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No Adults in the Room: No More ‘Wise Elders’ to Advise the President

We would benefit from a return of the statesmen who flourished before 1968.

by
Richard Pollock

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September 29, 2011 - 11:00 am
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Although this may appear to be a rough time for President Obama his fortunes can get a lot worse.

A growing roster of known problems plague the president. He faces low approval ratings, high unemployment, an unpopular foreign policy, and brewing political scandals on multiple fronts. James Carville says it is time for the White House to “panic.”

Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman raised the ante by suggesting Obama should call it quits. Former Clinton advisor Dick Morris quoted a Democratic strategist who believes Obama could “pull a Lyndon Johnson”: tell the nation he won’t run, and will just focus on the nation’s economy.

Judging from the annals of American political history, how likely is this? And would President Obama’s temperament permit him to consider withdrawal?

Do he and his advisors understand the gravity of their perilous political standing, or are they living in an insulated bubble where only good news is delivered? And if President Obama were to withdraw his candidacy, would he do it on his own or would he have to be pushed? And exactly who could do the pushing?

Gallup’s August 28 tracking poll shows the president experienced his worst three-day average approval rating in his presidency: 38% approval and 55% disapproval from Aug. 25-27.

Independent pollster Larry Sabato says that Obama is in the “danger zone.” “He’s in the deep red danger zone. There’s no question about it,” he told PJMedia:

I’ve got to tell you his ratings are not only bad, but he’s declining at the wrong time to get re-elected.

Many Democrats — such as Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, who also is seeking re-election — may be running away from the president. McCaskill’s aides have indicated she may not appear with Obama when he comes to her state on October 4. A Democratic campaign aide close to the senator told the Kansas City Star: “She’s going to try, but Tuesday (the day of Obama’s visit) is bad for her.”

In our republic, it’s been rare for an incumbent president to voluntarily step down. The last modern president to withdraw was Lyndon Johnson in 1968: faced with implacable opposition to his Vietnam policy, Johnson faced a hostile public and a disapproval rate of 57%, similar to Obama’s current polling. Johnson shocked the nation by announcing that he would not seek a new term in office.

For Johnson, his decision to leave the embattled presidency provided a reprieve. Author Clay Risen wrote in “The Unmaking of the President” that Johnson’s decision was electric: “It was as if someone had flipped a switch in the national psyche: in a Harris Poll taken after his withdrawal announcement the previous Sunday night, the public went from 57 percent against to 57 percent in favor of the job he was doing as president.”

However, it ‘s unlikely that a voluntary resignation “for the good of the country” could repeat itself. For one thing, Washington has changed markedly from the post-World War II days — and not for the better.

One difference between then and now: back then the nation had what were called “wise men.” These were small groups of elder statesmen who were ready to offer nonpartisan advice to any sitting president. They were public people trusted to care more about nation than political advantage.

In the latter half of the 20th century, these elder statesmen were products of New England’s upper class. They were people from industry and political life who, through their stature, could sway presidents of both parties.

In 1986, the wise men were profiled by reporters Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas in Six Friends and the World They Made. They traced the careers of six Ivy League statesmen who changed our foreign policy from the Second World War through the Cold War: W. Averell Harriman, Robert A. Lovett, Dean Acheson, John J. McCloy Jr., George F. Kennan, and Charles Bohlen.

Eventually, there were others who offered public service over partisanship. They included people like Clark Clifford and Robert Strauss.

In one of their most visible actions, the wise men supported Lyndon Johnson in 1967 for his prosecution of the war in Vietnam. Then in a pivotal private meeting at the White House on March 25, 1968, they reversed themselves, calling for U.S. withdrawal. Their conclusion stunned LBJ: a few days later he announced his surprise voluntary decision not to seek the Democratic Party’s nomination for president.

While each had strong personalities and political views, when called upon by presidents these men put country above partisanship. They would privately advise presidents who faced monumental questions.

Lifelong Democratic strategist Peter Fenn says that the idea of a detached, independent advisor was a good thing for society: “It was somebody who had been in government, been in business, had a foot in both worlds, had nothing to prove for himself,” he told PJMedia.

Former White House Press Secretary Ron Nessen, who served under President Gerald Ford, said the nation benefited from their wisdom:

And a lot of times the wise men were not from the same party as the president, or [did not] have the same philosophy, but they did have some special knowledge or insights or experiences.

Adds Fenn: “I’d call them the 30,000 foot people. And that was the Harrimans and the Strausses. The Clark Cliffords of the world.”

And today they no longer exist. This can spell trouble for our nation as it careens from crisis to crisis.

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