Americans love to create president-heroes — only to turn on them once they acquire too much power.
I MISS THE LATE HENRY SIMMONS, the legendary Newsweek reporter who covered the early NASA space flights and the Washington economics beat back in the days when that magazine produced important information and not pop-twitter. Henry kept the betting book at the Members Bar of the National Press Club in Washington. It was a battered pocket diary, held together by rubber bands, that served for 20 years as a log of the press corps’ after-hours wagers on the outcome of the stories they covered: of what bills would pass, who was about to be nominated (or indicted), who was sleeping with whom. Whatever the bet, Henry was a master at calculating the odds.
I would love Henry’s odds on this bet: Barack Obama is a one-term president.
There is a push-bet that goes along with this as a hedge. Mr. Obama’s winning a second term will depend on a U.S. involvement in a war-say, an expanded one in Afghanistan, or perhaps a new conflict in Iran.
Long-shot bets? Sure. Even in this discontented summer of slipping poll numbers, the public image of our president is that he cannot put a foot wrong. We are uplifted by the world’s embrace of this attractive young man and his photo-perfect family. Wherever he goes in the world, from a town hall appearance in the Rust Belt to a high-profile summit with foreign leaders, his message strikes just the right tone.
What would have intrigued Henry about the bet, as it does me, is one of the iron rules of American politics: your Americano loves to get himself into a jam of some sort and then to create hero-presidents, often out of thin air. He gathers enormous powers into his hands with the promise that all problems will be solved. But after that first euphoria comes inevitable disenchantment. And then, with a surprising vengeance, repudiation. We love to idolize our invented heroes, but almost as quickly we find fault and turn against the vast powers they have accumulated. Like the “Gadarene swine,” as Henry loved to call the American voting mass, we rush madly to wreck the restraints imposed on us and revenge ourselves on imagined enemies. Then after a period of dull sobriety a new crisis arises and we start the round again with a new hero. It’s as American as apple pie.
TAKE MR. OBAMA’S ROLE MODEL, Abraham Lincoln. The 49 months of the Lincoln presidency are a textbook case of how in a crisis a chief executive can seize an astonishing amount of extra-constitutional power with popular acquiescence, how he can use that power ruthlessly and without check, and how just as remorselessly that power can be snatched away and his accomplishments reversed when the crisis is popularly believed to have past. This is true even when the crisis continues in only a slightly less ominous fashion.
James M. McPherson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War historian, writes in his latest book, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, that Lincoln invented the very phrase-“war powers”- that established the president as the first among equals within the U.S. government. When Lincoln took office those powers were vague bordering on nonexistent. The original draft of the Constitution’s Article II, Section 2 said merely, “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States.” Subsequent refinements provided by the Supreme Court during protests over the Mexican War added only that his command was to employ those forces “in the manner he may deem most effectual to harass and conquer and subdue the enemy.”
While Congress dithered and the Supreme Court fumed, Lincoln unilaterally ordered a naval blockade of Southern ports (even of states that had not yet seceded) and the seizure of shipping. Then, in defiance of a Supreme Court finding, he suspended the writ of habeas corpus and began arresting state legislators and even a federal judge believed sympathetic to secession.
Once Lincoln’s famous Cabinet of Rivals was in place they outdid themselves in expanding his power.The postmaster general blocked the circulation of newspapers that opposed the conduct of the war. U.S. marshals began to arrest dissenters, draft resisters, and war protesters, with the accused tried before military commissions and courts martial. It has been documented that Secretary of State William Seward ordered military arrests of more than 800 civilians while Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had soldiers arrest more than 13,000 private citizens during the war.
WHILE LINCOLN’S VIOLATIONS of civil liberties have been rehashed often, less appreciated was his transformation of the still fragmented U.S. economy onto a coordinated national war footing. The Great Emancipator became the Great Nationalizer. Without reference to congressional authority or appropriations, he not only increased the size of the army and navy but also advanced 2 million dollars from the Treasury to three private New York financiers so they could hurry orders for arms and vessels for the war. Of longer- term impact was the issuance of a whopping $440 million in “greenbacks,” fiat money not tied to the legal requirement that it be redeemable in gold on demand. Of equal importance, Lincoln effectively seized the North’s railroads and turned them into a strategic weapon of warfare, adding hundreds of miles of new track and bridges and millions of dollars’ worth of new locomotives and rolling stock even as he rammed through Congress the charters for the construction of the first transcontinental railroad system.
