Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents
George Washington to Barack Obama
Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2012
Second Edition with a new Afterword
Paperback. x-350 p. 20 photographs. ISBN 978-0700618835. $19.95
Reviewed by Jasper M. Trautsch
German Historical Institute, Rome
What Makes a Successful President?
In his 2008 book Leading from the Center : Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, Gil Troy, professor of history at McGill University, argued that America’s most successful presidents were those who moved to the political center and pursued moderate policies instead of following partisan agendas. In a period in which the American electorate is sharply divided and the American political landscape is so polarized that it seems increasingly difficult to effectively govern the United States, the topic of the book struck a chord with American readers. Troy’s call for independent and energetic presidents who are willing to reach across the aisle to forge domestic consensus seemed timely and found a ready audience. Since America’s divisions have become even more entrenched over the past few years, it is no wonder that a second edition of the book would appear – released in 2012 – with the slightly changed title Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents : George Washington to Barack Obama and a new afterword discussing Barack Obama’s first term.
The willingness to compromise, a commitment to centrism, the desire to build consensus, and the intention to promote American nationalism: these are not only trademarks of America’s popular presidents, but also ideals of the American Revolution and founding rocks of American democracy, Troy holds. The American Revolution was a “most moderate rebellion,” in which leaders sought to uphold the status quo and avoid “social dislocation” and “mass bloodletting” [5-6]. The core ideas upon which the Constitution was built were “constitutional compromises” and “moderate conflict” . Elected leaders who failed to strive for or attain national unity were historically unsuccessful, Troy claims: “a president who leaves office with a nation further divided, demoralized, and doubting its own virtue is a failure.”  The salient history lesson here, according to Troy, is that successful presidents are “moderate” and “flexible,” whereas bad presidents are “rigid” .
To prove his point, Troy examines a number of presidencies in short essays. George Washington was America’s first great president, Troy argues, since he successfully moderated relations between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson – the unofficial heads of America’s first parties: the Federalists and the Republicans – and maintained American neutrality in the midst of the French Revolutionary Wars. Abraham Lincoln was the next example of a successful president, who, according to Troy, managed to turn the Civil War into a fight against slavery without alienating the slave-holding border-states by defining the issue of emancipating slaves in the renegade southern states in 1862 not as a crusade against slavery but a “military necessity.” His genius lay in his ability to ward off both “Northern extremists,” who wished to abolish slavery immediately, and “Southern fanatics,” who were ready to leave the union rather than accept that they were unable to spread slavery to the west , thus saving the union. “For democracy to progress, the leader must channel the fanatics’ intense energies, transforming their high-voltage vision into lower wattage, commonsense policies suitable for domestic consumption,” Troy concludes .
In Troy’s interpretation, the first great president after the Civil War was Theodore Roosevelt. He frustrated both radical Progressives – who demanded sweeping changes that could have torn apart the constitutional framework of checks and balances – and conservative Republicans – who called him a “socialist” when he sought reforms ameliorating the devastating effects of the Industrial Revolution. Instead, Roosevelt unified the American people behind his vision of “national greatness” . Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the next successful president, was able to save America’s democratic and capitalistic system, Troy claims, in a time when the Left turned increasingly radical and Marxist, and the pro-business Right refused any reform in the midst of the most profound economic and social crisis in American history. The United States found in Roosevelt an ideal leader who could alleviate the suffering of America’s poor by creating public social welfare institutions and job programs without undermining private property. While Europe increasingly turned to either fascism or communism, Roosevelt pursued the “middle ground.” His moderation also enabled him to lead an isolationistic country into World War II by not prematurely asking for an entry into the conflict but waiting until the attack on Pearl Harbor provided him with a rallying point, Troy finds.
According to Troy, America’s immediate post-war Presidents – Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower – were also successful as they built a liberal Cold War consensus. Truman forged a bipartisan policy of containing the Soviet Union rallying Americans around the ideology of anti-communism [neither withdrawing from Europe, as some voiced, nor confronting the Soviet Union directly, as others demanded]. Eisenhower would not only continue this policy but also leave Roosevelt’s New Deal program in place – despite Republican hopes that he would dismantle it. He thus significantly contributed to the Cold War consensus of the 1950s, Troy analyzes. John F. Kennedy’s behavior in the Cuban Missile Crisis also demonstrated his commitment to the center according to Troy: neither did he stumble recklessly into war nor did he accept Soviet nuclear missiles in America’s backyard. Finally, Troy sees in Reagan a successful moderate president: “Although he frustrated conservatives by being too compromising, he enacted some substantive changes that enraged liberals” . In foreign policy, his rhetoric was fiercely anti-communist and his build-up of America’s military seemed confrontational, but in practice he negotiated disarmament treaties with Mikhail Gorbachev and created a climate that would lead to the end of the Cold War.
