed and for the elderly, and those with disabilities; political reform and a progressive income tax.”
But as Obama waited on the inaugural stage Monday, it was, in fact, a Republican who stood at the podium, welcomed him to the U.S. Capitol, and quoted a former president. His words suggested that it was a small victory to hold an inauguration where the canons fired in victory, instead of rebellion.
“Last year, a tour guide at Mount Vernon told me that our first president, George Washington, posed this question: ‘What is most important of this grand experiment, the United States?’” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the ranking Republican on the Senate Rules and Administration Committee. “And then Washington gave this answer: ‘Not the election of the first president, but the election of its second president. The peaceful transition of power is what will separate this country from every other country in the world.’”