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Obama’s Extremely Well-Hidden Hand

Jul 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 43
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Putting the best possible light on the Obama presidency has been a challenge for journalists, and most have risen to the challenge, with obvious enthusiasm. Ingenuity, too: Not only was the president declared a Great President before he was sworn into office, but close analysis has found his liabilities to be assets. His passive stewardship of the national interest, for example, has been described (without irony) as “leading from behind,” and his awkward relations with his own party in Congress are ascribed to his intellectual mastery and ineffable “cool.”

Poker Face

The Scrapbook may not always agree with these assessments, but has to admire their presumption. Take, for example, Peter Baker’s recent front-page story in the New York Times that (in the words of the headline) “In Second Term, Obama Is Seen as Using ‘Hidden Hand’ Approach.” This refers to Prof. Fred Greenstein’s influential account of the Eisenhower administration, The Hidden-Hand Presidency (1982), which skillfully refuted the notion that Ike was a passive chief executive, and used his presidential papers to demonstrate how Eisenhower exerted control behind the scenes, directed events, and influenced history by indirection. 

The problem here, of course, is that Baker, in extolling Barack Obama, must contend with evidence of apathy, indifference, resentment, and sloth. Indeed, as Eisenhower scholar Jim Newton notes, “What I don’t know .  .  . is how aggressively Obama is working out of view on these matters. The essence of Eisenhower’s hidden hand, of course, is that there was real work going on that people didn’t know at the time. .  .  . If [Obama is] simply doing nothing or very little, that would be passivity, not hidden-hand leadership.”

There’s another problem, too. Overall, the Eisenhower administration was a success, and Ike was a much greater leader than historians (and journalists) acknowledged in his time. But if Barack Obama is looking for a model to emulate, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s second term probably shouldn’t be it.

Beset by what the president himself regarded as incessant crises, the period between 1957 and 1961 was a troubled passage for Eisenhower and the United States. The Soviet Union sent a satellite (Sputnik) successfully into orbit, calling into question American resolve and capability. The school desegregation crisis in Little Rock required Eisenhower to dispatch troops from the 101st Airborne Division to enforce the law. Vice President Richard Nixon’s tour of South America was beset with violent, sometimes dangerously violent, demonstrations. Castro seized power in Cuba, establishing a Communist beachhead in the Western hemisphere. The United States fell into recession. Ike’s chief of staff resigned in scandal. The Paris Summit collapsed when an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Russia. In the 1958 midterm elections, 13 Republican seats in the Senate were lost​—​changing the Senate from a relatively balanced partisan division to a prohibitive 64-34 Democratic majority, which lasted a generation.

And which prompts The Scrapbook, in turn, to draw two lessons: Be careful about glib analogies from history, and be careful what you wish for​—​for the Hidden Hand giveth, and taketh away.

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