Nation needs Eisenhower calm

August 10, 2011


When Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected president in 1952, he came to office convinced that among the obligations he assumed was that of calming the nation. His predecessors, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman, had governed through a series of crises and calamities — World War II, the Berlin Crisis, the Soviet atomic bomb, the Korean War, the 1952 steel strike — and Ike believed that Washington’s fixation with crisis was unsettling to the American people and destabilizing to the economy.

With that in mind, he set out to project an aura of calm command, and consistently sought a place between the anti-communist Republicans who anchored the right wing of his party and the New Deal Democrats who pulled that party to its left. It was, Eisenhower liked to say, his “Middle Way,” a “practical working basis between extremists” arrived at through patient and temperate negotiation.

Few lessons of Eisenhower’s era have been more lost on the heirs to his political legacy. The events of the past two weeks have included many political sins, but among the most striking is the rush of America’s leaders to court crisis rather than exhibit sober, sound leadership. For weeks, Republican House members risked economic calamity by their refusal to raise the debt ceiling — an act that dozens of Congresses have routinely approved in the decades since Eisenhower’s presidency. Some seemed to enjoy it.

In public, Eisenhower would not be caught shouting or boasting (in private, he had a withering temper), but his devotion to subdued leadership was founded on more than personal style. He believed that the American people were naturally industrious and that, left alone, American business was entrepreneurial and innovative. He was convinced that a sense of constant crisis inhibited the natural instincts of this culture, and that a restrained government would give room for American individualism to flourish.

Some of those same notions, though expressed in different language, underscore the stakes today. The few calm voices in our politics warn that business and investment are paralyzed by uncertainty. Millions of Americans are out of work in part because employers are reluctant to add jobs while the government is so tumultuous.

In fairness, Eisenhower’s commitment to reducing tensions and seeking compromise did not always serve him or the country well. In the area of civil rights, he sought in vain for a center, imagining falsely that those who demanded recognition of their rights were just as “extreme” as those who sought to suppress those rights. Indeed, Eisenhower himself acknowledged that there should be an exception for compromise in matters of moral urgency, though he unfortunately did not place civil rights in that category.

But even there, his legacy is instructive. For congressional Republicans who were willing to jeopardize America’s credit, it would be a defense to say that they were taking a stand on a matter of moral principle. If so, however, what is the great principle that undergirded this fiasco? Is it immoral to raise the debt ceiling, as such stalwart conservatives as Ronald Reagan did so often without incident? Or is the moral abomination, perhaps, the willingness to raise taxes, as Obama had hoped to do as part of a larger deficit-reduction package?

The latter is closer to the Republican mark, but it, too, falls apart as a moral proposition. John Podesta, who served as chief of staff in the Clinton White House, recently pointed out to the U.S. Conference of Mayors that the entire amount of revenue that Obama was seeking could have been achieved merely by allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire, returning the top marginal tax rate in the U.S. code from 35 percent to 39 percent, where it was when Clinton left office. As Podesta noted, the country hardly seemed afflicted by the Clinton-era rates; the economy grew, many Americans prospered, and Clinton actually produced budget surpluses.

In fact, those surpluses were the first — and last — by any president since, yep, Eisenhower. And the Eisenhower prosperity — rapid economic growth and real, sustained increases in household income — occurred in an era when the top bracket of taxpayers paid federal income taxes of 91 percent on all income above $400,000 a year (admittedly, a lot of money in 1959). In light of that history, can a 4 percent rise in the top marginal rate of taxes constitute such a moral imperative that elected leaders are entitled to refuse to compromise on principle? Eisenhower believed in balanced budgets, and unlike his successors, he actually delivered them. That’s because he was a leader, not a shouter.

Jim Newton is the Los Angeles Times’ editor-at-large and the author of “Eisenhower: The White House Years,” to be published in October.


usnsnp 4 years, 6 months ago

Part of the problem is the media and self proclaimed experts. Some of these people are more worried about themselves their ratings or the amount of money they get paid as a expert. They shout, call people names especially people that disagree with them, they tell half truths the revise history to fit their idea of history and they help politicians that are pushing their narrow agenda to create crisis to keep their name in front of the public. People need to look at theis people for what they are ,opportunist that do not have the good of the country on their agenda. Their only agenda is personal power and money.

cato_the_elder 4 years, 6 months ago

"I still "like IKE" but they wouldn't let him in today's Republican party. Sad."

If that were true, which it isn't, it would indeed be sad because Dwight D. Eisenhower would want nothing to do with Barney Frank, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Barbara Boxer, Diane Feinstein, Charles Schumer, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Anthony Weiner, David Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel and most of the rest of the sorry lot of partisan Democrats you support.

