By Andrew J. Polsky
We are in the midst of a great Dwight Eisenhower revival. Our 34th president, whose tenure once appeared to be little more than a sleepy interlude between the New Deal era and the tumultuous 1960s, is very much in vogue again. The past year has seen the publication of three major new biographies. On 7-8 March, Ike’s presidential legacy and its implications for our own time will be the focus of a conference at Hunter College in New York City.
The renewed interest in Eisenhower owes much to our dissatisfaction with our current politics, especially the partisan polarization that yields stalemate in national politics and prevents action on issues ranging from the long-term deficit and immigration reform to climate change and investments in education. In foreign policy, we recoil from a decade of costly and frustrating military interventions. We see political leaders seeking to break any policy impasse through public rhetoric that has little demonstrable impact on public opinion.
Against this backdrop of frustration, Eisenhower’s record in office looks impressive. Even as conservatives called on Ike to dismantle the New Deal, his administration backed the expansion of Social Security coverage. And while conservatives also demanded that the United States “roll back” communism in Eastern Europe, Eisenhower avoided reckless confrontations with Moscow and Beijing. He brought the Korean War, by then deeply unpopular at home, to a close within months of taking office. Also, despite his pending reelection contest in 1956, he insisted that Israel, Great Britain, and France withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula and the Suez Canal.
Of special note, Eisenhower recorded several important legislative achievements, notwithstanding the fact that the Republican Party controlled both houses of Congress only during his first two years in office. He pushed successfully for the federal interstate highway program that remade America’s built landscape, the first civil rights bill to win congressional approval since Reconstruction, and enhanced science education. It isn’t surprising, then, that pundits and politicians alike get a bit wistful when they consider what Ike did under the umbrella of bipartisanship.
In contrast to the highly visible public leadership favored by presidents in our own time, Eisenhower preferred a low-key style. He realized that sometimes he could be most effective behind the scenes, what political scientist Fred Greenstein aptly terms the “hidden-hand presidency.” One result was that Eisenhower could appear to be reluctant to act, as during the Little Rock school desegregation crisis. But we have seen today that when a president associates himself very visibly with an issue, his support can be toxic, driving away some of those who otherwise share his position.
So there is much to like now about Dwight Eisenhower as a president. That said, we also need to recognize that his record owed a great deal to the circumstances in which he held office. Many of the things he accomplished simply are not possible today.
Let’s start with Ike’s ability to make deals across party lines. Mid-century American politics has been described as a four-party democracy: moderate and liberal Republican internationalists; Republican conservatives; conservative Southern Democrats; and liberal big-city Democrats. From these components, a president and legislative leaders such as Lyndon Johnson could mix and match. The parties overlapped ideologically at the margins, and some lawmakers stood closer to the center of opinion in the other party than in their own. Contrast this with the situation now, where the most conservative Democrat consistently casts more liberal votes than the most liberal Republican.
In fact, if a Dwight Eisenhower had tried to run for president as a Republican in 2012, he would not have secured the nomination. The party has veered too far to the right, and a nominating system that gives so much weight to ideological activists would be especially inhospitable to someone with as many centrist positions as Ike held.
Eisenhower also held office at the peak of America’s relative advantage in the global economy. Europe and Asia had yet to recover from the war’s devastation and American industries enjoyed an enormous competitive edge. So dominant was the American economy in the postwar period that Eisenhower could expand Social Security, establish an interstate highway system that would be largely self-funded through new dedicated revenues, sustain a large peacetime military, and balance the budget. Certainly, he had to make some difficult choices, but they pale next to the trade-offs policy makers face today.
Yes, there is still a lot to like about Ike. His record commands respect. But perhaps the most important thing we can learn is that a president has to work with the material at hand, and some of the ingredients Eisenhower used won’t be found in the political cupboard any more.
Andrew Polsky is Professor of Political Science at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. A former editor of the journal Polity, his most recent book is Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War. Read Andrew Polsky’s previous blog posts.