Craig Eisele on …..

July 1, 2013

The Promise of and Age of New Freedom

Filed under: Uncategorized — Mr. Craig @ 5:00 am

Obama and the New Freedom

By TRYGVE THRONTVEIT

Library of CongressPresident Wilson throwing out the first ball at a baseball game in 1916.In evaluating President Barack Obama’s legislative record, historically inclined commentators frequently compare his first term to the early years of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. When it comes to winning re-election, however, the commentators — and Obama — might learn something from the only Democrat besides F.D.R. to win multiple elections in the 20th century on reform platforms: Woodrow Wilson.Obama won in 2008 largely because he promised a new way of doing things in Washington: less partisan and ideological, more cooperative and deliberative. His recent turn to the left might energize the Democratic base, but it is unclear how it will play among the swing voters who put him in office and remain crucial to his re-election. That’s where Wilson comes in. Few presidents have wooed swing voters as successfully as Wilson: In 1912 he won liberal Republican votes from both William Howard Taft and Teddy Roosevelt when the latter bolted to form the Progressive Party, and in 1916 he added former T.R. Progressives and even socialists to his coalition to win a close race against the formerly liberal, increasingly conservative — in other words, eerily Romneyesque — Charles Evans Hughes. In that race Wilson, like Obama, signaled a clear turn leftward, but that alone did not win him re-election. Instead, Wilson won by doing something Obama has not: staying on message, which for him meant staying on method.From his 1912 campaign through the end of his first term, Wilson consistently communicated a general approach to politics that he believed in more deeply than any particular platform, and which appealed to the urban reformers, social gospelers, anti-monopolists, labor activists and other participants in the day’s diffuse progressive movement despite their disagreements on specific policy questions. In short, Wilson called for “a new method and spirit of counsel” to replace politics-as-usual in Washington. At that time, he meant to wrest control of economic and political life from large corporations (and their government yes men) and place it in the hands of citizens, by breaking the power of trusts, fostering broader economic competition, and promoting better conditions for workers whose long days and crushing labor prevented full participation in public life.These “New Freedom” policies were intended to embody Wilson’s new method and spirit of counsel. But they were not to hamstring it. Refusal to experiment, recalculate, adapt, compromise; that was exactly the politics-as-usual Wilson promised to reject. “Fixed liberty is no liberty at all,” he had written while president of Princeton University, and he brought that conviction with him to the presidency of the United States. Wilson insisted that a truly progressive political method meant governing according to both principle and experience, adapting to changing contexts and pursuing essential goals rather than party-trademarked policies. The success of such a method required compromise, as did the democratic ideal it embodied. “As servants of all,” Wilson argued, public officials were “bound to undertake the great duty of accommodation and adjustment.” At a time when the economy and society seemed to be changing more rapidly than ever, Wilson’s message of flexibility and solidarity was very appealing — as was his call for humility in Washington. Promising great change to an unsatisfactory “system,” he pledged to pursue that change “in the spirit of those who question their own wisdom and seek counsel and knowledge” — not just from people in other parties and independent experts, but from “the people.”Library of CongressPresident Wilson’s inauguration in 1917.Again like Obama, Wilson’s pragmatic method got him into trouble early on. He initially dismayed progressives in his own party, and those outside who were crucial to his re-election, by his willingness to work with corporations, banks and a range of centrist and even conservative interests. But this approach delivered the Underwood Tariff Act, the Federal Trade Commission Act and the Federal Reserve Act in rapid succession between 1913 and 1914. Each was an attempt to eschew one-time legal fixes and establish agencies capable of responding to change, whether that meant altered trade conditions, new anti-competitive corporate practices or fluctuating demand for credit. Crucially, each of these victories was achieved through a deliberative process in which all parties gave something to get something — as when financiers desiring a truly national currency, but no central bank, accepted supervision by the Federal Reserve Board. Ultimately these achievements earned Wilson more progressive supporters than they lost, and not because he soft-pedaled his