Miller Center

Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

Myth and Reality in the Life of Obama

David Maraniss, associate editor at the Washington Post and author of Barack Obama: The Story, spoke to a standing-room only crowd at the Miller Center’s Forum this morning. Maraniss explored some of the myth’s surrounding Barack Obama, the roots of who he is as a person and implications of his biography for his governing style.

Maraniss exposed two particular myths that have been exploited for political purposes. First, according to Maranniss’ research on the ground in Kenya, it was evangelical Christians that made the rise of the Obamas possible. Barack Obama, Sr. was trained in Anglican school. Furthermore, Obama Sr.’s mentor, Betty Mooney, was an evangelical Christian who was part of a faith-based literacy movement and whose grandfather was one of the founders of Texas Christian University. Muslims have nothing to with Mr. Obama’s existence.  The revelation of the family’s relationship to the evangelical Christian movement undermines the credibility of those who employ the claim that the President is a Muslim as a political scare tactic.

The story that Obama’s grandfather was tortured by the British is another myth the president himself innocently perpetrates in his own book, Dreams of My Father. There’s a sliver of possibility that it happened. However, there are no documents to prove it and Maraniss interviewed six people who said it didn’t happen.  Maraniss referred to a “sick American culture” that has exploited this myth as means to portray the president as basing policies and governance on an anti-colonialist victimhood worldview.

Friday Roundup: All about Mitt

Obama Vs Romney. File is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Obama Vs Romney. Photo Courtsesy Malwack, CC BY-SA.

In this Friday Round-up, we offer the top ten campaign stories of the week. Tell us what story you found to be an important development or would add.


  1. The biggest story of the week was the leaked video of a closed-door fundraiser with Mitt Romney posted by David Corn at Mother Jones magazine (watch the full remarks of part I here and part II here). Much of the commentary over the video centered on remarks Romney made regarding 47 percent of the electorate who believe they are victims, will vote for Obama no matter what, and don’t pay income tax, dividing the nation between moochers and makers. However, he also proclaimed that he did not believe in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, that Palestinians are “committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel,” and called the mullahs in Iran “crazed fanatics.” Meanwhile, Romney’s joke at the fundraiser that it would be easier for him to get elected president if his parents were Mexican was met with sarcasm during the candidate’s appearance on Univision this week. At least the Romney campaign got its wish of moving beyond the candidate’s failed opportunistic response to embassy attacks in the Middle East. By late in the wake, Romney attempted to take control of the spin cycle by attacking Obama on remarks he made in 1998 to demonstrate the president wants “redistribute wealth,” but the WaPo’s Glen Kessler gave Romney four Pinocchios for the truncated clip.

Friday Feature: Ronald Reagan Not Riding a Tiger

A young Ronald Reagan in a plaid shirt makes a turn in a bicycle.

As weather cools all over the country, it's a great time for a bike ride with a young Ronald Reagan.

In the 1940s Reagan even appeared in a few advertisements for Schwinn bicycle company. He stipulated, though, that he would use his own bicycle in the ad—not the free bike offered by the company.

There's more cycling Reagan after the jump.

Stay tuned! Every Friday we'll highlight an interesting item from presidential history.

Does Foreign Policy Matter in this Election?

U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden receive an update on mission against bin Laden.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on Operation Neptune’s Spear, a mission against Osama bin Laden, in one of the conference rooms of the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Photo by Pete Souza. PD

The presidential candidates have focused much of their attention in the 2012 election on domestic and economic policy. However, the killing of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya last week, and the ensuing demonstrations across the Middle East has offered voters a chance to observe how the candidates would handle real life events. Does foreign policy matter in presidential elections? I argue it does, and more so than candidates and pundits traditionally give it credit.

While the media and pundits have primarily focused their commentary this week on Mitt Romney’s 47% comment delivered during a closed-door donor dinner (watch the full remarks of part I here and part II here), many have glossed over the remarks he made regarding foreign policy. Romney’s remarks that the American people “aren’t concentrated at all” on issues such as relations with China, Russia, Iran and Iraq are of concern here. While many polls show that the economy is the primary issue of importance to the electorate in this election, foreign affairs do in fact shape voter evaluations of the presidential candidates and ultimately influence how they will cast their ballot on the election day. In addition, in such an extremely polarized political environment, it’s also clear that elite partisans messages mediate voters’ foreign policy evaluations of the candidates

Presidents and Constitutional Refoundings: Is a new political order on the horizon?