On the other hand, Troy considers most antebellum “passive presidents” as failures, as they allowed the issue of slavery to cripple American politics . “Chosen for only one ability – ‘electability’ – [Andrew] Jackson’s successors deferred to Congress and accepted the job description as ‘chief magistrate’” . While “Southern extremists did their best to silence Southern moderates, inflame Northern radicals, and defer what might have been slavery’s inevitable decline” and “extreme abolitionism substantiated Southern fears, undermining any chance of compromise or of a peaceful resolution to the sectional conflict,” there was no moderate president who was able to negotiate a lasting compromise on the issue of slavery [53-54]. Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter are 20th-century presidents Troy considers failures. Johnson’s inability to properly explain to the American public his sweeping reform agenda and his decision to escalate the Vietnam conflict undermined the Cold War consensus. Nixon’s and Carter’s examples demonstrate, Troy maintains, that moderate policies alone do not make a presidency successful. Despite their centrism – the Republican Nixon endorsed Johnson’s “Great Society,” created the Environmental Protection Agency, opened China, and initiated a détente policy with the Soviet Union, while the Democrat Carter escalated the Cold War and implemented deregulatory policies – they failed, since Nixon approached politics with a “kill-or-be-killed approach” and Carter communicated defeatist messages  and both thus failed to unify the country behind an optimistic vision of the future.
Bill Clinton serves, as per Troy, as an example of a president who was centrist but lacked a sense of purpose, vision, and principles because he was overly concerned with “crowd pleasing”  and was therefore a “slave” to public opinion . Even though he endorsed budgetary discipline, did not enlarge the federal bureaucracy, signed a bill that allowed states to disregard gay marriages sanctioned by other states, and proposed a “Third Way” between liberalism and conservatism, “Clinton’s don’t-rock-the-boat governance proved that moderation can lead to mediocrity if the president lacks the backbone to push his agenda and his constituents” . He was not successful in reforming America’s health care system, did not transform race relations, failed to effectively confront Islamic terrorism, and was later preoccupied with saving his presidency in the wake of the Monika Lewinsky scandal, Troy argues. “Rather than demonstrating the center’s transforming potential, Clinton made moderation look mushy” . George W. Bush, by contrast, embodies the opposite kind of president in Troy’s view: assertive, determined, and with strong convictions, but ideological, unwilling to compromise, and polarizing. He pushed through massive tax cuts that were very unpopular among Democrats, appointed ultraconservative judges to the Supreme Court, and rejected the Kyoto protocols, pursuing a strategy of mobilizing the evangelical and conservative voters from the far Right instead of attracting independent voters from the center. He did not leverage the feeling of national solidarity in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks to forge a bipartisan consensus on foreign policy but stubbornly clung to his plans to attack Iraq despite widespread opposition abroad and at home, precluding the possibility of building an encompassing international and domestic political alliance.
Given the current polarization of American politics and the fact that the U.S. is highly divided along class, racial, ethnic, and religious lines, Troy’s attempt to find guidelines for solving today’s problems by looking at America’s iconic and revered past presidents is understandable. Even though, from a scholarly point of view, hagiographical depictions of national “heroes” and attempts to deduce “lessons” from the past for the present are problematic, the wish to survey American history in order to identify the reasons some presidents were more successful in inspiring and leading the nation than others is a legitimate endeavor and a suitable way to provide the general public with a historically informed basis for discussing traits of good leadership today. Troy’s selection of successful presidents, moreover, is in line with other historians’ assessment of U.S. presidents. In 2009, C-SPAN published the results of a survey, in which 65 presidential historians were asked to rank America’s 42 presidents according to their leadership qualities. The eight presidents Troy selected as America’s “best” presidents are all within the top ten of that survey’s ranking.(1) So, did Troy find a formula for successful presidencies?
