Sunday, May 31, 2009

Grover Cleveland's Admonition

For my fortieth blog post, I would like to reference an excellent quote from one of my favorite presidents, Grover Cleveland, which I believe very strongly pertains to the situation faced by our current chief executive, Barack Obama.

The context was the election of 1892. Cleveland had served a single term as president from 1885 to 1889, but had been defeated in his first re-election bid by former Senator Benjamin Harrison of Indiana. Normally that would have marked the end of Cleveland's presidential career, as it had for the previous three presidents who had sought a second term and lost (John Adams, John Q. Adams, and Martin Van Buren). In Cleveland's case, however, there were three extenuating circumstances that ultimately worked to his political benefit:
1) He had actually won the popular vote, albeit by a very small margin (0.7%), and could thus lay claim to a moral if not actual victory (which in a democracy is a very powerful argument indeed).
2) Cleveland's four years in office had been marked by a strong dedication to reform that was in high acclaim at the time - he had put a stop to the corrupt spoils system that had contaminated politics for so many years, insisted on fiscal restraint and an end to pork barreling, vetoed legislation that he viewed as profligate or only serving the interest of individual special interest groups, and strengthened the policy-making and politcal landscape-shifting prerogatives of the presidency for the first time since Andrew Johnson by coming out in favor of tariff reduction (even though he could have easily skirted the issue) and thereby forcing the upcoming 1888 elections to be fought on the terms that he dictated. In short, Cleveland's first term in office, though not perfect, had been a very definite success.
3) Benjamin Harrison's presidency was as unsuccessful as Cleveland's had been accomplished. During his four years the spoils system was put back in place, the cause of reforming against corruption was stymied, tariffs were raised and thus American trade damaged, the currency was undermined vis-a-vis a bill that led to the injection of silver into our monetary system, and worst of all, Harrison's Republican-dominated Congress ran up for the first billion dollar budget in the nation's history.

As such, Cleveland was able to win re-election handily in 1892, making him the first and so far only president to serve two inconsecutive terms. Given the high esteem in which Cleveland was held, Harrison's own deep unpopularity, and the fact that the Democrat had been elected by the widest popular margin in sixteen years, the jubilation that greeted Cleveland's victory was especially pronounced. Yet even as Cleveland's supporters celebrated, the soon-to-be-restored leader was somber, for reasons that he soon articulated to his friends:

While we find in our triumph a result of popular intelligence which we have aroused, and a consequence of popular vigilance which we have stimulated, let us not for a moment forget that our accession to power will find neither this intelligence nor this vigilance dead or slumbering. We are thus brought face to face with the reflection that if we are not to be tormented by the spirits which we ourselves have called up, we must hear, above victorious shouts, the call of our countrymen to public duty, and must put on a gar befitting public servants.

The parallels between Cleveland's election in 1892 and Obama's election in 2008, though hardly precise, are nonetheless close enough in many important aspects to be relevant today. Both candidates were elected at times when the incumbent Republican administration had become unpopular for wreaking havoc on the nation's economy (Harrison's policies had caused a recession late in his term that ultimately culminated in a depression which lasted through 1897-98); both were Democrats taking power after decades in which the Republican party had dominated the American political process (Republicans had held the presidency for twenty-eight of the thirty-two years preceding Cleveland's election in 1892, and for twenty-eight of the thirty-six years preceding Obama's election in 2008); and most significantly, both Cleveland and Obama were the benefactors of enormous enthusiasm and trust, not only from the grassroots of their own Democratic parties, but from the American people as a whole.

Grover Cleveland entered the White House on March 4, 1893, with the highest of expectations surrounding his impending leadership. Because of his inability to address the terrible economic crisis in which the nation was plunged, he would leave it four years later as a pariah. Barack Obama entered the White House on January 20, 2009, amidst equally great expectations. Can he follow the advice that Cleveland himself, despite having vocalized it, was unable to live up to, and in so doing avoid the fate of his predecessor?

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