First page of Constitution of the United States.

First page of Constitution of the United States. Public Domain.

As we celebrate this week the 225th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention, it is a fitting time to think seriously about the critical, but uneasy relationship of executive power and the rule of law that has existed since the founding.

America’s most revered statesmen – Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln and Roosevelt – all reveal that democratic leadership involves a vital connection between leaders and led. It requires first of all that the leader remain answerable to his followers. Even as the president takes bold initiatives and ignores public opinion in the short-run, he must enable his followers to hold him accountable in ways that are practicable and timely. Furthermore, extraordinary democratic statesmanship is not displayed in isolation. Party building and partisan leadership has been central to this task of civic education. Washington apart, America’s most celebrated statesmen were all central to either the creation or reconstruction of political parties. Episodically, periods of partisan realignment have given presidents the political strength to embark on ambitious projects of national reform.

These episodes, though they may appear to threaten our Constitution, have a revolutionary quality to them. These great political transformations have engaged the American people in popular contests over the meaning of their rights and how to protect them. Presidential statesmanship has provided a critical ingredient to these harsh partisan contests. They have required presidents to think constitutionally: to interpret the meaning of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the relationship between these two sacred political texts for their own time. In this sense, our most important presidents have truly been constitutional refounders, justifying Jefferson’s exalted, elusive hope that the Constitution would “belong to the living.”

Mitt Romney and the Impending Politics of Disjunction

Mitt Romney speaking at the Values Voter Summit (Omni Shoreham Hotel) in Washington D.C. on October 7, 2011.

Mitt Romney speaking at the Values Voter Summit (Omni Shoreham Hotel) in Washington D.C. on October 7, 2011. Photo by Gage Skidmore. CC-SA.

Lets briefly move away from electoral predictions and instead consider the following claim: should he be elected in November, Mitt Romney will be remembered as a failed president. In a January 2012 post to the blog Balkinization, Indiana University Professor of Law Gerard Magliocca briefly speculates on why this will be the case by invoking Stephen Skowronek’s research. Magliocca suggests that Candidate Romney has the potential to become a “disjunctive” President Romney who leaves office in political disgrace.  Through a brief examination of the Romney candidacy I will build on Magliocca’s claim and in so doing demonstrate that a Romney victory portends the coming politics of disjunction.

Mitt Romney faces a leadership dilemma – being affiliated with a set of governing commitments no longer seen as credible by the public while simultaneously being unable to repudiate them.  He must appease the base of the Republican Party by situating himself as an inheritor of “Reagan Conservatism” even as Reagan Conservatism is increasingly discredited.  In short, when we look at Mitt Romney, we should see Jimmy Carter.

Recent polling provides support for this claim.  A majority of Americans now support increasing taxes on the rich and most Americans also believe that material inequality, not government regulation bears responsibility for contemporary economic problems.  The public supports additional government regulation of Wall Street, and cuts to the defense budget, while it opposes Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s proposed budget.  A majority also blames President George W. Bush – the most recent incarnation of Reagan – for our current economic problems. 

On each point, polls show the public rejects Reagan Conservatism and on each point Candidate Romney is on the wrong side of the public. Yet he cannot repudiate these views because they represent central principles of Reagan Conservatism and they retain the support of Romney’s closest political allies.

Why CSPAN’s Brian Lamb Likes Fox and MSNBC – Tell Us Your Thoughts

Brian Lamb, Chairman of CSPAN Networks

Brian Lamb, Chairman of CSPAN Networks

Yesterday, CSPAN Chairman Brian Lamb spoke at the Miller Center’s Forum.  Since its founding in 1978, CSPAN has made an important contribution to the revolution in communications, which in turn has enormously impacted the way in which people receive information and relate to government. Two things in particular set CSPAN apart from other media outlets. First, unlike public television or radio, it is truly separated from government. Second, unlike cable news shows, CSPAN airs policy and political events (such as the recent conventions), as well as government proceedings without filtered commentary. While CSPAN has been a pioneer in the communications revolution, Lamb noted that Twitter and Facebook are the sources of news for the next generation and the freedom they offer is even more extraordinary. The main take-away from Lamb’s talk was his belief in the absolute need to maintain a free market of ideas in the media, whether as individuals we agree with those ideas or not.

The Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act: Organized Labor’s Toxic Cocktail

Bernard Spindel (d. 1972) whispers in ear of James R. Hoffa (b. 1913) after court session.

