Obama’s Challenge, the Use and Limits of History.

President Barack Obama delivers his inaugural address; a book by Neustadt and May could help him think about history's uses and perils.

President Barack Obama delivers his inaugural address; a book by Neustadt and May could help him think about history’s uses and perils.

Now, the work begins.

After a memorable day in which he weathered Chief Justice John Roberts’ fumbling of the presidential oath, danced with his wife Michelle to the Etta James tune “At Last” crooned by Grammy Award-winning singer Beyonce; and attended all 10 inaugural balls, Barack Obama wakes up today as America’s first black president.

Yesterday inauguration was drenched in historical symbol and substance.

Obama referred repeatedly to the past in his inaugural address and placed his hand on the same bible that Abraham Lincoln had used close to 150 years earlier.

At different points, Obama invoked immigrants’ journeys to America from distant shores, the hardships of slavery, military sacrifice in Concord, Gettysburg and Khe Sanh.

He cited the strength of previous generations in meeting daunting challenges like fascism and communism.

“We are the keepers of this legacy,”  Obama proclaimed.

Today, he begins, with other elected officials and the public, to work to maintain and advance that noble legacy.

But, while doing so, Obama would do well to consider previous presidents’ uses of history to positive and negative effect.

The late Harvard professor Richard Neustadt and his colleague Ernest May tackle this subject in an illuminating book, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers.

Published in the mid 80s, the book arose out of the professors’ classes at the Kennedy School of Government.

During their courses Neustadt and May would examine prior presidents’ decisions with an eye toward evaluating how they thought of, and used, the past to guide their weighty decisions.

It is a decidedly mixed record.

The book begins with the success of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and the saving of Social Security during the 1980s, but also covers a wide range of fiascos from the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion to the false call in 1976 of an impending flu epidemic to a series of missteps during the Carter Administration.

In many cases, the authors argue, a more thoughtful use of history based in a combination of analysis, close examination of analogies used to understand the present situation, the leaders’ placing themselves in the other person’s or organization’s position, and officials’ thinking about themselves as part of a time stream, a bridge between the past and present, could have made a difference.

Neustadt and May explain their method in concrete and unfolding details that are continually amplified by concrete examples.  The authors suggest that leaders identify what is known, unknown and presumed, then explore the likenesses and differences between previous events and the current moment.

An examination of the presumptions driving the action should be next so as to uncover possibly inaccurate assessments of the situation and likely outcomes that should follow.  From there, leaders should try to understand other individuals involved in the situation in part by mapping their life experiences as well as those of the organizations to which they belong – in essence, heeding the Native American injunction not to judge a man until one has walked a mile in his moccasins.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, leaders should think about their actions in the present as part of an historical stream in which the present bridges from the past to the future.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt had this quality on domestic issues, the authors say, but less so on foreign concerns.  Lyndon Baines Johnson had this sensibility on race issues because of his childhood experiences in segregated Texas, but lacked it in the War in Vietnam.

Neustadt and May admit that this method is neither a panacea nor a recipe for transformation -at one point they compare someone who applies it to a baseball player who may raise his average from a mediocre .250 to a slightly better .265 – but they do believe it can make a positive difference and help decision makers avoid the Kennedy complaint at the moment of  disaster in the Bay of Pigs: “How could I have been so stupid!”

Now, it is Obama’s turn to lead us during a seemingly endless and worsening series of challenges.

History will judge his actions, and the closing of his inaugural addressed suggested that he, at least yesterday, thought in Neustadt and May’s time stream.

In this excerpt Obama links his family’s journey to the nation’s creed and diversity before connecting George Washington’s words to a huddled band of soldiers in a desperate hour to what we may someday say to our grandchildren:

“This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed — why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent Mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

‘Let it be told to the future world … that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet (it).’

America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”

Delivered before a throng of 1 million people more at the Washington Mall, these lofty words will now need to be matched by Obama’s individual and our collective action to be given life and meaning.

The work begins today.


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