The preparations for President Obama’s second inaugural have been accompanied by all the predictable punditry, as well as the heartwarming preparations in the nation’s capital. There are the thrilling flags, the cheerful vendors (sales of trinkets depicting Obama’s dog, Bo, are particularly brisk). There are those who see this as the opportunity for the reelected president to become tough, those who see it as a moment for conciliation, and those who, amusingly, imagine that he should devote his second term to an avalanche of dinner-party courting of Congressional Republicans.
Amid all of that, it’s natural to reflect on past inaugurals, especially those of presidents entering a second term. In that vein, I would argue for consideration of what some may see as an unlikely comparison, that of Dwight Eisenhower in 1957.
Eisenhower completed his first term with strong approval ratings but mixed sentiments. The right wing of his party resented him for not lowering federal income tax rates (the top marginal rate in 1957 stood at, get this, 91%). He had battled domestic security hawks over McCarthy and his allies, and, as the election approached, amazed much of the free world by siding with Egypt in its war against Israel, Britain and France.
Like him, Obama faces a nervous base and a challenging world. Obama, like Eisenhower, has a tendency to arch toward the middle, to concede on the details of grand policy questions such as healthcare and to see compromise as an essential element of progress. Both are men of their parties and yet also seem removed from them.
Ike had the benefit, though it seems so only in retrospect, of a more complicated political landscape. Southern Democrats were the racist alternative to Republican moderates on civil rights. Republican anti-communists were his foes on matters of national security, where moderate Democrats gave him essential support. He often found his fiercest opponents to his extreme right, just as Obama fends off his left. Ike triangulated, played one against another. There’s a lesson in that.
On this occasion in January 1957, Eisenhower urged the nation to “pursue the right – without self-righteousness.” Today, Obama proposes his version of that American future.
As he does, here’s a thought to consider from Ike’s legacy. The Eisenhower second term is recalled as something less exciting than the first, and indeed, it had its hiccups. But he also won passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act. He suppressed the insurrection at Little Rock. He launched the Interstate Highway System. And he did so despite a Congress whose two houses both were dominated by the opposite party. If a centrist Republican facing struggles within his own party could do all that, surely Obama can get some control over the nation’s guns.
Ike’s challenges were in some respects different, but Obama would do well to emulate his patient pursuit of a peaceful world and productive economy.
Here is how Eisenhower put it 56 year ago:
“We look upon this shaken earth, and we declare our firm and fixed purpose – the building of a peace with justice in a world where moral law prevails.
“The building of such a peace is a bold and solemn purpose. To proclaim it is easy. To serve it will be hard. And to attain it, we must be aware of its full meaning -- and ready to pay its full price.”