Writing on the eve of the 1952 presidential election, the Cambridge political scientist D.W. Brogan described a peculiar trait in the American psyche, which he called “the illusion of American omnipotence.” This, he elaborated, “is the illusion that any situa-tion which distresses or endangers the United States can only exist because some Americans have been fools or knaves.”1
Brogan was writing in the context of the debate over “Who lost China?,” which was premised on the assumption that the convulsive Chinese Communist revolution, a forty-year struggle involving hundreds of millions of desperate people, could have been thwarted, or at least turned in a positive direction, by adroit diplomacy in Washington. The inanity of the China debate was instantly apparent (just as soon as Brogan put it into words), yet the illusion thrives. Even today, there are perfectly serious people who believe President Franklin D. Roosevelt was a knave for failing to stop the Nazi Holocaust or a fool for allowing the Red Army to occupy Eastern Europe at the end of World War II.
Brogan did not make the point, but the most obvious candidate for accusations of knavery is the president, especially now that whoever is in the White House is chief executive of the world’s last superpower. In Dead Center, a survey of Bill Clinton’s presidency, we see a modern extension of what Brogan described, the illusion of presidential omnipotence. In the current version, all that has gone wrong in America or the world at large—the slaughter in Kosovo, continuing inequality of wealth, the lack of national health insurance, even leaky roofs in our schools—can be blamed on Clinton. He is guilty, in the eyes of James MacGregor Burns and Georgia J. Sorenson, not because he is a knave or a fool, but, just as bad, because he is a centrist who shunned the radical changes and bold solutions that a more energetic and partisan leader could have achieved.
Burns and Sorenson, colleagues at the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership at the University of Maryland, describe Clinton as a “transactional” president—one who makes deals—rather than a “transformational” one, who confronts political foes head-on and galvanizes the nation into taking fresh paths and shattering old habits. This is a fair assessment. Clinton has no large vision. As president, he has tried to reach across party lines. He has used opinion polls to assess and then act in accordance with the prevailing public sentiment, which will usually be more or less in the center. He has famously adopted a policy of “triangulation,” trying to place himself at the apex of a triangle whose base angles are the preternaturally hostile congressional Republicans and Democrats. Though he is an eloquent speaker, he seldom directs his oratory against his enemies. Rather he lets them snarl themselves into incoherence.
The result is that Clinton has survived and prevailed over them. The Monica Lewinsky scandal guarantees that his presidency will be forever deemed a disappointment, not least to himself and his family. But by many measures his centrist strategy has worked. As Clinton enters his last year in the White House, the nation is not only at peace but it has no plausible foreign threats to its survival. Unemployment has remained low, and inflation has been held in check. Personal incomes are rising. Clinton’s job approval rating hovers around 60 percent, even though his personal approval is about half that. Annual budget deficits, once projected to extend into infinity, have been eliminated. The national problem most debated at the moment appears to be nothing more immediate than shoring up the Social Security system so that it can pay its projected bills thirty years from now. Clinton has not only survived impeachment but outlasted his chief political opponents, former Senator Bob Dole of Kansas and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia. Despite all the political shrieking against him that can be heard on radio and television, the country, under President Clinton, tootles along.
Burns and Sorenson, however, measure Clinton against a far stricter standard than mere peace and prosperity. They complain that he has failed to solve urgent national problems, and they attribute this failure to his centrism, which they regard as an inherently flawed ideology because it is incapable of effecting great, transformational change. Centrism would not have freed the slaves, or led America out of the Depression, or integrated the armed forces. Thus, in their eyes, Clinton is a failure. But the standard to which they hold him suffers from being based on the illusion of presidential omnipotence, and this illusion undermines their argument.
An example of the authors’ complaint: Clinton prides himself on being the “Education President.” And yet they write,
A New York Times article reported “leaky school roofs, buckling auditorium floors, antiquated coal furnaces, and dangerously rotted window frames.” This was not a depression town in the 1930s but booming New York City in November 1998. Teachers and parents could report thousands and thousands of such situations across the country. Education was still in crisis.
In their eyes, the Education President had failed to transform local public education. Yes, we may agree; but what they do not say is that the federal government has only a small role in public education, and Clinton’s Republican opponents have been trying to reduce even that, by abolishing the Education Department. To fault a sitting president, even indirectly, for the rotting window frames in a New York City school verges on the bizarre.