Bernard Spindel (d. 1972) whispers in ear of James R. Hoffa (b. 1913) after court session in which they pleaded innocent to illegal wiretap charges. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper staff photographer: Roger Higgins. PD.

Today's post is written by Miller Center National Fellow James J. ("Jack") Epstein. In this post, Jack explores the origins and development of the unexpectedly related crossroads of labor law and crime control. The impact of these policies no doubt are alive in this election year. Both the Republican and Democratic Parties included planks on labor and crime control in their platforms. Furthermore, the relationship between labor and Democratic Party continues on an ambivalent path and appears to be at an important crossroads based on events from the Wisconsin recall election of Scott Walker, to the Labor Unions' holding of their own shadow convention in July, to the teachers' union strike in Chicago.

On this date in 1959 President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA), popularly known as Landrum-Griffin.  A notoriously complex law, Landrum-Griffin marked the achievement of two long-standing policy objectives for conservative opponents of organized labor.  On one hand, it restricted considerably unions’ use of effective, and thus always controversial, organizing tactics like “secondary boycotts” and “hot cargo agreements.”  On the other, it brought unprecedented federal oversight. LMRDA thus was a kind of toxic cocktail for labor, a more muscular version of Taft-Hartley, mixed with a variation of public regulation akin to the Securities and Exchange Commission’s supervision of corporate activities.  Despite this breadth of coverage, however, Landrum-Griffin has lived long in the historical shadows of the key federal labor laws that preceded it – the 1932 Norris-LaGuardia Act, the 1935 Wagner Act, and the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act.  Yet it is as vital for a full understanding of American politics today as any of its more famous predecessors. 

Passed by landslides in both the Senate (95-2) and House (352-52), LMRDA showed above all the awesome political power of a criminal concept used since the late 1920s to attack American trade unionism – labor “racketeering.”  Supporters used public fears over the power of union “racketeers” – or labor “czars” or “bosses,” to cite other common catchphrases of the day – to attack labor and to garner political capital sufficient to pass their law.  And so, at the height of organized labor’s historical strength – in the mid-1950’s, roughly 35% of the non-agricultural workforce carried union cards – Congress passed, and Ike signed, a law aimed directly at the interests of unions.

Friday Feature: President Obama Not Riding a Tiger

Surely, most days, our "Riding the Tiger" quotation rings true:

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

But maybe, just maybe, it's occasionally like riding a skateboard.

This animated gif image was cleverly edited to make it appear that President Obama skirted across the Nuclear Security Summit stage on a skateboard. The animation first appeared on Jay Leno's nighttime talk show. Here's a collection of other humorous gif images for your Friday entertainment.

Stay tuned! Every Friday we'll highlight a whimsical item from presidential history.

Conventional Wisdom: A History of American Political Conventions

Attendees at the 1952 Republican National Convention, Chicago, IL (LOC)

Attendees at the 1952 Republican National Convention, Chicago, IL. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Did the Republican and Democratic Party conventions this year leave you longing for something more spontaneous and democratic? Satiate your intellectual yearning by tuning in to a recent episode of BackStory with the American History Guys. “Conventional Wisdom: A History of American Political Conventions” delves into the history of conventions and examines times when the stake were high and the outcomes were far from certain.

The American History Guys (a.k.a. Peter Onuf, Ed Ayers and the Miller Center’s own Brian Balogh) begin with a discussion of conventions in the 19th century when conventions were in their political heyday, when there was real brokering and when delegates were held accountable by the people they represented in their district. These conventions were a strange mix of civics and debauchery, lubricated by male bonding (including liquor and prostitutes) to persuade swing votes. 19th century conventions also served as hiring halls because governance was based on a patronage system controlled by the parties.

The episode also delves into the important questions of when and whether conventions have represented the people. In July 1848, for example, activists convened the Seneca Falls convention on women’s rights. Why was it a convention and not a meeting? Elizabeth Cady Stanton was intent on organizing a convention to set an agenda for the women’s rights movement that would be taken as seriously as the agenda for a political party. It was a way of saying: we want to be part of the system.

In 1964, activists also brought the struggle of civil rights and the challenges of segregation to the  Democratic Party convention in Atlantic city. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party comprised mostly of African Americans and two caucasians, arrived as a separate delegation to the party convention seeking representation. Lyndon B. Johnson, hoping not to alienate the white, southern base of the Democratic Party, told Hubert Humphrey that if he could prevent a walkout, he would get the number two position on the ticket. Humphrey took the bait and urged the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to accept a compromise of two seats. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party  didn’t accept the offer and instead chose to demonstrate on the streets of the Chicago. That was where the real action in 1964 occurred. The lesson drawn is that protesters focus attention to the unrepresentativeness of institutions, including conventions.

