November 10, 2008: The Obama Transition & Historians Weigh in on the Moment

POLITICS & PRESIDENTIAL TRANSITION WATCH:

Barack Obama before his news conference on Friday. (Photo: Damon Winter/The New York Times)

Stats:

  • A Breakdown of the Obama Vote:
    • 66 percent of voters under age 30.
    • 66 percent of Hispanic voters.
    • 68 percent of first-time voters.
    • 95 percent of Black voters.
  • A timeline of the Obama campaign – Newsday
  • Get to know the Obamas: Bios of Barack, Michelle, Malia and Sasha – Newsday

The Headlines…

    President-Elect Barack Obama Transition office: http://change.gov/

  • Obama Team Weighs What to Take On First – NYT, 11-9-08
  • Economy won’t stop Obama’s priorities, aides say – AP, 11-9-08
  • Obama already holds bully pulpit He’s moving fast to build his governing team, but wants to avoid endorsing the policies of President Bush, whom he visits Monday. – Christian Sciene Monitor, 11-9-08
  • Obama to use executive orders for immediate impact: President-elect Obama plans to use his executive powers to make an immediate impact when he takes office, perhaps reversing Bush administration policies on stem cell research and domestic drilling for oil and natural gas. – AP, 11-9-08
  • Transition, too, for Michelle Obama to first lady – AP, 11-9-08
  • Quotes by clergy members about Obama’s election – AP, 11-9-08
  • Obama likely to tap fresh faces, old hands – San Fransico Chronicle, 11-8-08
  • Like Lincoln and FDR, Obama faces nation in crisis – AP, 11-8-08
  • Palin Calls Criticism by McCain Aides ‘Cruel and Mean-Spirited’ – AP, 11-8-08
  • Obama, in His New Role as President-Elect, Calls for Stimulus Package – 11-7-08
  • President-elect Obama assembled his economic team Friday and soberly told the nation that strong action is needed to confront “the greatest economic challenge of our lifetime.” In his first news conference since being elected Tuesday, Obama called on Congress to extend unemployment benefits and pass a stimulus bill. But his more ambitious remedies, he said, must wait until he takes office Jan. 20. – AP, 11-7-08
  • Byrd will voluntarily give up chairmanship – AP, 11-7-08
  • Live Blogging the Obama News Conference – NYT, The Caucus, 11-7-08
  • Obama to center stage, promises action on economy: Inheriting an economy in peril, President-elect Obama warned on Friday that the nation faces the challenge of a lifetime and pledged he would act urgently to help Americans devastated by lost jobs, disappearing savings and homes seized in foreclosure. But the man who promised change cautioned against hopes of quick solutions. AP, 11-7-08

