A bit of presidential trivia: Before President Obama was re-elected, only once before had the U.S. elected three consecutive two-term presidents, and that was 200 years ago: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. As Obama plans out his second term, his immediate predecessors serve more as a cautionary tale than a fount of inspiration: George W. Bush's second term was dogged by the Iraq war and his failed push to privatize Social Security, and Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about an affair with an intern. So perhaps it's no surprise that historians and analysts are looking a bit further back for second-term role models for Obama. Here, six presidents Obama should consider emulating:
1. Abraham Lincoln
"Before scheduling any budget negotiations," says Albert Hunt at Bloomberg View, "Obama and congressional leaders should go see Steven Spielberg's classic new film, Lincoln." Obama has cited Abe Lincoln as one of his role models, and Spielberg's movie "brilliantly captures him doing what politicians are supposed to do, and today too often avoid: Compromising, calculating, horse trading, dealing," and settling for the achievable. To get the 13th Amendment (which banned slavery) passed, Lincoln did what it took to get the votes, appealing to the "nobler instincts" of some legislators and "cutting a few dubious deals" with others. Obama might learn a few lessons from Lincoln, like that "great oratory doesn't get you votes," says John Dickerson at Slate. But if Honest Abe tried to buy votes today, that strategy "could not have survived the first tweet."
2. Franklin Roosevelt
Obama is already like Lincoln, in that both were "repeatedly blamed for being too deliberate and slow," says Slate's Dickerson. "Leading from behind, you might call it." Don't bother with that — in his second term, Obama "needs to embrace his inner FDR," says Anthony Woods at The Daily Beast. The lesson of this election isn't that Americans want bipartisanship, it's that we're begging for "effective government." That means he can fight for higher taxes on the rich, liberal immigration reform, investing in our infrastructure, and other progressive goals, as long as he is reasoned and reasonable. "It's time for President Obama to assume the Roosevelt-inspired mantle of muscular liberalism." The moment's ripe if he's ready to push and push and push some more.
3. Thomas Jefferson
If I may make "a modest proposal, one drawn from the presidency of another tall, cool, cerebral politician-writer," says Jon Meacham in The New York Times, Obama should look to the soft power wielded by the nation's third president. Jefferson was a master at winning over legislators through strategic, robust socializing. "Dinners with the president — or breakfast or lunch or coffee or drinks or golf — won't create a glorious bipartisan Valhalla," but as Jefferson understood, social interaction has "a way of making the rougher edges of politics smooth." Yes, based on his first term, "Obama needs to step up his game on this front," says Jonathan Capehart at The Washington Post. Meals may not be Obama's thing, but there's a lesson in "how Obama's attentiveness to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) during and after Hurricane Sandy turned a vocal critic's roars in the final stretch of a presidential campaign into purrs."
4. Ronald Reagan
Obama probably doesn't agree with many of Reagan's domestic policies, but he has hailed him as a transformational president. The first thing Obama can do to channel Reagan's successful second term is to boldly wield the White House bully pulpit, says Edward-Isaac Dovere at Politico. "Reagan's magnetism rallied the country behind agreements with Mikhail Gorbachev — producing the kind of radical realignment of U.S.-Soviet relations that Obama seems to now be seeking with Asia — and led to the 1986 tax reforms that Obama would like to replicate in breadth if not substance."
5. Richard Nixon
Nixon, of course, didn't finish his second term, but he helped pave the way to his re-election with his historic February 1972 trip to China, says Michael Hirsh at National Journal. Obama marked his re-election with historic visits to Cambodia and Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. And their aims were similar, too: Nixon wanted to open China "to outmaneuver the Soviets," while Obama wants to liberalize Myanmar "to outmaneuver the Chinese." That suggests that already, "if there is any president that Barack Obama most resembles right now on foreign policy, it is probably Richard Nixon, the master practitioner of cynical realpolitik." Let's just hope Obama is more attentive to human rights than his Machiavellian predecessor.
6. Lyndon Johnson
As the late historian Richard Neustadt notes regarding LBJ, the "Machiavelli test" is actually an important part of effective governing, says David Rennie at The Economist: Obama needs to make allies and adversaries believe that he is ruthless and politically skilled enough to reward or punish them. He didn't do that in his first term, nor did he spend much time or energy on individual lawmakers. Johnson, on the other hand, famously "used threats, patronage, and arm-twisting to push through giant and contentious chunks of legislation," thinking nothing of speaking with 20 or 30 members of Congress a day. The personal touch may not be Obama's style, but like LBJ, if he decides to use his second term to take "big fights to the country, he will have to scrap in Washington, too."
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Here comes the Pentagon's newest space plane
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- 3 horrific inaccuracies in Homeland's depiction of Islamabad
- Everything you need to know about the voter ID controversy
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
- Extreme haunted houses: Inside Halloween's most terrifying new trend
- How 1,000-year lifespans could remake the economy
- The real story behind Deliver Us From Evil
- Let us now praise Billy Joel
Subscribe to the Week