But then look what happened. Set aside for a moment the myth that had Lincoln lived he would have adroitly healed the facture between North and South, been more lenient with the defeated South, and ensured a smoother and more secure transformation of the former slave population into full citizenship and economic equality. His tragic murder has obscured the fact that the dramatic military victories that swept him back into office in the 1864 elections also brought in a Congress determined to exact revenge on the former Confederacy and to reward themselves and their backers among the Northern industrialists and financiers who been dragooned into the Union’s cause by the diktats of Lincoln and his imperious cabinet.
One can only speculate on what a dismal second term Lincoln would have had if he had lived. But what is clear is how fast the power held by his administration was dismantled once the war was over and what an orgy of reprisal and wreckage went on for more than a decade afterward. By the end of 1865 fully half the Navy had been sold off at bargain prices to Yankee shipping companies; by 1867 there were but 56 (out of more than 400) warships in commission. The military railroad network also vanished into private hands. The speculation in the greenback currencies sparked cycles of boom and panic for the next 20 years.
The longer-term reaction to Lincoln’s seizure of power left Washington impotent as an influence over the shaping of America’s industrial evolution for the rest of that century. The public was left exhausted by the horrors of the war and in the rush for reparations turned violently revengeful not only against the errant former Confederates but against any group perceived as a threat, whether immigrants, early labor union organizers, or women seeking to expand control over their own lives. By 1900 the ostensible beneficiaries of the Civil War, the three and a half million former slaves, had seen many of their civil liberties nullified in fact and in law and many were no better off economically. In much of the nation, be it rural South or urban North, they were the target of unspeakable violence and hatred. So viral was political revulsion in the South that in many states as many poor whites were disenfranchised as blacks.
NOR IS THIS AN ISOLATED CASE. Think for a moment about what happened to the attempts of two other presidents who took the Lincoln playbook and essentially institutionalized extraordinary powers-police, economic, and cultural-using the excuse of wartime crisis. Woodrow Wilson, starting in 1915, a year before his reelection campaign on a peace platform, began to seize the reins of political and economic controls needed to gear up the American war machine. Unlike Lincoln’s, Wilson’s war powers were more formally and institutionally organized because he was able to get a pliant Democratic-controlled Congress to ratify his orders. Creation of a War Industries Board (headed by his campaign funding angel, Bernard Baruch) was a de facto nationalization of not only the railroads but much of American heavy industry as well. The Trading with the Enemy Act and the Overman Act institutionalized Wilson’s control over food prices and the nation’s export and import industries, and obligated the financial sector to fund the war effort without complaint.
The Espionage Act and the Committee on Information that ruthlessly crushed any protests or quibbles about the war were positively Lincolnesque. Newspapers were suppressed and protesters were jailed without warrant. While the jailing of Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs was mutedly criticized by some as overreaching, no voice was raised at the construction at Fort Oglethorpe near Atlanta and at Chattanooga of concentration camps where more than 4,000 German and Austrian “aliens” (including poets, scholars, musicians, and businessmen) were interned without recourse to the courts; of those not deported at the war’s end as many as 300 remained in the camps until 1920.
Although for different reasons, the popular revolt against Wilson’s power grab proved as fatal to him as it had to Lincoln. The November 1918 elections turfed Wilson’s docile congressional majority out and gave a determined band of Republican opponents and Progressive skeptics control of America’s postwar agenda. The president sailed for Paris convinced he would single-handedly reshape the entire world only to have the rug pulled out from beneath his feet back home. Not only was his quest for a League of Nations repudiated, but most of the presidency’s wartime powers were clawed back. The political vacuum thus created, as it had in Lincoln’s aftermath, provoked a rage of revenge fanned by politicians scrambling to pick up the pieces. Anyone suspected of being somehow “alien” felt the knife edge of American-style intolerance. Anarchist bombings, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the revival of postwar union organizing efforts fanned the hysteria until it eventually burned itself out in the early 1920s. The nation then fell into a self-indulgent doze for more than a decade before the dance resumed.