Political Quotes

  • John Podesta on Fox News Sunday: “Across the board, whether it’s national security; the economy; the senior leadership that will manage healthcare, energy, and the environment, [Obama] intends to move very quickly.” – Fox News, 11-9-08
  • Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger urges GOP to move beyond ideology: The governor told CNN’s John King that Republicans should not “always just say, ‘This is spending. We can’t do that.’ No, don’t get stuck with that. We have heard that dialogue. Let’s move on.” Schwarzenegger says it is important for his party to regroup and support spending on programs Americans want. – “I think the important thing for the Republican Party is now to also look at other issues that are very important for this country and not to get stuck in ideology,” the governor said in an interview broadcast on CNN this morning. “Let’s go and talk about healthcare reform. Let’s go and . . . fund programs if they’re necessary programs and not get stuck just on the fiscal responsibility.”….
    They should not “always just say, ‘This is spending. We can’t do that.’ No, don’t get stuck with that. We have heard that dialogue. Let’s move on.”…
    “I was touched by it,” he said. “Democrats and Republicans should do everything they can to help this man and his administration to be successful.” – LA Times, 11-9-08
  • Obama Apologizes for ‘Seances’ Remark: “President-elect Barack Obama called Nancy Reagan today to apologize for the careless and off-handed remark he made during today’s press conference. The President-elect expressed his admiration and affection for Mrs. Reagan that so many Americans share and they had a warm conversation,” said Stephanie Cutter, transition team spokeswoman.”In terms of speaking to former presidents, I’ve spoken to all of them that are living,” Mr. Obama said, before zeroing in on that fact that he had been asked whether he had spoken to living people. “Obviously, President Clinton — I didn’t want to get into a Nancy Reagan thing about, you know, doing any séances.” – NYT, The Caucus, 11-7-08
  • President-Elect Barack Obama’s First News Conference: Transcript
    We are facing the greatest economic challenge of our lifetime, and we’re going to have to act swiftly to resolve it….. A new president can have an enormous impact. I do not underestimate the enormity of the task that lies ahead.
    Immediately after I become president, I will confront this economic challenge head-on by taking all necessary steps to ease the credit crisis, help hardworking families, and restore growth and prosperity. Some of the choices that we’re going to make are going to be difficult. It is not going to be quick. It’s not going to be easy for us to dig ourselves out of the hole that we are in.” But he said he was confident the country could do it. I think that the plan that we’ve put forward is the right one, but obviously over the next several weeks and months, we’re going to be continuing to take a look at the data and see what’s taking place in the economy as a whole.
  • Robert Byrd “Byrd will voluntarily give up chairmanship”:
    To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven. Those Biblical words from Ecclesiastes 3:1 express my feelings about this particular time in my life…. I have been privileged to be a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee for 50 years and to have chaired the committee for ten years, during a time of enormous change in our great country, both culturally and politically. I have learned that nothing is quite so permanent as change. It is simply a part of living and should not be feared.

