This Thanksgiving essay was originally written for the Huffington Post.
I know it sounds really corny, but this Thanksgiving, I’m grateful that George Washington was our first President — and that Barack Obama who like GW can be austere and seemingly distant from common folks but yet is smart and chameleon-like in his ability to forge compromises can still get a great deal right in his presidency.
Reading Ron Chernow’s excellent Washington: A Life, I realize how different our world would have been had someone like Tom DeLay or Aaron Burr been America’s first president. We might have ended up with someone who never wanted to leave the position as Washington did.
Or among the early founding fathers, if John Adams had come first, or Jefferson – the consolidation of a single political faction’s control over the machinery of government at such a fragile stage might have meant civil war far earlier than the one America eventually got.
Chernow brings the austere Washington to life in what must be the seminal work on the first President – highlighting Washington’s desperate need for social affirmation, his insecurity about education and intellectual matters, his vanity and concern for appearances, his tormented relations with a stand-offish mother, his focus on material and financial advancement, the role of fortune and luck in elevating Washington socially, economically, and politically.
Some of this tracks with Obama and much of it not. But what becomes clear in reading about Washington and knowing a lot about Obama is that their lives and presidencies were constant struggles to achieve outcomes that moved the common good forward — even though they had to engage in deal-making and take actions that seemed contradictory to what they believed. In the case of Washington, hanging deserters (when he was a commanding colonel at 23) or in Obama’s case, not yet shuttering GITMO come to mind.
Chernow explains that whatever George Washington did became co-mingled with who Washington was and what his personal interests were. He owned the outcomes he got and personalized the results good and bad — whether at 21 years of age it was convincing the royal governor of Virginia he should lead the state militia against the French or whether it was taking over the sprawling operation of Mt. Vernon that he originally rented from his half-brother’s widow. Whatever Washington did became a personal enterprise. He couldn’t separate the task at hand from his own interests. Obama can’t comingle his real estate and personal finance interests with those of a nation in which he has been trusted to be the chief steward — but he can do more to feel political ownership of the process and results of his policy efforts.
To some degree, Washington made America his own enterprise, but one that he could walk away from politically. Obama needs to find a way to do the same — to do a better job owning the outcomes of his administration and learning that he has the power and capacity as President to create penalties and opportunities for Members of Congress (as well as Cabinet Secretaries and political advisers in his own administration) in delivering on the public policy that Obama pledged to during his campaign.
Power and policy were negotiated around Washington – and today, we still negotiate power and the national narrative between interest groups and political factions.
With both the rise two years ago of President Obama and now the rise of the Tea Party, we are seeing the country’s future negotiated. Institutions that Washington’s administration established and the essential balance of power in government that Washington forged under his calm, often austere leadership can act as a stabilizer against wild political swings.
But as so often happens when one reads the life story of someone who played a vital, irreplaceable role in securing America’s greatness, one pines for that person to be around dealing with matters today. Despite George Washington’s ubiquitous presence on the dollar bill and as the symbolic father of the nation, few Americans have a sense of him as a person, his internal torment, the tough calls he had to make as he forged a new nation.
Presidents often compare themselves with each other and become taken with legacy. The first thing a new U.S. president often does is to stock up on histories of their predecessors — and this new book on George Washington is one that Obama should delve into.
There is no George Washington on the scene today – at least none that I can see at the moment. And American institutions need someone as balanced, as driven by both a desire for power and a desire to not seem to want power, to make the American enterprise his or her own – long enough to re-secure the anchors of democracy in the US. Barack Obama could become the George Washington of a next era for the country — but he’s going to have to learn how to be less acquiescent to the political weather created by others and become the one, like George Washington, whose presence and preferences set the terms of debate for others. Obama is not there yet but could be.
So, for my Thanksgiving, I’m glad we had George Washington – and I hope that Barack Obama takes time to study what a great leader who can make decisions and have the courage of his convictions looks like.
— Steve Clemons