ALL THAT NEEDS TO BE NOTED about the repeat performance staged by Franklin D. Roosevelt is that he extended the ostensible “war powers” of the presidency almost at once as a weapon of domestic economic policy starting in 1933. It was Wilson’s Trading with the Enemy Act that provided cover for FDR taking America off the gold standard and declaring a bank holiday. Despite widespread public support in the Depression crisis, FDR found it hard to get traction, at least in his first four years in office. Despite the rush of New Deal legislation through the quiescent Congress, the truth is that by the end of 1936 the Supreme Court had pretty much checkmated his efforts.
As Burt Solomon recounts in his splendid new book, FDR v. Constitution: The Court-Packing Fight and the Triumph of Democracy, it took Roosevelt’s astonishing bid to insert a favorable majority onto the high court to nudge Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes into easing its five-to-four blockade into compliance with the White House’s goals.
The rest of Roosevelt’s historic time in office was simply the Lincoln-Wilson exercise inflated by FDR’s irresistible brio and Machiavellian maneuvering. The pattern verges on plagiarism. Again, it took a real war-or the prospect of one-to really push the president’s exercise of power into high gear. By the spring of 1940, nearly two years before the U.S. actually went to war, Roosevelt was in a countdown mode. He secretly authorized warrantless wiretapping inside the United States and gradually eased the U.S. Navy onto a war footing without Congress or the public being aware of what was going on. At the same time he was encouraging the establishment of a wartime secret intelligence service (the forerunner of the OSS) and an even more secret private research staff (akin to Wilson’s equally secret group The Inquiry) to plan the postwar American dominance of a new United Nations organization.
While Roosevelt, like the two predecessors, did not live to see the full repudiation of his legacy, it came with even more savage vengeance, leaving poor Harry Truman to carry the can during the bitter and raucous last half of the 1940s. America once again settled down to an orgy of Red-baiting, racial oppression, and anti-union violence until eight years of somnolence descended.
Mr. Truman’s aphorism about the presidency being a tiger that must be ridden lest one be eaten is right on point. George W. Bush learned to his present shame that while we still will respond to a president’s call to arms, the national attention span is short and the appearance of incompetence will be severely rebuked, perhaps soon to be punished ex post facto.
Mr. Obama faces the same imperatives in even more exaggerated times. He came to power during a frustratingly inconclusive war compounded by a truly frightening global economic panic. He claimed, and we cheerfully gave him, enormous political power and has set about with breathtaking ambition to reconfigure not only the American economy but our entire social contract. But the most charitable report card as we move to the autumn of this year is that the president’s remedies have been slow to actually reach the sore spots, and some of his nostrums are proving so ill conceived that they will never leave Washington at all.
IN THE MEANTIME, there is a public suspicion that the economic recession is healing itself. Spurious “green shoots” are being trumpeted in the press. Wall Street share prices show a grudging tendency to rise, home construction has fluttered out of its coma, some banks and manufacturers that had been administered last rites by Treasury priests have taken up their beds and begun to stagger about. By no means does this mean that we can resume singing “Happy Days Are Here Again.” To the contrary, the global recession is likely to worsen well into next year and our own economy will continue to choke, sputter, and lurch while your average Joe the Whatever has begun to grumble.
To be fair, Mr. Obama has not had any dissenters slung into prison, at least not yet. Nor is the press being suppressed, but why would he bother? Yet his seizure of vast extra-legal controls over our financial system, his arbitrary selection of winners and losers in the private economy, his firing of executives and thwarting of the time-proven mechanism of our bankruptcy laws and market forces-however justified it may have been in his mind-carries dangers for him and for us all. The question, finally, is when- not if-does the popular tiger turn on the man astride his back?
We are just a few weeks away from the beginning of the 2010 congressional elections scramble and what happens from then on will affect the odds on my bet. I wish I could calculate the odds better and soon perhaps I can. But I miss Henry Simmons right now.
James Srodes, an author and broadcaster, is a former Washington bureau chief for Forbes and Financial Worldmagazines. His latest book, On Dupont Circle: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Progressives Who Shaped Our World, is being published next week. His email address is email@example.com.
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