If you long for the days of convention spontaneity, such as the 1896 convention in which William Jennings Bryan delivered his famous Cross of God speech that propelled him to the presidential nomination, be sure to listen to this episode of BackStory. As the American History Guys and their guests demonstrate, while some conventions have perpetrated the politics of exclusion, other conventions been used as venues for change.

Americans, Libyans Deserve Better than Politicization of Attacks

Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens

J. Christopher Stevens, U.S. Ambassador to Libya, who was killed in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012. Photo courtesy of State Department.

Once again the polarized political environment is trumping serious real-world issues. On Tuesday, a truly genuine human being, Ambassador Chris Stevens, died during an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya perpetrated by a group with extremist ties. The group took advantage of people demonstrating against a film offensive to Muslims to carry out the attack. New reports suggest that the attacks in both Libya and Cairo were timed for the commemoration of the September 11, 2001 attacks and in retaliation for U.S. drone strikes and attacks on Al Qaeda earlier this year.

When I worked in Washington D.C., I had the opportunity to meet with Chris on a few occasions to discuss U.S. policy toward Iran and Libya. At our first meeting in Spring 2007 when he was working on an exchange from the State Department in a Senate office, Chris learned that I had traveled Libya as part of civil society exchange soon after U.S. sanctions against the country were lifted in 2003, and again in 2005. He asked to meet with me again to learn all he could about my experiences in the country before he was set to take up a diplomatic post there that year. He was truly interested in learning about the Libyan culture and was intent on improving American-Libyan relations, as well as Arab-American relations more broadly. As one of my former DC colleagues wrote today, Chris was precisely the right person to serve as U.S. Ambassador.  He was an excellent representative of the United States, a gifted foreign service officer, and he will be missed.

The tragic killing of Ambassador Stevens and three of his staff sheds some light on the situation on the ground and the gaps in security. Before September 11, 2012, many journalists and pundits tried to paint a rosy situation in Libya. But the reality on ground for the people living there is far different. One of my contacts in Libya whom I met on my first trip to the country, Ibrahim, emailed me this message:

The situation is not OK at all. Peoples’ hopes from the 17 February change (the Libyan revolution) have not been met. There is a real serious threat of civil war that is so obvious and it is only a matter of time if things keep on going this way. It’s so sad, no one is really in control of any thing. The western world has forgotten about human rights in Libya at this time and people are really questioning the real intentions of the USA and Europe.

It will take more than a speech to improve Arab-American relations and to improve the situation on the ground for the beleaguered peoples in the Middle East. However, instead of using the tragedy of September 11, 2012 as means for addressing how the United States will work with allies and partners to do so, the parties have instead engaged in partisan bickering. The American people and the Libyan people deserve better from politicians than the politicization of the tragic attacks.

Does Jerusalem Matter In the 2012 Election?

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deliver a press conference following their meeting in the Oval Office. Screen-shot from official White House video. May 18, 2009. PD, courtesy of Executive Office of the President.

Last week a bit of controversy erupted on the Democratic Convention floor when the delegates were asked to vote on amending the platform to include God and recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Politico reported that President Obama himself ordered his staff to make the change after Republicans seized on both to attack the President and the party.

Democratic and Republican presidents alike have considered recognition of Jerusalem part of the final status negotiations. From Harry S. Truman through the presidency of George H.W. Bush, every president opposed Israel’s expansion in Jerusalem and asserted that the city should remain undivided.

However, for Democrats, official American policy upheld by presidents has differed from the party positions since 1972, when the party platform called for recognizing the “established status of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel” and called for relocating the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. With the exception of the 1988 Democratic Party platform in which Jerusalem was not mentioned even once, the Democratic Party was the first to call for recognition of Jerusalem and has maintained this position since. Presidential policy positions on Jerusalem shifted with the presidency of Bill Clinton. The Clinton administration essentially gave Israel a de facto green light for settlements in East Jerusalem, and the Clinton Parameters, established in 2000, broke from the long-standing position that Jerusalem remain an open city. The 2012 Democratic Party position emphasizes that Jerusalem is part of final status negotiations for the first time since the party’s began taking a position on the issue 40 years ago. This language is not surprising given that President Obama himself ordered the change to the party platform.