Fossick 4 years, 6 months ago

"If so, however, what is the great principle that undergirded this fiasco?"

I'm sure our author is playing coy rather than being actually ignorant of the fact that the issue was not taxes but integrity. The Tea Party candidates pledged on their election that they would neither vote to raise taxes nor allow such an increase to pass if they could help it. In short, the moral imperative was keeping a campaign promise. Strange, I know, but only because it's done so seldom.

Obama's insistence on raising taxes had very little to do with money - if it was really about the budget, he would not have harped on a miniscule accounting rule (the "corporate jet tax break") that would not raise a meaningful amount even in a century. His insistence had to do with making the Tea Party reps break their promise. It was to give them a Read My Lips moment, hopefully producing the same result among those who tried to keep their promises as happened to a Republican who threw his word away.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 4 years, 6 months ago

Well, of course, teapartiers signed an idiotic pledge, so therefore everyone in Washington should base every statement and every vote on allowing them to keep that pledge, because they would lose their "integrity" if they couldn't follow through with their idiocy.

Fossick 4 years, 6 months ago

Besides, if it works then other politicians might start keeping their promises and then where would we be?

Mike Ford 4 years, 6 months ago

A Republican like Eisenhower wouldn't be a bad thing except for the Native Americans whose tribal status was terminated undre House Resolution 108 of 1953 which did away with federal recognition for alomst 300 tribes and was reversed as a policy faillure by Nixon in 1973. Beisdes that, the dingbats and dimiwts don't like their leaders to be capable of individual thoughts so he'd probably not be elected by these dimwits.

Mike Ford 4 years, 6 months ago

A Republican like Eisenhower wouldn't be a bad thing except for the Native Americans whose tribal status was terminated undre House Resolution 108 of 1953 which did away with federal recognition for alomst 300 tribes and was reversed as a policy faillure by Nixon in 1973. Beisdes that, the dingbats and dimiwts don't like their leaders to be capable of individual thoughts so he'd probably not be elected by these dimwits.

jmadison 4 years, 6 months ago

If the writer of this opinion piece agrees that Clinton era tax rates should be reinstated, would he agree that Clinton era spending as a per cent of the GDP should also be reinstated?

Richard Heckler 4 years, 6 months ago

Eisenhower is the only republican president to have delivered a balanced budget. One factor missing in the republican party is republicans.

The party has become RINO made up of Tea Party Neoconservative Christian Fundamentalists who also are quite reckless and big spenders.

Is their evidence? Of course. Prior to Reagan/Bush none of the items below had taken place:

  1. TABOR is Coming by Grover Norquist and Koch Bros. http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2005/0705rebne.html

  2. The Reagan/Bush Savings and Loan Heist(Cost taxpayers $1.4 trillion) http://rationalrevolution0.tripod.com/war/bush_family_and_the_s.htm

  3. Wall Street Bank Fraud on Consumers under Bush/Cheney sent the economy out the window costing taxpayers many many trillions. http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2009/0709macewan.html

  4. 3 financial institutions were at risk so why $700 billion of bail out money? http://www.democracynow.org/2009/9/10/good_billions_after_bad_one_year

And that tax cuts do nothing to make an economy strong or produce jobs.

  1. Still A Bad Idea – Bush Tax Cuts - The ENTITLEMENT program for the wealthy at the expense of the middle class http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2001/0301miller.html

In the end big debt and super duper bailouts were the results which does not seem to bother Republicans, as long as they are in power.

In fact, by the time the second Bush left office, the national debt had grown to $12.1 trillion:

  • Over half of that amount had been created by Bush’s tax cuts for the very wealthy.

  • Another 30% of the national debt had been created by the tax cuts for the wealthy under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

• Fully 81% of the national debt was created by just these three Republican Presidents. http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2010/0111orr.html

Flap Doodle 4 years, 6 months ago

Wow, you waited more than 12 hours before reposting this twaddle.

Richard Heckler 4 years, 6 months ago

Eisenhower was a fiscal conservative and was socially responsible. In fact he supported unions.

Unions represent:

  1. Fair Pay
  2. Overtime Pay
  3. 40 hour weeks
  4. Paid Vacations
  5. Sick Leave
  6. Medical insurance coverage
  7. Anti Discrimination

In essence a healthy boost for the economy.

Flap Doodle 4 years, 6 months ago

Unions recently whizzed away $30 million in Wisconsin trying to undo the will of the voters of WI. That didn't work out too well for them, did it?

jafs 4 years, 6 months ago

The point there is that if we had politicians like Eisenhower, unions wouldn't need to spend money fighting against anti-union legislation.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.