Troy’s thesis is that it was their moderation which distinguished America’s “great” presidents. In a fractured political arena and with George W. Bush’s presidency in fresh memory, this claim seems justified at first sight. Yet, Troy only vaguely defines what he means by moderation. In the introduction, he links moderation to various other concepts such as “centrism,” “cautious, compassionate pragmatism,” “nationalism,” “visionary, experimental incrementalism,” “bipartisan consensus,” “tactical fluidity,” and “nation-building vision” . He makes clear that, to him, moderation does not mean indecision or the desire to uphold the status quo but rather forging consensus und building bridges around a compelling cause, frequently employing the term “muscular moderation” and setting it apart from what he calls “a mushy middle” . Is this concept of moderation a helpful analytical tool for evaluating American presidencies? Can the “success” of the eight presidencies Troy examines be explained by the “moderation” of these presidents?
Reading his assessments of American presidents, one comes to the conclusion that it was not so much moderation that distinguished them and made them successful, but rather their leadership qualities, rhetorical skills, political acumen, and their ability to identify and make themselves the frontrunners of larger socio-economic and cultural trends, aided by favorable historical circumstances.
When discussing the failures of Nixon and Carter, Troy admits that moderation does not automatically lead to success. “Effective leaders must inspire confidence, dispel anxieties, solve problems, and build a sense of democratic community, not just steer a path between extremes” . Troy effectively argues that it requires leadership for presidents to be successful and become “great.” He, for example, criticizes Carter for being “too literal[…] on his promise of a modest approach” , thus failing to offer leadership .
Johnson was a failure, according to Troy, because he did not “charm the American public. Successful statesmanship requires more than listing achievements; effective leaders have to cast a spell” . This conclusion might be sound, but it has more to do with communication skills and rhetorical strategies than with moderation. Reagan was, in the words of Troy, “a committed conservative, promising a conservative counterrevolution,” but he was able to explain “America’s problems neatly and coherently” . While Reagan pursued controversial policies, he “mastered the new politics of sound bites and photo ops, spin doctors and handlers. Reagan’s image making united Americans behind broad, if undefined, ideas rather than specific, partisan policies” . Again, this verdict is fair, but it contradicts Troy’s claim that moderates make good presidents. Reagan appears successful, because he was a brilliant communicator, not because his policies were moderate.
Troy also equates political acumen with moderation. For example, he praises Lincoln for pursuing a “middle path,” as he came to the conclusion that “responsibility for starting any violence had to fall on the rebels” . To put the blame for the Civil War on the South might have been a politically smart move but it was no sign of moderation – which would have rather entailed attempting to prevent the outbreak of the Civil War by finding a diplomatic solution to the problem of slavery.
When dismissing antebellum presidents, Troy indirectly acknowledges that circumstances and structures determine whether a president can be successful:
These mid-nineteenth-century presidents […] were products and prisoners of a political system that prized ‘electability’ over real ability and deference to party over independence of spirit. These perpetuated the status quo. Congressmen dominated and party prerogatives triumphed because the ‘Second American Party System’ was designed that way. 
He also admits that Clinton could not put his talents to best use, since there was “no major war or economic upheaval” that would have given him the opportunity to implement far-reaching reforms . Even if he had wanted to, Clinton could hardly have chosen to attack Afghanistan and oust the Taliban in 1998, since the attacks on the American Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam did not convince Americans that their security was immediately threatened by Al-Qaida. Only the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, would give Bush the opportunity to declare a “war on terror” and change the parameters of U.S. security policy. Troy thus actually hails not moderate presidents but those who – in transformative historical periods – took the lead to push through new policies that would initiate long-lasting changes.
The case of Truman demonstrates most clearly the misunderstanding that lies at the bottom of Troy’s book. He praises Truman, for instance, for creating the basis of a bipartisan anticommunist Cold War foreign policy by “conveying a sense of national emergency to his fellow citizens.”  In the Truman Doctrine of March 1947, the President drew a black-and-white picture “contrasting American liberty with Soviet aggression.”  Troy admires how “Truman brilliantly balanced anxiety and idealism, fear mongering and institution building” to justify American global commitment . While most historians would agree that Truman, in selling his internationalist foreign policy and doctrine of global containment by exaggerating the Soviet threat, thus shaping the framework of American foreign policy for decades to come, was one of the most influential presidents, it would be a stretch to call this policy moderate. Truman developed a clear vision of America’s role in the postwar world, used brilliant communication strategies to convince the American public that a policy of containment was necessary to deal with the Soviet threat, and used anticommunism as an ideological cement rallying Americans of both political parties behind his policies. He was able to profoundly change the course of American foreign policy because of the unprecedented situation America found itself in after the Second World War that gave the president the opportunity to make his mark on history.