Historians’ Comments

  • Michael Beschloss: Presidential Historian: President Obama will face critical early decisions: Obama will quickly have to decide if he’s going to tackle the economy with a single-minded focus or puruse the agenda he and the Democrats laid out during the campaign, Beschloss said.
    “I can’t tell you what way he’ll go,” said Beschloss,recently named NBC News’ presidential historian.”In one year we will know the answer.”
    Beschloss said the greatest presidents made decisions they knew would be unpopular, citing George Washington’s decision to sign a treaty with Great Britain shortly after the Revolutionary War and Abraham Lincoln’s siging of the Emancipation Proclamation at a time he faced a tough re-election challenge. – The Jersey Journal, 11-9-08
  • Allan J. Lichtman “Americans will be looking to Obama to transform their country”: “I think the potential for Obama to be a transformative president is very great,” said Allan J. Lichtman of American University, author of several books on presidential history…. “Strike when you still have the mandate,” Lichtman said, citing Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. “Think big. Experiment. Don’t govern from the middle.”… “I think it’s riskier to opt for the middle of the road,” Lichtman said. “We remember … the bold presidents.” – Kansas City Star, 11-9-08
  • Gil Troy “Americans will be looking to Obama to transform their country”: “The crisis increases the chance for a transformative presidency,” said author and presidential historian Gil Troy….
    Troy: “Working against him are inexperience, a potentially arrogant Democratic Congress, and a series of foreign and domestic challenges that could crush him.” Kansas City Star, 11-9-08
  • John Baick “Obama’s campaign inspires U.S., but how long will it last?”: “Will they stay involved? Become town councilmen? Join their school boards? That will be the test,” said history Professor John Baick of Western New England College. “That happened with Kennedy. If it happens again, then you have a real movement. If not, you probably don’t.”…
    Historian Baick says the young people who voted for President Kennedy made a difference because they stuck around. They became part of the “political culture.” “We did not see that with either President Bush or President Clinton,” he said. But, Baick said, the Obama campaign already has made progress by directly communicating with this generation. “He has created, in 20 months, a new generation of networked and politically active people,” Baick said. “It will be normal for them to be involved in politics. They are getting e-mails and text messages from Barack Obama. That’s their normal.” – Arizona Republic, 11-9-08
  • Douglas Brinkley, the best-selling author and professor of history at Rice University “Historians, too, call Obama victory ‘monumental'”: “Monumental … a major shift in the zeitgeist of our times.”…
    Brinkley, the historian who edited the private White House diaries of Ronald Reagan, agrees that Tuesday’s vote marks “the beginning of a new era” in American politics not seen since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1932, or Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society in 1964. With Obama’s lopsided victory, and the wave that swept more Democrats into both houses of Congress, “a chapter has been closed on the Reagan era, meaning the days of rolling back the Great Society are over,” he says. “A new kind of progressivism will now be taking root.” “A Great Society ‘light,”‘ Brinkley postulates. “It won’t be quite as ambitious and sweeping as Lyndon Johnson’s, but it will probably focus on one or two big things, such as universal health care and major incentives for ‘green’ business.” — USA Today, 11-9-08
  • Joan Hoff, a former president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency in New York City “Historians, too, call Obama victory ‘monumental'”: “I can’t think of another election where the issues were two wars and a crashed economy. There just isn’t any historical precedent for this.”….
    In a globalized world with many newly emerging powers, “We may have to downsize our estimation of ourselves,” Hoff says, “and along with it goes a downsizing of our economic and military power.” That would mean the end of a “Cold Warrior” mentality that has existed in the White House since Harry Truman. Will Americans grasp such thinking? Will other nations? Ultimately, how Obama handles this will be, Hoff says, “what will really make this election unprecedented.” — USA Today, 11-9-08
  • James McPherson, the renowned author and professor emeritus of history at Princeton University “Historians, too, call Obama victory ‘monumental'”: “It’s an historic turning point … an exclamation point of major proportions to the civil rights movement that goes back to the 1950s.”…
    “Whether an Obama victory means that it will close the book on the Reagan era — I think it may be true, but I think it’s too soon to conclude that,” McPherson says. — USA Today, 11-9-08
  • Doris Goodwin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, historian and political commentator: “The racial milestone will be much larger than we’ve even imagined in the course of these last couple of years,” says Doris Goodwin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, historian and political commentator. Compared with other milestones that students of history read in American textbooks — Booker T. Washington causing a national uproar for having lunch at the White House with Teddy Roosevelt, Marian Anderson singing at the Lincoln Memorial after being barred from Constitutional Hall, Joe Louis knocking out Nazi Germany’s Max Schmeling for the heavyweight boxing crown — the concept of an African-American holding the nation’s highest office “is just enormous,” she says. –
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin “Harsh Words About Obama? Never Mind Now “: The presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said she was hard-pressed to find a similar moment when the tone had changed so drastically, and so quickly, among so many people of such prominence. “I don’t think that’s happened very often,” Ms. Goodwin said. “The best answer I can give you is they don’t want to be on the wrong side of history, and they recognize how the country saw this election, and how people feel that they’re living in a time of great historic moment.” – NYT, 11-9-08
  • Catherine Allegor “Michelle Obama blazes a new trail”: “This is an incredible rebirth of her life,” said Catherine Allegor, a first ladies expert and a history professor at California’s Claremont McKenna College. “I think she’s only limited to her imagination.” “If she said, ‘I’m going to fight against gender inequality,’ some people wouldn’t like that,” Allegor said. “So she says ‘working mothers’ and everyone’s OK with it.” Chicago Tribune, 11-9-08
  • John Sides “On Historic Day, Political Scientists Take the Long View”: “The models were correct in that they predicted an Obama victory, a Democratic victory, and that’s what resulted. So in that sense, given the state of the economy, given the popularity of the incumbent, you’d expect a Democrat to win,” said John Sides, a professor of political science at George Washington University. For all the talk about Hillary Clinton’s supporters shifting over to John McCain, for example, or McCain losing support within the Republican Party, both candidates ended up with roughly equal support within their parties. “We live in an era of very strong party loyalty, and this election is really no different,” Sides said. – Inside Higher Ed, 11-5-08
  • Taylor Branch disputes NYT’s rosy view of Obama’s election: “It’s a great milestone,” but it’s not an “explicit achievement or accomplishment in race relations in the lives of everyday Americans….I hope we don’t get into a tailspin where everyone calls this the racial promised land.”…”I am thrilled to tears. The resonance of it to me is enormous.” – NPR, 11-5-08
  • Manning Marable “Obama Sails To Sweeping, Historic Victory”: “It’s possible that he will be the reverse Reagan,” says Columbia University historian Manning Marable. Like Reagan, Marable says, Obama is a charismatic leader whose appeal transcends partisan politics. He says Obama has built his support on a “three-legged stool” made up of African-Americans, Hispanics and young voters of all races. – NPR, 11-5-08
  • Richard Norton Smith and Peniel Joseph Historians Answered Your Questions on Obama’s Win, 2008 Campaign:
    Sen. Barack Obama will become the country’s first black leader after a campaign season that broke records and saw female candidates break new ground. Historians Richard Norton Smith and Peniel Joseph answered your questions on this historic election. – PBS Newshour, 11-5-08
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Michael Beschloss & Richard Norton Smith: Their Commentary on the Republican Convention

