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Brandeis Prof Talks On Obama

Heights Staff

Published: Thursday, March 22, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01

“Why are so many bills, having been passed by a supportive Congress and an initially popular President, facing so much trouble with implementation?” Morton Keller, Spector Professor of History Emeritus at Brandeis University, expounded upon the experience of Obama in the first three years of his presidency at a talk this Wednesday that answered such questions.

Sponsored by the Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy, Keller was part of the Spring 2012 series of speakers brought in to talk about American democracy. Centered on reflecting on the democracy and constitutional government in America, the Clough Center funds research and supports lectures and conferences to further this goal.

A history professor focused on American political and legal history, Keller has focused his research on the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. In addition, he has written books about corporations and economies in the early 20th century. A Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Keller has also taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Yale, and Oxford.

Keller began his address by dedicating the lecture to James T. Wilson, the recently deceased Senior Fellow at the Clough Center and a fellow political scientist. Reminiscing on his times with Wilson, Keller told stories about playing poker with him over the last 50 years.

“Continuity with the past is only a necessity and not a duty,” Keller said, quoting Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr. During his speech, Keller tied this idea into Obama’s efforts over the first three years of his presidency.

“Obama’s approach is a broad expansion of the machinery of government,” Keller said. “His campaign stressed super-partisanship, but that isn’t what occurred. The bills were fused with partisanship that was unpalatable to the Republicans. His inexperience with the process of government played a part. He took a ruminative, removed, abstract approach to job creation.”

Keller stressed that Obama would have been more successful had he not tried to do so much. He explained Obama’s position as a “new populism,” and described the response as skepticism and a political backlash that led to the Republican resurgence in 2010.

In an attempt to understand the Obama presidency, Keller looked back to the Woodrow Wilson presidency. “Obama steers clear of the highly political press conference,” Keller said. “Obama prefers a brief one-on-one interview with journalists—somewhat like office hours—and prepared speeches—kind of like lectures.”

In continuing his analogy, Keller described Obama as a “Teacher-in-Chief.” Keller explained this as being problematic in a polarized political culture. He focused on how the politics of ideology conflict with a political system that needs compromise in order to function.

In looking at the current demographics and the changes that he has seen, Keller stressed the decline in the importance of class, ethnicity, and region as reliable predictors of how someone would vote. He concentrated on the Supreme Court as a microcosmic view of the changes that have occurred nationally. For the first time since its inception, the Court has no Protestants and is made up entirely of Catholics and Jews. Keller reflected on this as a telling sign that the old stereotypes were no longer as applicable. Keller stressed how this necessary compromise was in today’s political landscape. He said, “You can’t win power in this country without a broad coalition.”

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