“You can’t do history in real time,” warns presidential historian
Michael Beschloss when asked to talk about the federal government shutdown on the Thursday morning
after it ended. Still, he allows himself some instant analysis, venturing that the
deal that ended the shutdown could be “a moment that could turn out to be the beginning
of a second term” for President Obama. “The best scenario for him might be a reset
of the second term. He might be able to get some things done, turn lemons into lemonade.”
Called “the nation’s leading presidential historian,” Beschloss, frequently seen on
PBS Newshour, is the author of nine books and is working on his tenth—a study of presidential
leadership in wartime. His Twitter feed was named one of the best of the year by
Time magazine. He talked with
Washingtonian shortly after the President spoke about the shutdown’s end in the East Room:
President Obama on Wednesday night said, “I look forward to putting the last three
weeks behind us.” Will that be easily done?
I think it will be easily done in terms of people who tried the strategy of the shutdown,
since it did not turn out to be popular. The downside could be they feel all the more
angry and get dug in about opposing the President on the Hill.
Harry Reid called the event historic. Was it?
The true answer is we won’t know for decades. It would have been more likely to be
historic if the Republican strategy had worked; that would have been the wave of the
future. Since it didn’t work, and proved to be unpopular and [is] unlikely to be tried
again for a very long time, in that light it won’t be.
Will it be viewed as a pivotal moment for the women of the Senate?
When women began to be elected in numbers more than ever before to both Houses, there
was campaign rhetoric that it will be different because they will talk to each other
and bring a civilizing element. A lot of people discounted that. But you can’t look
at the last month and say it’s not true, because they did make a difference.
After the final House vote, Florida Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz said,
“The Tea Party will do anything to stop Obama from succeeding.” How does history judge
That’s sort of what our politics is getting to be like: block a president by whatever
means necessary. That was true with Clinton and Bush, too, but not in the same way.
And it’s more present in modern times than earlier in American history.
Some people are trying to compare Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s obstruction attempt early
in the crisis to Senator Joseph McCarthy and the McCarthyism of the 1950s.
Thankfully we’re nowhere near that. We have to be awfully careful about using historical
precedents to describe later events. People who like or don’t like Ted Cruz should
describe him in his own terms.
Is there a historic measure of American morale?
High morale during a president’s term doesn’t mean that president will be looked at
favorably in history—Warren Harding, for example. When Harding died, there was one
of the greatest outpourings of grief in American history, but at the time didn’t tell
us much. [His] policies were terrible. After the Teapot Dome scandal, people tried
to forget. From the other side, Ronald Reagan was very much praised for raising morale in the 1980s,
and that has stood up.
Is Obama more toxic with the opposition party than his predecessors?
I would go back to the years 1974 [the Watergate scandal], 1998 [Bill Clinton and
Monica Lewinsky], and 2006 [George W. Bush and the Iraq War]. Those were years when
the presidents were pretty toxic to the opposition party. We do seem to be going through
a period where the antipathy is intense. There’s talk radio, the internet, and the
way people raise money—they say, “Nancy Pelosi is trying to ruin our way of life”
or “John Boehner is an enemy of the republic.” That’s not the way you did it 40 years
ago. Money was not as important as it is today.
How does this shutdown compare to the one 17 years ago, when Newt Gingrich was Speaker
and Clinton was President?
You have to make the argument that it was more damaging, if only because our economic
situation is more fragile than it was in 1995. The other part of this is that in 1995
people saw the President and Republican leaders talking. That’s something they didn’t
see very much this time, and it made people in this country and around the world nervous
not to see that.
The founders wanted our politicians and citizens to duke it out all day long. They
believed the best policies came out of conflict. But they also wanted talking and
negotiation. They always felt that was what would save our nation.