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Some historical perspective on the U.S. presidency

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.â€

At the time, it seemed like a masterful rhetorical flourish — a clever turn of phrase designed to break a cycle of isolationism and prepare a shaken generation for the long fight ahead.

As it turns out, Franklin Roosevelt could have been talking about his successors in the Oval Office as much as the American people who were reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor and girding their loins for a brutal and costly war.

I know it’s not fashionable to say. But fear is an essential element of strong leadership and it’s a necessity for any president who wants to pass major groundbreaking legislation such as heath-care and financial reform.

As it turned out, Obama struggled mightily and only wound up with half a loaf on both of those initiatives — even with substantial Democratic congressional majorities.

It’s become increasingly obvious that President Obama’s inability to galvanize lawmakers and the American people around so many of his legislative priorities stems less from obstructionist Republicans than from his abject failure to convince GOPers (and some fence-sitting Democrats) that voting against him will have adverse consequences.

Why vote with a president who has sub-50 percent approval ratings if he’s not willing to stick his finger in your face and tell you you’re on the wrong side of history? Or, willing to play the game of politics: “Oh, and by the way, those transportation funds you wanted for your state? You can kiss them goodbye if you don’t get on board, pal!â€

Recent history tells us that successful presidents combine professional experience, personal popularity, a visionary agenda and a willingness to up the ante to keep political opponents from disrupting their business.

In the span of a couple of years, Lyndon Johnson used his legislative prowess, honed from his six years as Senate majority leader, and the sheer force of his personality to bring us his Great Society programs and a dramatic increase in federal money for public schools.

LBJ even managed to get Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, despite bitter opposition from some members of his own party. But Johnson knew exactly how to win over Democratic fence-sitters and convince them they were on the right side of history, even if it meant that as a result the Democratic Party will “have lost the South for a generation,†as he is said to have told an aide.

Republican Richard Nixon used his experience as a Congressman and eight years as vice president to forge alliances that created huge bureaucracies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

“Well,†as the Gipper might say, love Ronald Reagan or hate him, but his accomplishments are now the stuff of legend. And he accomplished it all despite having to contend with a Congress that was almost entirely under the control of the opposition party — a circumstance he shared with Nixon.

And after a humbling first two years and a failed health care attempt, even Bill Clinton came roaring back — a skill he learned after flubbing his first re-election bid for Arkansas governor and losing the 1992 Iowa primary — to win a second term after the GOP had taken over Congress only two years earlier. Clinton accomplished that remarkable feat largely by co-opting a few popular Republican ideas.

George W. Bush used his popularity in the wake of 9/11 to get Congress to pass across-the-board tax cuts, the Patriot Act, No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D — the largest new entitlement since LBJ’s Great Society.

Unsuccessful presidents either lack the requisite experience (Carter), have no compelling vision (the first President Bush) or both (Obama).

Barack Obama is a very intelligent man who can give good speeches — sort of a latter-day Adlai Stevenson. But, unlike Stevenson, Obama had never run anything before he started measuring curtains for the Oval Office. He was a part-time state legislator and law school lecturer who had been a U.S. Senator for about a year before deciding to run for the highest office in the land. It’s been at least 100 years since the American people have elected a president with such a thin leadership resume. Methinks it is starting to show.

Lakeville resident Terry Cowgill is a former editor and senior writer at The Lakeville Journal Company. E-mail him at  terrycowgill@gmail.com.

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