When the world is in meltdown mode and everyone is looking to America’s president for answers, where does he turn for advice, for reassurance, for the courage of his convictions and just the courage to make a decision?
One thing we do know about Obama: when the going gets tough, he goes to the library and pulls out the history of one predecessor or another. And so, to glean an idea of the enormous pressures those earlier presidents faced, and the ways in which they reached their most crucial decisions, we spoke to advisers who worked with some of them, and to biographers of other presidents who are long gone.
The weight of the job can be hard to imagine, says Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution and a former deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration. “Governments, including the most powerful government on earth, are very much like individual human beings—they get exhausted,” he cautions. “They get stressed; they get tired. And when any of us suffers from those conditions, it clouds our judgment and makes it very hard to cope.” Surprises on the international front have been piling up so high and so fast that the Obama administration may be feeling close to the limits of endurance.
Obama has plenty of reasons to feel pushed to the wall. He’s trying to handle wars in Iraq (winding down), Afghanistan (dragging out), and now Libya (about to begin). He’s still searching for the solution to a global financial crisis that’s lingering like a wasting disease, always on the verge of relapse. Add climate change and deepening worries about nuclear proliferation—and did we mention terrorism? The wave of revolts sweeping through the Arab world created a whole new sea of trouble, and as if that weren’t enough to handle, a combination of natural and man-made catastrophes devastated Japan.
Presidents can seek support from a whole pyramid of advisers, bureaucracies, and agencies, but “at the top you’ve got a very small number of people, and at the tippy top you’ve got one person,” says Talbott. “It just overwhelms. Human capacity is stretched very close to the breaking point.” The evolving situation in Egypt alone is “like drinking from a fire hose,” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it last week. And the pressure is compounded by the modern world’s relentless Twitterized 24/7 news, views, and second-guessing at almost every level of society and in almost every corner of the globe.
Still, Obama’s predecessors had troubles too. He isn’t faced with the breakup of the Union, as Abraham Lincoln was, or a world war, or the imminent threat of nuclear war, like John Kennedy. Some were absolutely barraged with difficulties. Take Lyndon Johnson. He was struggling with the growing burden of the Vietnam War in early 1968 when, in a matter of weeks, an American warship and its crew were captured by North Korea. Days later the Tet Offensive reached the heart of Saigon, giving the lie to all talk of progress in the war in Southeast Asia. Inflation, the need for new taxes, and the threat of inner-city riots loomed. And the president was plagued by a nightmare, according to Doris Kearns Goodwin, who served as his special assistant. The former senator from Texas dreamed he was in the middle of a stampede of cattle and he was paralyzed and couldn’t move, but nearby he could hear his cabinet dividing up the president’s power. “There’s nothing unprecedented in simultaneous crises,” says Eliot Cohen, a military historian and State Department counselor in the George W. Bush administration. “By historical standards, these are rather easy times.”
Goodwin, who went on to write the bestselling Lincoln biography Team of Rivals, thinks Obama shares with Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt a certain “serenity” in the face of very tough decisions. And Lincoln was in his way much more isolated, because of his wife’s battles with depression. “Lincoln didn’t have the family support that Obama has,” says Goodwin. “Knowing that he has gone through so much and not lost a sense of who he is will be important for Obama going forward.”
Scanning the shelves of books about American presidents in crisis, you’re struck by the tension between the public’s desire for romantic brilliance and its hope for quiet competence. The dazzlers like JFK dominate the popular imagination for generations. Grandfatherly golfers—the image cultivated by his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower—come to seem like footnotes. Yet at this point Eisenhower may have more to teach Obama.
As David A. Nichols points out in his just-published book, Eisenhower 1956, the president had his hands full in October and November of that year. The 66-year-old former commander of Allied forces in World War II had been weakened by a heart attack and by an operation for a blocked colon. The nation was grappling with the predictions that if all-out war erupted with the Soviet Union (a very real possibility at the time), an estimated 65 percent of the U.S. population would be killed or need emergency medical attention, most of which would not be available. Yet the people of Hungary, encouraged by American propaganda, had risen up against Moscow’s domination. And at almost the same time, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had nationalized the Suez Canal—and Britain, France, and Israel had launched a war to take it back. Eisenhower made two incredibly tough calls: he declined to support the Hungarians, because he had no doubt that doing so would lead to war with the Soviets; and he firmly opposed America’s erstwhile allies in London and Paris, forcing them to abandon their fight and their last dreams of colonial empire.
“He knew what his principles were,” says Nichols. “He knew what he wanted. He couldn’t predict what would happen. But he believed that you should plan like mad, not because the plans will work, but because you will be so disciplined that when something unexpected happens you will keep your head when everybody else is going nuts.” It was a slow process, and one that many inside and outside Eisenhower’s administration found frustrating. “There was no democracy in National Security Council meetings,” says Nichols. Eisenhower listened, then he decided. And at the end of his second term, Eisenhower was able to say “we kept the peace” because of the tough decisions he had made. “People ask how it happened,” said Eisenhower. “By God, it didn’t just happen.”
With Eleanor Clift in Washington