As a second Clinton “failure,” the authors cite “the grotesque income gap between the rich and the poor in America. Here again Clinton offered a host of proposals, some of which alleviated the direct symptoms of poverty.” Yet income inequality remains. Why? “Clinton failed to exhibit the moral outrage that could have put inequality at the top of the nation’s agenda.” It is hard to believe that serious commentators would expect a moderate Democratic president, captive of the current campaign finance system, to agitate for class warfare against his own financial backers. But suppose he had: Would this or any other Congress have reenacted the steep progressive tax rates on income that were so triumphantly eliminated during the Reagan administration? Would the small business lobby have lessened its hostility to increases in the minimum wage? If Clinton had addressed income inequality in any meaningful way, he would have (a) failed to do much to change current income distribution and (b) been a one-term president.
On race, Clinton, in his open relations with African-Americans and his recruitment of them for his administration, has set an example that will be hard for successors to match. But even here he falls short of the Burns-Sorenson standard. “Historians of the future may see Clinton as a neolib-eral, neo-civil-rights radical, taking up Martin Luther King Jr.’s unfinished work toward an economic justice that transcends race,” Burns and Sorenson concede.
But while strong presidential leadership could potentially have created conditions and bridges across the racial divide, no such coalition—not even [Jesse] Jackson’s Rainbow—had ever been sustained in the past. Such a coalition would take an act of transforming leadership on the order of the New Deal. It would take political capital, moral standing and the political will of Lincoln. Did Clinton have the will? The answer appeared to be no.
Clinton is not Lincoln.
Burns and Sorenson do not allow Clinton the excuse that he was presented with no opportunity to perform grand, Lincolnesque acts on race relations.
Clinton had…misjudged Americans’ relationship to their elected leaders. Again, as the sixties made plain, Americans would tolerate change—radical change—if leaders articulated values and visions consistently and succeeded in conveying a sense of urgency. Clinton did neither. His pursuit of racial justice was itself centrist.
In the end, Clinton was content to tinker, when he had a genuine opportunity to transform.
In the face of such ungenerous and unrealistic criticism, it is tempting to defend the Clinton presidency in spite of all its bungles, money-grubbing for contributions, foreign policy missteps, false starts, and changed directions. But we should not ignore some basic facts. Clinton, a moderate Democratic governor of Arkansas, was elected president in 1992 with 43 percent of the popular vote, hardly a mandate for sweeping personal leadership. As a governor of a small state, where politics were based more on personal relations than party divisions, he made appointments and dealt with the legislature without much concern for party affiliation. When he took office in Washington, he was supported by the smallest congressional majority of any president elected in this century (although some, most notably Richard Nixon, took office with one or both houses of Congress in the hands of the opposition). By nature and by circumstance, he was a centrist—a position that for him made political sense because, in his eyes, the Republican Party had moved so far to the right. There was a great political middle to be grabbed, and Clinton grabbed it.
To the Republicans, however, Clinton was no centrist. He was a pot-smoking, draft-dodging, anti-Vietnam War liberal with a socialist wife who wanted to strip away your right to see your family doctor. It was Clinton’s great, and as yet unexplored, misfortune that he was the first Democratic president to take office since the astonishing rise of the demagogic radio talk-show hosts and their counterparts on cable television. A caricatured view of Clinton as a dangerous, even subversive liberal was broadcast for three hours a day, every day, from coast to coast by Rush Limbaugh and echoed by his imitators across the country. They questioned his patriotism and his right to be commander in chief. They complained when Hillary Rodham Clinton replaced the White House chef, as if she had no right to fire Barbara Bush’s cook. They made a major scandal of an incident in which Clinton supposedly delayed air traffic at Los Angeles International Airport while he got a haircut aboard Air Force One. He did get the haircut, but no other aircraft was delayed. Nevertheless, the LAX incident survives in memory as a Clinton scandal.
Clinton’s heavy-handed replacement of seven employees of the White House travel office, career government officials who enjoyed no civil service protection in that particular job, was also transformed into a scandal out of all proportion to its seriousness. He was dogged by questions about his Whitewater real estate investments, which proved to be more or less innocent, and hounded by investigations in the press, in the Congress, and by freelance inquisitors backed in large part by the reclusive Michigan multimillionaire Richard Mellon Scaife.
Clinton certainly made mistakes. One of his earliest actions was an attempt to order the military to accept homosexuals. The policy was well-intentioned, but homosexuals have protested that its application has led to more harassment, not less. Clinton failed to understand how deeply the military establishment and its supporters throughout the country would resent any change, and it added to the caricature image of him as a traditional liberal pandering to the most outspoken left-wing special interests. Some of his early appointments were badly bungled, particularly that of Lani Guinier, a longtime friend whom he nominated to head the Justice Department’s civil rights division without anticipating the predictably harsh reaction against her support for race-based proportional representation.
"The Illusion of American Omnipotence," Harper's, December 1952, p. 21.↩
“The Illusion of American Omnipotence,” Harper’s, December 1952, p. 21.↩