By Bonnie K. Goodman

History News Network, 9-06-04

As part of PBS’s coverage of the Republican National Convention in New York last week, historians Michael Beschloss and Richard Norton Smith provided historical perspective. The first day of the convention the discussion focused on war presidents, the second on party perspectives, the third on the effect of outside events on the course of the election, and the fourth on acceptance speeches. The following is a summary of their commentaries.

Day One: War Presidents

The discussion on the first day of the convention focused on war presidents, the advantages and disadvantages of being a war president. In their discussion on Abraham Lincoln’s re-election effort in 1864, Beschloss commented on Lincoln’s fear that he would lose the election because of the lack of decisive victories, but argued that “people were larger-minded enough to see he was doing it the right way.” Smith noted that the Republican Party this year is not attempting to broaden its appeal in the same dramatic ways the party undertook in 1864, when Lincoln insisted on running with a Southern Democrat.

Smith saw parallels between Richard Nixon’s 1972 re-election and George W. Bush’s. Smith pointed out the various strategies that Nixon employed to change the subject from Vietnam. He brought hundreds of thousands of troops home, “casting himself as a peacemaker.” He opened up U.S. Soviet relations and U.S.
China relations. He proposed “ending the draft, which of course had been at the heart of much of the intense opposition to the war.”

Beschloss noted that Nixon had additionally distracted the public from the war by having his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, claim that “we believe that peace is at hand.” Beschloss said that this was “cheap politics that presidents should not follow.”

Another parallel the historians discussed was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s re-election campaign in 1944. Beschloss argued that the parallels were suggestive. Despite tangible successes in the war, Roosevelt was being scrutinized as officials probed the reason the nation had been caught sleeping when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Thomas Dewey in a speech “suggested that Roosevelt was in some way responsible for Pearl Harbor,” which Beschloss pointed out put Roosevelt in a “very risky situation.”

In commenting on the Vietnam War and the 1968 campaign Beschloss claimed that “Nixon was pretending that he was likelier than [Hubert] Humphrey to pull troops out of Vietnam if he was elected. A lot of peaceniks voted for Nixon, bizarrely enough, and Humphrey who would have really done that, was scared into suggesting in public that he followed Johnson on the war because Johnson called him up and said, ‘Hubert, you oppose me on Vietnam, I’m going to dry up every Democratic dollar from Maine to Hawaii.’ Humphrey was already broke, he couldn’t do it.”

Day 2: Party Perspectives

On the second day of the convention California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and First Lady Laura Bush spoke. Both historians observed that Governor Schwarzenegger’s views on social issues do not resemble the positions of that other famous Republican actor turned governor of California, Ronald Reagan.
Beschloss said Schwarzenegger’s liberal social views most clearly reminded him of California Governor Earl Warren. Schwarzenegger, according to Smith, is “post ideological” and “transcend[s] party labels in a lot of ways.” But the governor also resembles Reagan in the way he can get away with such comments as “girley men.”

