Every once in a while, a piece of commentary precisely, if elegantly, captures a common, even trite, view among the political elite. So it was last Friday, when former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan declared in her Wall Street Journal column that Obama is trying to do too much.
Her un-novel critique might have been dismissed as just another echo from the conservative corner if she hadn't gilded it with a self-serving anecdote from former Republican Congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce. As Noonan condescendingly instructs "our young President" in the ways of statecraft, she suggests that he focus on The Sentence.
The Sentence concept dates from the early '60s, when Luce claims to have privately advised John F. Kennedy—that other young president—that "a great man is one sentence." In other words, that Lincoln's legacy can be summed up as "He saved the union and freed the slaves"; that FDR "lifted us out of a great depression and helped to win a World War." (No matter that Luce once dismissed FDR with another, more pithy sentence: "He lied us into the war.")
Noonan wishes Obama, for his part, would just focus on the Sentence she believes history has assigned him—"He brought America back from economic collapse and kept us strong and secure in the age of terror"—and stop trying to overachieve.
The normally more iconoclastic POLITICO hailed Noonan's piece as the "week's most durable column." To be fair, Noonan's piece was also hailed as "thought-provoking" in the New York Daily News and celebrated across the Atlantic in Britain's conservative Spectator (which incongruously applied this barometer of greatness to the substantively weightless Tory leader David Cameron). So this concept is worth examining even if it doesn't survive a close reading of events and long-term consequences.
It's unclear whether Luce actually delivered some form of her catchy aphorism to JFK. One hopes not, and one doubts he heeded her words, because this is comic book history—untrue of the leaders Luce and Noonan apply it to, and unfit for the decisive time and leadership of Barack Obama. It also focuses on the solipsistic pursuit of presidential legacy as slogan, ignoring the reality that a President can make a difference in many ways, and that long term impact is often difficult or impossible to predict from the vantage point of the present. What seem like smaller decisions at the moment may have great significance into the future.
Take Lincoln. Surely the Civil War and emancipation are his first claims on history, but they are not the only ones. In 1862, when the tide of conflict was still running against the North, he didn't assume that he had to put all else aside in favor of a single focus on the battlefield; instead, he supported and signed a law, previously vetoed by his predecessor, that established the land-grant colleges that became state universities all across the nation. It was the first and fundamental step toward the democratization of higher education in America—and an indispensable foundation for the economic opportunity and progress that endure a century and a half later.
In 1862, Lincoln also secured the landmark legislation that created the first transcontinental railroad; as he fought to keep North and South together, he pursued the peaceful but in his view equally essential imperative of bringing East and West together. Finished four years after his assassination, the project has been called "one of the crowning achievements of his presidency." This may require another clause or another sentence—in violation of the Luce-Noonan rule. But would America have been better off if Lincoln decided it was "trying too much" to revolutionize education and unite a continental nation even in the midst of a fratricidal war?
Or take Roosevelt. It's refreshing to see Republicans like Luce and Noonan giving him credit for "lift[ing] us out of the...depression"—which of course flies in the face of the New Deal-deniers in their party today. But FDR's span and his greatness reached beyond that—he even played a commanding role in World War II. As he said at a Fireside Chat on June 28, 1934, he was intent not only on "relief," and economic "recovery" but on "reform." That year, he pushed through Congress the Securities and Exchange Commission, an entirely new architecture for financial market regulation. The year after, he went on to sign Social Security, a transformative measure which to this day ranks as a singular act of social justice and probably the most popular federal program ever enacted. Each month, tens of millions of Americans live decent lives in retirement because Franklin Roosevelt didn't choose to confine his sentence in history to the Luce-Noonan recommendation of one or two "big" things. His sentence may be longer, but Social Security was big—and so were the TVA and the minimum wage, even if they don't fit in the prescribed formula.
In the face of the North Korean threat, Noonan contends that the Administration has to be "more modest internally." But in mid-1943, when FDR faced not the threat but the omnipresent reality of Fascist aggression and conquest across Europe and the Pacific, he delivered another Fireside Chat, this time demanding a postwar GI Bill of Rights. He was immersed in global conflict, but not consumed by it. The law he envisioned and proposed—for a peacetime that to many who didn't see as far as he did seemed far distant—passed in 1944 and reshaped American society for decades to come. Roosevelt showed that great Presidents don't just look at the ground around them. The GI Bill offered the chance to buy a home and opened the doors of college to millions of veterans. In the 1940s, only 3% of the military had college degrees; because of the GI Bill, three and a half million Vets took vocational training and over two million went to college. In a sense, every one of their diplomas was signed by FDR. And the GI Bill he did sign, as the business thinker and futurist Peter Drucker observed, was among "the most important event[s] of the twentieth century...[It] signaled the shift to the knowledge based economy." It's a good thing FDR "tried to do too much"—that he didn't listen to Clare Boothe Luce, though of course he never would have.
And what endeavor should the President in the anecdote Noonan cites—John Kennedy—have foregone? He had to deal with the Cold War, the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis; to move from recurring recession to prosperity, he advanced a new economics and took on the considerable task of persuading the country that deficits were sometimes acceptable—and essential. Would he hold a higher place in history—would he be assigned a better sentence—if he had not pursued the cause of civil rights and Medicare?
Noonan cries crocodile tears for Barack Obama, whose ratings in recent polls she says, quoting POLITICO, are "wilting" because of "extraneous effort" and excessive "ambitions." In fact, the President's standing depends on which poll you pick. The Washington Post-ABC survey assigns him an overwhelming 65% approval, while The New York Times-CBS number is 63%. And in the latter poll, the Republicans, who keep advising the President not to do so much, receive record low approval of 28%.
It's not in a sentence, but in a long paragraph, that Noonan reveals her real complaint, and that of many critics. She doesn't like the energy bill the House passed to combat global warming. She scorns the health care plan because it "will cost a trillion dollars over ten years." But the figure will account for only 2.4% of total federal outlays to 2019, less than half as much as what Noonan's hero Ronald Reagan proposed to spend on his tax cut—the cost of which was equal to 5.3% of the federal budget. Out of context, a trillion dollars sounds scary—and conservatives intend it to. But their actual objection here is not cost, but content—the very idea of national health reform.
Issues like this should be debated on the merits, and differences of opinion should be respected. But Noonan and her fellow partisans should not be allowed to cloak their enmity to presidential policy in an ahistorical critique of the uses of presidential power.
I think "our young President" who is also a student of history, knows that presidential greatness doesn't fit on a bumper sticker; it isn't a sentence. For Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, greatness was more than one or two dimensional. And so it will be for Barack Obama.