President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign slogan was “Forward.” But his personal mantra for his second term should be “I Like Ike.”
This may seem bizarre on the surface, as Obama memorably asserted in the debates that Mitt Romney would bring back repressive social policies of the 1950s. But as Obama contemplates the Herculean task of narrowing the nation’s horrific political divide and prodding this country to reverse economic disparities and curb climate change, he can remind America that the ’50s were arguably the last time that a Republican president urged government to do big things at home for the common good.
It is a perfect moment for Obama to try, because his victory Tuesday was a rejection of the kind of politics that sets people against each other. Romney believed he could win the presidency almost exclusively with white votes, and he courted voters alarmed about Latino immigration. In doing so, he was echoing Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” of attracting votes by playing on racial resentments. And when Romney described 47 percent of Americans as victims dependent on government, he was echoing Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric about welfare queens. In the end, Romney won 59 percent of white voters, but with such Pyrrhic results that many Republican consultants are now freely admitting the damage to their brand.
Obama must repair the damage from these politics, and that is where Eisenhower comes in. Parts of Obama’s victory speech this week and parts of Eisenhower’s 1956 State of the Union address are quite similar. Obama said what makes America exceptional is “the belief that our destiny is shared; that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations.” Eisenhower said the nation’s progress will be realized only with “single-minded devotion to the common good of America.”
Eisenhower’s most famous example of the common good was the interstate highway system. He said it was urgently needed “for the personal safety, the general prosperity, the national security of the American people.” He talked about highways the way advocates today talk about preventing smoking or diabetes — as a public health issue. He pointed out that 36,000 people a year were killed on America’s roads; the annual cost of highway injuries was $4.3 billion a year.
Obama had one big domestic success in his first term — health care reform. But so much more needs to be done, as the nation still lacks a unified strategy for energy, the economy, and education. In Milwaukee, on the final weekend of the campaign, he said to loud applause, “As long as there are families working harder but falling behind, our work is not yet done . . . Let’s put some folks to work right now rebuilding roads, bridges, making sure our schools are state of the art. Let’s lay broadband lines into our rural communities.”
Eisenhower’s success in the interstate highway system refutes the claims of today’s Tea Partiers and anyone else who screams that government does more harm than good. Virtually everyone in America, regardless of party, has used an interstate highway. You could easily extend that thought to public schools, libraries, street sanitation, police, firefighters, airports, hospitals, water and sewer lines, and voting booths. All these government services and many more evolved out of a common good that had nothing to do with entitlement. It had to do with providing opportunity, safety, and democracy.
Eisenhower succeeded because he was, in his own words, able to mobilize “sufficient public opinion,” with “earnest, long, dedicated leadership on the part of everybody who understands the problem.” In winning a second term, Obama now has his chance to take a page from Eisenhower. Obama’s task is to mobilize public opinion away from reflexive rejection of taxes and toward reflection on why we must fund the institutions and infrastructure America needs to close economic divides at home and maintain economic competitiveness abroad. The looming debate over the “fiscal cliff” offers an opportunity to attempt this conversation.
Obama said at the end of his victory speech that he does not believe America is as “divided as our politics suggest.” Now, he can prove himself right by building support for his policies on the grounds that they serve what Eisenhower so memorably described as the common good of the American people.