Beschloss argued that that there may be a future for Schwarzenegger in presidential politics “if the Constitution is amended some day and if the Republican Party does feel it wants to move back to the center.” They thought he might be particularly helpful winning the immigrant vote. Schwarzenegger is sponsored by Pete Wilson, who supported propositions in the 1990s that were considered hostile to immigrants. Smith said Schwarzenegger, an immigrant himself, could change the perception that party is anti-immigrant.

Also discussed was the issue of first ladies as a political asset in a campaign. Smith mentioned that after Betty Ford’s explosive “60 Minutes” interview, conservatives were concerned that she might cost Ford the presidency. But she may indeed have helped improve Ford’s support among women; “by 1976 there were buttons all over the country that read Betty’s husband for president.” In regard to the present first lady Beschloss commented that “Laura Bush speaks rarely on politics, so when she speaks people listen.” Some of her views differ with the president’s and may be more liberal, helping Bush win over centrists. Smith agreed that “a lot of people find it reassuring to think that someone that close to the president, maybe shares some of the concerns.” Lady Bird Johnson according to Smith also “managed to straddle the divide between a traditionalist and activist.”

Day 3: The Importance of Outside Events on the Course of the Election

On the third night the discussion focused on events outside the candidates’ control that can affect the election, including the possibility of an October Surprise.
According to Smith, Johnson’s 1964 campaign worried about Walter Jenkins, “who was a very close aide to President Johnson, [who] was arrested in a YMCA in Washington under compromising circumstances.” When news leaked out about the arrest the Goldwater conservatives believed they could make a strong case that the country faced moral decay under LBJ. But foreign issues quickly wiped the Jenkins story off the front pages. China, noted Smith, “successfully tested their first nuclear device; and in Moscow the politburo overthrew Nikita Khrushchev.” Beschloss added that the World Series and a change in government in London also helped Johnson.

Beschloss argued that for events like these to influence an election the contest has to be close “in those last weeks in October; and it also has to be an event that’s really at the center of the campaign.” Such was the case in 1968 when on October 31 Johnson halted bombing in the Vietnam with peace a possibility, “so for a couple of days, Humphrey zoomed in the polls, and then the South Vietnamese government said they would not negotiate, and Humphrey plunged,” and he lost the election. Beschloss said it was not clear if a terrorist attack on the United States in October would help or hurt President Bush.

Smith pointed out that events helped Lincoln in 1864. By August Lincoln did not believe he could win. However, when the Democratic Convention met and “they adopted a peace platform, calling for a negotiated end to the war and repeal of the Emancipation Proclamation, that shocked millions of voters. And then, two days after that convention, General Sherman took Atlanta.” Winning the war was possible and Lincoln’s “victory became almost a forgone conclusion.”

Beschloss observed that in 1992 Lawrence Walsh indicted members of the Bush administration in connection with the Iran-contra scandal, and suggested George H.W. Bush was more involved than originally believed. “Bush the elder had been getting traction on the issue of honesty and integrity against Bill Clinton. At that moment his polls began to go down, and there was not much chance that he would win.” In 2000 Bush’s son’s integrity was also cast in doubt at the last moment when it was revealed that he had been arrested for drunk driving in the mid-1970s.

Another case of a revelation in the last week prior to an election that hurt the candidate’s chance for winning according to Smith came in 1976, during the Ford-Carter race. By the last weekend of the campaign Ford had managed to turn a thirty-three point deficit in the polls into a one-point lead. Ford claimed there was an economic recovery, but when unemployment statistics came out that suggested otherwise, this “caused second thoughts in enough voters so that at the very last minute they moved back and Jimmy Carter narrowly won.”

