The 2012 presidential race was not only the most expensive in history, it was also one of the most closely contested elections the country has known. President Barack Obama inherits the very serious challenge of trying to reunite a divided nation in which political paralysis has seemingly become the frustrating and often destructive new normal. It’s a tall order, but history tells us this problem is not insurmountable.
The challenge is, for all the talk about his interest in history, Obama has so far failed to draw on the most salient leadership lessons of his predecessors.
When Obama was elected in 2008, comparisons to Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy were often invoked. Yet if the problem ahead of him is indeed to be surmounted, it will be because he finally truly looks back to these tight presidential races of the past and what the victors did after taking office as he prepares for his second term.
The elections of 1860 and 1960 were both close, divisive contests. And the winners, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, each took the Oath of Office amid collective discord and anxiety, much like today. Also like today, Lincoln and Kennedy both won the Electoral College with room to spare, though not one of the three presidents claimed a strong majority of the popular vote.
The scenario that Lincoln encountered as president was even more dramatic than the election he won. With the country split along the fault line of slavery and the specter of civil war hanging over his inauguration, the 16th president played just about every card he could toward holding the country together.
Kennedy’s challenges in 1960 were less dramatic but still profound. The first Catholic and the youngest man elected to the presidency, Kennedy took up the reins of power in the midst of an economic recession, an intensifying Cold War, a growing Civil Rights movement and the emerging geopolitical importance of Southeast Asia. Against this backdrop, the 35th president was careful, temperate and, at the same time, bold in the vision he outlined directly to the American people, calling them to embrace the “unknown opportunities and perils” of a new frontier.
Obama like Kennedy, and like Kennedy’s predecessor 100 years earlier, needs to be conscious of the slim, fractious victory he owns.
That Obama frames his second inaugural address well is extremely important for this reason. Both Lincoln and Kennedy used their first major speech to the American people as a unifying tool, writing and redrafting the address (with input from advisers) in order to both frame the stakes of the larger moment and to call the American people to the higher, animating purpose of their country. What resulted were two of the most powerful and resonant lines in U.S. history—Lincoln’s closing words about “the better angels of our nature” and Kennedy’s iconic invocation to “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
We know Obama, too, is capable of writing and delivering a speech that both frames the importance of the issues that the American people confront and that speaks to the “better angels” of our nature. He did so during the 2008 campaign when he spoke powerfully about race, and in early 2011 when he delivered a memorial speech for the victims of the Tucson shooting involving former U.S. representative Gabrielle Giffords. These addresses were inspiring and thoughtful, but others like them have been few—very few—and far between during the last four years.
Lincoln and Kennedy also moved cautiously in the opening months of their respective terms to assemble the right Cabinet. Both presidents sought one that could speak to a commensurately broad spectrum of national interests and whose agenda could create connective tissue across the relevant wounds in the body politic. In each case, the result, instead of a radical group of “yes men,” was a team of—at times, rivalrous—policymakers, politicians and businessmen whose respective experience generally balanced that of the others, including the president.
There is good evidence that four years ago Obama tried to appoint a diverse group of advisers. He certainly recruited all kinds of substantive experts, from Timothy Geithner at Treasury to Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff, a man with extensive experience dealing with Congress. But in hindsight, Obama made at least two noteworthy mistakes. First, he chose people for what they knew rather than for how they applied their expertise. As the president learned, just because someone knows a lot about a significant issue does not mean he or she is the right person for the mix. Witness the tension individuals like Emanuel and Larry Summers created in and outside the White House.
The second mistake Obama made was overestimating his own ability to manage the tensions among his advisers. No president can afford to spend a lot of time managing his own people. The opportunity cost is way too high. This time around, Obama needs to have in his Cabinet those who operate based on understanding and wisdom, not solely content expertise.
President Obama also needs to establish an ongoing, unmediated conversation with the American people. It’s one of the most important things any president must do. Almost every weekday, Lincoln met with scores of office seekers, petitioners and ordinary citizens who lined up outside the executive mansion to see the president. His secretaries constantly admonished him to eliminate these meetings and conserve his time and energy for more important issues. But Lincoln kept his door open, insisting that such encounters, which he called his “public opinion baths,” kept him in real touch with what the American people were thinking. He used these conversations in writing his speeches and letters to editors.
While Lincoln connected with the American people through individual meetings, speeches and editorials, Kennedy was the first president to use television for that purpose. Beginning with the first televised presidential debates in the fall of 1960, Kennedy understood the importance of this new medium, and throughout his presidency he used it in a very strategic way to connect with the public.
While Obama may be seen as the first ‘social media’ president, effective communication with the American people is something he generally neglected during his first term. Think of the stimulus bill in early 2009. Think of Obamacare. Recall the silence from the West Wing in framing and explaining these and other initiatives.
The more fractured the political landscape and the higher the stakes involved, the more important it is for the president to talk directly to his fellow citizens. After all, it is the citizenry themselves who have the power—from the bottom up—to move a recalcitrant and legislatively constipated Congress. Obama’s failure to talk to his countrymen in an ongoing, respectful way may be the single biggest factor behind the tightness of the 2012 election.
There are, of course, examples of what not to do in the aftermath of a narrow, divisive victory. The 2000 election is a textbook case. After what happened in Florida, the race turned out to be as tight as any in American history, leaving George W. Bush to run a country unhinged by his triumph. From his Cabinet composition to his inaugural address to his first months in office, Bush made a series of very expensive mistakes. The mistakes actually had less to do with his political stance on various issues and more to do with the implicit negligence with which he treated the polity—the Constitution, the importance of what had happened in the Supreme Court with regard to the election results, and the broader significance of these issues in terms of the fraying of the democratic fabric.
All these moments in our collective political past are not just the history of our United States presidency, they are—we should hope—lessons each new president can draw on to do his job better. Obama would do well to rekindle this concern with history in the coming weeks, learning from his predecessors what to do and what to avoid as he tries to heal the wounds and discord of a tight, divisive and critical election.
Nancy F. Koehn is a historian at the Harvard Business School and author of The Story of American Business: From the Pages of the New York Times.
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