Friday Feature: President Clinton Not Riding a Tiger

Bill Clinton sits atop a white horse in a wide green field.

Clinton on horseback, near Billings, MT, 1996

Former President Bill Clinton made quite a showing this week at the DNC. Here's a shot from a rare quiet moment during his presidency.

Stay tuned! Every Friday we'll highlight an interesting item from presidential history.

Party Animals or the Top Eleven Things I Learned at the Democratic Convention

1. No one can out-perform Bill Clinton, not the NFL or even a sitting president with incomparable rhetorical skills. Clinton soaked up the spotlight and enjoyed every moment of it. His speech reminded me of the 2000 SNL skit in which Clinton, following a presidential debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush, assures Americans he is doing everything he can to find a way to be president again. Obama's appearance on stage at the conclusion of Clinton’s speech was almost necessary to remind the public that he's the one running for president.

2. If your expectations for a speaker are high, you may be disappointed by actual performance. In the case of President Obama, for example, many expected to hear specifics about his second term policy agenda. Instead, we basically heard an amalgamation of speeches from the previous nights, featuring a laundry list of party positions and Democratic themes. As Larry Sabato aptly put it, it was nothing more than a glorified stump speech.

3. If your expectations for a speaker are low, you may be pleasantly surprised. John Kerry was on fire last night. I might have even paid to see his performance as a stand-up comedian, with his delivery of lines such as, “Ask Osama bin Laden if he’s better off now than he was four years ago.” Poking fun at Romney’s shifting positions on Iraq and Libya, Kerry said, “Talk about being for it before you were against it.”  Another highlight: “For Mitt Romney, an overseas trip is what you call it when you trip all over yourself overseas. It wasn't a goodwill mission – it was a blooper reel.” He could have topped his speech off with a line like, “For Mitt Romney, an overseas trip is visit to the ATM” or by asking “Will you elect a flip-flopper from Massachusetts?”

4. As a California delegate complained to me, the Convention was too focused on the president, his policy positions and policy accomplishments. Welcome to the presidency-centered programmatic party system that has been developing since FDR, with roots in TR’s presidency. As the California delegate pointed out though, Congressional races matter if the president wants to implement his second-term policy agenda.

5. For probably the first time in nearly half a century, the Democratic Party had an edge on national security and foreign affairs. And believe me, they milked it for all it was worth. However, it really was one important difference between the Republican and Democratic conventions. The Democrats emphasized Veterans and of course touted Bin Laden’s death, as well as action in Libya. Furthermore, the Democrats linked foreign policy with domestic policy, arguing that war and peace, and rich and poor, drive social issues domestically. Meanwhile, we barely heard any mention of foreign policy at the Republican convention, Condi Rice aside. Nor have the Republicans explained why they are calling for 100,000 new troops in their party platform or what they plan to do with them.

Convention Round-up Day Two

Rep. Ed Markey (Massachusetts)

Rep. Ed Markey (Massachusetts) delivers a keynote address during an event for convention delegates on the Obama administration’s national security policy sponsored by the Council for a Livable World. 9/5/2012. Photo by Carah Ong.

In this post, I offer some highlights from the second day of the convention floor. Stay tuned for a round-up of unconventional highlights.

Day two of the convention was filled with partisan appeals and once again focused on the policy accomplishments and positions of the Obama administration. The main thrust of the speeches was to convey the election as a choice over the future of the middle class, the American Dream and "shared opportunity, shared responsibility, all-in-it-together society." Sandra Fluke and Libby Bruce, among others, discussed what a Romney presidency would mean for women’s rights.  Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Maryland) drove home the differences in economic policies of the two presidential candidates, noting that the election is a choice that “will determine whether America is a place where people climb the ladder of opportunity and pull it up behind them or whether America is a place where people who reach the top help the next person up.” Rep. Nancy Pelosi (California) also called this election a choice not only of candidates, but also of issue positions:

Many names are on the ballot. So, too, is the character of our country…Medicare is on the ballot…Social Security is on the ballot…The hard-won rights of women are on the ballot…Our democracy is on the ballot. Democrats believe we must curb the influence of special interests on our political institutions…The American dream is on the ballot. Ladders of opportunity for our middle class are on the ballot.

Bill Clinton was by far the star of the evening, if not the convention thus far, engaging in partisan warfare. I predict that with his current favorability rating (coming in around 69%), Clinton’s attack dog performance will contribute to any convention bump President Obama receives.