Monday, January 12, 2015

Chuck Todd and President Barack Obama

Chuck Todd, host of Meet the Press, was recently interviewed on C-SPAN's After Words about his new book The Stranger, an attempt at what he calls a "second draft" history of the Obama presidency. I will probably not read this book, which is a reflection of my available reading time, not on the quality of Todd's book. Todd made two statements in the interview that I think require an historian's response.

He and the host (Dan Balz of the Washington Post, I believe) discussed the president's record getting legislation through the Democratic Party controlled Congress. The Affordable Care Act took up a lot of time. In hindsight, they wonder, would it have been better to have sent more legislation to Congress? They referred to this as "overloading the system." Then Todd remarked that the lessons of the most recent presidents might be that future chief executives should be more ambitious in sending bills to the legislature. Their power and influence, after all, is most effective in the first two years of their term. Interesting point, but I would also call attention to the lesson Ronald Reagan's chief of staff James Baker drew from Jimmy Carter's experience doing just that. Carter choked a Congress controlled by his own party. Baker, instead, focused Reagan's legislative agenda on three things, economic recovery, economic recovery, and economic recovery, i.e.the tax cut. It seems to me that instead of drawing s single overriding principle on this, it is more instructive to look at each individual case, the times, the issues, and the like. Moreover, we cannot ignore the Congress in this equation.

On Afghanistan, the host asked Todd what he thought about the president's surge in Afghanistan. Todd's answer seems sound. The president is not anti-war, but Obama also believed he was elected to wind down military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The military commanders pressed him hard to increase troops in Afghanistan. He gave them some of what he wanted. In his analysis, Todd suggests that the president knew on one hand that every military commander ever has always wanted more troops (Abe Lincoln can tell him tales of woe on this subject), but, on the other, there were not a lot of alternatives. I would only add that I think Obama was trapped by his own campaign talk of the good war and bad war. If he gives up on the war he himself called good, what does that say about his national security policy. Personally, I think he used these terms to show he was not philosophically opposed to war as an instrument of foreign policy, but still felt the United States needed to be wise in using such force, and this was a clever way of doing that.  Facing a declining situation in Afghanistan, he had no choice to save the good war and add more troops. I would only add, as an historical reference, that Kennedy had a similar problem in Vietnam. Throughout the 1960 campaign Kennedy was critical to the Eisenhower Administration's one-size-fits-all strategy of Massive Retaliation. As an alternative policy, Kennedy promoted General Maxwell Taylor's Flexible Response. The name says it all, and it called for different responses to fit different situations. When tested, he could not just walk away and say the situation is lost. He had to do something, especially after the Bays of Pigs fiasco and the Vienna Summit had him backpedalling on foreign policy. Dangerous things happen when presidents are considered weak by the rest of the world. This is not to say that had Kennedy lived he would have done exactly what Lyndon Johnson did do in Vietnam. I think that the most likely outcome is that Kennedy would have escalated in Vietnam in some ways, but would likely have fought a different kind of war. Perhaps, he would have placed less reliance on troops and more on air power.  Either way, what a candidate says during a campaign will be used as measuring stick during their term in office.  I think President Obama knew this.

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