cooperation with moderates and conservatives. In touting the New Freedom acts he never shied from admitting that he had compromised — sometimes out of necessity, sometimes because he had learned new things, but mostly because that is how he thought democracy should work: by drawing upon “the best of our common counsel.”Obama professed a similar view of democracy as “conversation” in his 2006 book, “The Audacity of Hope,” and he proceeded to act on it as president, most notably by working with Republicans and Wall Street to stave off economic catastrophe. Many on the left assume all such inches must stretch into miles, and Congressional Republicans have tried to prove them right. But Wilson’s pragmatism did not foreclose his future progressive options. Just the opposite: by emphasizing the virtue of reflective, principled adaptation to changing conditions, Wilson provided the intellectual justification for a cascade of advanced reforms initiated in 1915, including loans to farmers, child-labor restrictions, government-worker’s compensation, and the first redistributive income tax in American history. Some accused Wilson of adopting wholesale the Progressive Party platform of his erstwhile rival, Theodore Roosevelt, in a cynical bid to capture T.R.’s 27 percent share of the 1912 electorate for himself in 1916. But four years as president had led Wilson to consider much of the Progressive Party’s platform necessary to giving the American people a voice and stake in their government, and he was perfectly comfortable saying so. More important, he was believable — at least to the nine million-plus who reelected him in 1916 — because he had always promised to make “convincing experience” rather than ideology his guide.Of course, endorsing a deliberative, democratic method is no guarantee of applying it consistently or wisely. Wilson failed miserably to assure African-Americans the same rights as their fellow citizens. He also failed to break the United States’ established pattern of invading every Latin American country deemed unstable. Nor does a deliberative, experimental approach to policy ensure that clear answers to complicated problems will emerge. Some historians will continue to question America’s entry into World War I, even as others wonder how it could possibly have been avoided. Scholars will most likely never agree about the wisdom of Wilson’s compromises at the Peace Conference, or whether his ultimate refusal to compromise with senators working to undermine the new League of Nations was noble or perverse. But contrary to historical caricatures, Wilson never claimed to be perfect. He never claimed compromise was always the answer. He simply thought cooperation could offset individuals’ imperfections and that the partial progress of compromise was usually better than none at all.Obama, too, must accept that his pragmatism and idealism will sometimes conflict, while neither will save him from screwing up now and again. Still, he need not think, with his narrowest-minded critics, that pragmatism and idealism must conflict. A method, after all, can be an ideal. Wilson, the former academic, saw it as his job to educate Americans on just that point — namely, that democracy itself, with all its setbacks, trade-offs, partial victories and second chances, was the ideal that allowed all other ideals to be pursued. Obama, the most scholarly in demeanor of Wilson’s successors, has made the same connection by endorsing a “golden rule” of politics: a commitment to reasoned, charitable exchanges of view in political debate and genuine consideration for diverse needs and values when crafting and weighing policy. It is unfortunate that in today’s America, Obama can’t just say “democracy” and be sure his meaning is clear.Our sad political culture does not, however, explain why Obama is having trouble connecting with voters in 2012 the way he did just four years ago. It’s that his message has become muddled: the crisis made me do this; my principles tell me to do that; I promise more of the latter. This inspires little confidence in Democratic activists, who doubt his commitment to progressive causes, or in independents, who fear he will pursue them at all costs. Yet in 2008 these same two groups, despite their differences, found common ground in Obama’s message of change: of a renewed commitment to critical thinking in the White House, bipartisan cooperation in Congress and shared sacrifice across the nation. In 2012, Obama needs to get back on message by getting back on method — and he needs to stay there. As Wilson knew, healthy democracies learn through deliberation, experimentation, compromise, and yes, failure.  Democratic leaders should not be ashamed to set an example.Trygve Throntveit is assistant director of undergraduate studies in history at Harvard University; he is currently at work on “Power without Victory: Woodrow Wilson and the American Internationalist Experiment.”

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