Obama campaigned as a 21st century update of Andrew Jackson, but it appears that his model for governing is going to be Dwight David Eisenhower.
Obama and Ike are surprisingly similar. Ike was adored for being vital to winning World War II, but was a political ink blot. No one knew if he would run as a Democrat or Republican at first. Although he had to throw the Conservatrons of his day a bone by Veeping Nixon his administration was centrist to the point of being almost non-ideological — Nixon had almost no portfolio as VP (today Ike seems more Democrat than Republican). Obama is an obvious liberal, yet his calls for post-partisanship and his relatively thin voting record coupled with the acknowledged practice of others grafting their own aspirations onto his barrier breaking story makes Obama, oddly, a vague quantity akin to Ike despite Obama’s detailing of his policies in the 08 campaign.
Ike and Obama are both unlikely Presidents. Ike wasn’t a politician, but his military expertise was ideal for 1952 when the quagmire in Korea appeared unsolvable. Obama has less experience than most Presidents, but his newness and potential energy are the canvass on which the 2010s will be written; in 2008 Obama was the necessary redeemer for what Leonard Cohen calls America’s “spiritual thirst” in the bitter wake of the venal Bush occupation.
Eisenhower translated his novelty into action by delegating. Due to his dowdy public persona, Ike was criticized for being a hands off or even clueless president. We now know that he was intent and engaged behind the scenes. He took his military experience and applied it to his cabinet by giving his subordinates room to succeed and fail, while using the bully pulpit and the ceremonial aspect of the presidency to maintain his own personal popularity rather than trying to sway the polity to his vision, which was largely “post-partisan” anyway.
Obama has chosen more of a Team of Experts than a “Team of Rivals”. His cabinet includes sitting politicians like Salazar and Clinton with their own power bases and political capital. For the more technical work like energy and environmental policy (despite the broad passions stirred by these issues, actual work on them is all about nuances of details) Obama has chosen able technocrats that will be led by Carol Browner in a new energy/environment coordinator role. Vice-President Biden will be the point person on the economic stimulus activity.
Obama appears to be updating the Eisenhower Model by giving substantial ownership of policy to his cabinet members/subordinates, while largely staying above the fray himself. Hopefully, he will also use his preternatural talent as the greatest Persuasive Leader of his generation to create the space for his team to succeed.
This is brilliant politics for three reasons. 1.) Giving ownership of policy to subordinates makes Obama harder to hit. Early in the reign of the Bush junta Progressives were driven to distraction by the very visible Rumsfeld and Ashcroft, but Bush remained popular and Rumsfeld and Ashcroft only became unpopular when Bush did. The Public at large does not care about Secretaries, but ideologues do. By leading with his subordinates Obama will force the Conservatrons to swing wildly to try to hit him. Their foolish fixation on trying to link Obama to Blagojevich is an early example of this and has, of course, been a massive FAIL. Subsequent attempts by Conservatrons will be cat-chasing-tail exercises because scandalmongering for the sake of scandalmongering does not reflect the seriousness of the times, but Obama’s “no red America, no blue America, just the United States of America” trope does. That the Conservatrons have completely abandoned this high ground is astounding in its stupidity 2.) When Obama does stake political capital on a policy outcome it is more likely to be effective and decisive because it will occur relatively rarely and only after his subordinate has spent his or her political capital. 3.) Everyone prefers a boss that does not micromanage. I imagine that one of the reasons that Obama’s campaign was so tight is that he let his people do their part their way. Obama is more likely to win the devotion of his Team of Experts by following Eisenhower’s model.
Eisenhower’s governing style was not a complete success. After his heart attack in his second term Ike appeared to lose some control of his administration and it became mired in silly scandals and transgressions. The Republicans got trounced in the 1958 mid-terms. The U2 Spy Plane incident seemed to be a sign of Ike’s detachment. Still, when all was said and done and remembered Ike was popular and maintained the Leadership necessary to make a credible warning about the Military-Industrial Complex in his farewell address.
Team Obama is filled clever, able people that are also keen students of history. I think they can perform even better than Team Eisenhower.