Troy identifies these reasons for Truman’s “success,” but his attempt to unite these factors in the concept of moderation appears forced. Measuring the various presidencies according to a list of variables clearly laid out at the beginning of the book – such as the leadership characteristics the C-SPAN survey used to assess presidential performance, namely public persuasion, moral authority, relations with Congress, performance within context of times, crisis leadership, international relations, vision/setting an agenda, economic management, administrative skills, and pursuit of equal justice for all – would have made a more persuasive case than trying to ascribe the various factors he identifies in his analyses of the individual presidencies to a vague concept of moderation.
The manner in which he links moderation to presidents’ ability to either constrain themselves or to use their powers to the fullest extent in order to effect change is confounding. On the one hand, he praises Eisenhower for his moderation, as – with regards to civil rights – he “saw the presidency as a unifying platform more than a bully pulpit for initiating change” and therefore “chose not to get involved even as the South exploded with civil rights clashes. […] Eisenhower was a nationalist, not a moralist” . On the other hand, just a few pages later, he applauds Kennedy for using his political capital to initiate profound changes in race relations through championing civil rights legislation. “Moderates risk being immobilized by the status quo, never facilitating bold changes no matter how necessary.” The example of JFK, however, “demonstrates the power of positive center seeking.” Troy contradicts himself when he eulogizes some presidents for their willingness and ability to initiate radical change and others for their decision to avoid “hot potatoes.” In order not to appear to contradict himself, and to make Kennedy appear “moderate” with regards to his civil rights legislation, he compares him to Martin Luther King, “a radical change agent,” by asserting that “Presidents are not kings, Martin Luther Kings, that is” . Contrasting a president with the leader of a protest movement to justify the label of “moderate,” however, makes the concept of moderation meaningless, since one could always find an activist not constrained by a national political office who would be more “radical.”
Troy not only fails to clearly define moderation and make it a clear-cut and useful tool for political analysis; he also does not explain what he means by the “success” of a presidency. Should a president be measured by his ability to push through his agenda, by the long-lasting impact of his policies, by his approval ratings and election results, or by his popularity in the public memory? What are the criteria for evaluating the success of a presidency? Without answering these questions, his selection of successful presidents is arbitrary. In the introduction, Troy makes a brief attempt to delineate how he evaluates presidents: “a president who leaves office with a nation further divided […] is a failure, no matter how popular he or she may have been” . If that was the criterion of success, however, most presidents he discusses in his book as exemplary would have to be regarded as failures. Washington had been elected unanimously in 1789. When he left office, however, Americans had divided into two parties that questioned each other’s legitimacy. At Lincoln’s death the North and South were technically still at war and the memories of the Civil War would continue to poison the political atmosphere for decades to come. Reagan, while still idolized by Republicans to date, has been regarded as a nemesis by the American Left ever since he took office in 1981.
The basic assumption of Troy’s book – that the president plays the leading role in the American political process and that in moments of political crisis and turmoil it was usually the president who took the initiative and guided the nation – is valid. In view of the fact that his monograph is written for a general audience rather than for scholars and specialists, one should also appreciate Troy’s ability to summarize and encapsulate, in comprehensible prose, major issues in American history and the presidents’ role in solving them. Nonetheless, Troy’s book would have been more valuable if he had clearly defined his criteria for judging presidents and put together a list of variables such as rhetorical and persuasive skills, administrative competence, the talent to balance political steadfastness with tactical flexibility, and the ability to engage Congress which contribute to the success of a presidency at the beginning of the book and had then vigorously applied his formula to the various presidencies. In lieu of applying a vague concept of moderation, which is particularly nebulous given that the interpretation of the term is contingent on one’s own political point of view, Troy could also have made his book more insightful and less contradictory if he had distinguished between charismatic leadership – usually effective in times of emergency and crisis that require swift and determinate action – and democratic leadership – more appropriate in periods of tranquility that require careful and deliberative consensus building.
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