Lately, I’ve been trying to read more. I read “A Colossal Failure of Common Sense” by Lawrence McDonald (which I wrote about here), but before that, I had the joy of reading Stephen Ambrose’s book on Eisenhower. Not only was it a great story about Eisenhower’s life, it was a fascinating look at how a very public figure handled the people and events around him.
I was struck by two things: first, the optimistic American spirit where people believed you could go as far as you wanted to go. Now, too many of the hard working folks see too many derelicts sliding by on entitlements that are paid for by others. So they feel like they’re getting punished for crimes they didn’t commit, and I identify with that. As much as I tell my son he can be/do whatever he wants, I almost think that’s bad advice because of the ever-expanding safety nets and entitlements – i.e. a twist on the moral hazard problem. Nobody ever got thrown out of office for turning down Federal money. But Ron Paul, whom I admire, has managed to keep winning re-election despite voting down so many bills where Federal money was seen as the solution to a problem. But back then, it was really about individual ability and the will of the individual.
The second thing was the window into the life of a public figure. Specifically, how a public figure has two types of agendas to manage: the agenda they want to set and the agenda they have to respond to. In an attempt to best balance these, the discussion around Eisenhower’s dealings with the media was extremely insightful. Clearly, the best way to get that balance is to show how the agenda you’re setting can fit into the agenda that is thrust upon you. Eisenhower’s agenda of rebuilding Europe, developing the UN, and the domestic agenda of balancing the budget all fit into the one overarching issue he had to confront: the Soviet Union in a post-World War II world. The first two are obviously related to the Soviets, but the third is too because Eisenhower knew there was no point in outspending the Soviets because it did no good to have a bigger arsenal than the Soviets only to have your economy in shambles due to massive deficit spending. The strategy of strengthening the US via the economy with a balanced budget and a thriving middle class was the best way to thwart the Soviet threat.
Today, health care reform is obviously an item on the President’s agenda he wants to see through. However, he has China, Iran, Afghanistan, the economy, and financial regulation reform as issues that were definitely waiting for him when he took office. So far, it seems his agenda is being placed in front of the other issues and there’s no real strategy to show how the President’s priorities will address the issues he knew the day after the election that he would be confronted with. Time is the one arbiter that will show how if/how Obama’s decisions will pan out, but there sure is a sense that he’s looking to kick the cans down the road at this point.
Did Eisenhower do everything right? No, of course not. The U2 spy plane incident was handled horribly, he placed too much faith in the CIA to run covert ops, and his interpretation and extension of executive privilege was grossly extended more so by future presidents. But he managed to keep us from going nuclear against the Soviets when everyone around him was begging him to escalate confrontations, he’s the last president to have a balanced Federal budget, and he stayed out of the private sector’s way while the middle class prospered after World War II. Some of those things would have happened whether he was there or not. But some of those outcomes needed Ike to be there, when he was there.
All in all, a great read on a great President.