Beschloss discussed the origin of the term October Surprise. He traced it back to the 1980 campaign and the Iran hostage crisis. “The Reagan people were worried that Jimmy Carter would commit some kind of October surprise, meaning something that would suddenly cause the hostages to be released and Carter to win the election against Ronald Reagan.” There was also suspicion that vice presidential candidate George Bush “flew to Paris in an SR-1 spy plane to have a secret meeting with some French people and some Iranians to try to foil this.”

Day 4: Acceptance Speeches

In anticipation of the President’s acceptance speech the discussion focused on “what makes a great re-nominating acceptance speech, or one a president or his campaign may come to regret.” In the last century the acceptance speech that has perhaps made the most lasting impression was Roosevelt’s in 1936, though Smith added that “that year FDR could have read the phone book and he would have carried every state but Maine and Vermont.” According to Smith “the incumbent has one advantage–they always go second. And the other advantage is, they’re an incumbent. Truman was able to use this advantage as to not run against “Tom Dewey, his nominal opponent, he ran against the so-called do-nothing 80th Congress. He said he was going to call them into session on what they called Turnip Day back in Missouri. He put the ball in their court knowing Congress would not adopt the liberal platform and then driving a wedge right down the middle between Dewey and his allies.”

Beschloss noted that Clinton’s 1996 speech, which “was 66 minutes, [was] one of the most boring speeches I have ever heard.” It was “this laundry list of proposals like cleaning up toxic waste dumps, it wasn’t very interesting.” But the purpose of the speech was to get the voters who would watch the speech for a couple of minutes to tune in, and hear a few proposals that would prompt them to vote for Clinton, and “the speech worked in that sense.” On the other hand Smith pointed out that Bush the elder failed to do the job in 1992. He had given his speech at a negative kind of convention, where “the economy was in the doldrums” and because of his foreign policy strengths he appeared disengaged on domestic policy. Smith commented that “he got up there and he had a speech that frankly was a bit of a mishmash, not very thematically coherent.”

Beschloss said that in Nixon’s speech in 1972 “the language was not memorable, but what he was conveying was with the I’m the guy who made the opening to China, who was doing diplomacy with Russia, on the verge of ending the Vietnam War. If you all want to throw that away, fine with me but I don’t think you should.” Smith brought up FDR’s speech in 1944. “FDR gave a war speech. He didn’t speak at the convention hall. It was announced he was speaking from an undisclosed location. A military installation on the West Coast.” In Beschloss’s opinion, “the one thing is that if a wartime president makes himself seem indispensable he can get Americans to vote for him even if they may not like his domestic policies.”

Wrap-up

In his reaction to President Bush’s acceptance speech, Smith said it was “sort of a state of the union address, plus an inaugural address, it had a lot of policy but it was also very personal.” Bush’s speech focused on policy primarily, and was a “Reaganesque speech in the optimism, in looking to the future.” Smith “thought it was a very powerful speech. We won’t know for two months whether it worked or not, but it certainly worked tonight.”

Beschloss said it helped establish Bush’s position on issues: “there’s no chance that he’s going to be accused of having failed to present an agenda for the second term, a very long list of domestic proposals.” As for foreign policy, what Bush’s speech communicated was that “We’re staying on the offensive, striking terrorists abroad so we do not have to face them here at home.” The tone reminded Beschloss of offensive military policy harking back to the Cold War era Republican campaigns from 1972 to 1988, when the Republicans would stress that their party was tougher on communism and more trustworthy on defense than the Democrats. “We are in a war, a fight for our lives; I, George W. Bush, I’m the one who can keep you safe, John Kerry can’t for all sorts of reasons. And if people believe that they are likely to forgive a lot of things they don’t like about George Bush, even domestically. If people see it that way he’s going to win the election.”

Smith said that “much of that week you had a feeling that there was an attempt to blur” the differences with the Democrats by trotting out moderates. But Bush’s speech was “actually very ambitious, an attempt to recast the Republican Party and conservatism generally, almost along Thatcherite lines. You know, I think of Margaret Thatcher when you hear about the ‘ownership society.’ That’s more than a slogan, potentially. That’s a fairly radical redefinition of conservatism.”

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