9 Chapters
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3. The Ford Years (1974–76): A Needed Respite

Lee H. Hamilton Indiana University Press ePub

CONGRESS WAS OPTIMISTIC AS GERALD FORDS PRESIDENCY BEGAN. Our tough Watergate years were behind us, and in the White House we had a president who was widely liked and respected by both Republicans and Democrats. In his brief remarks to the nation after being sworn in, President Ford said, “Our long national nightmare is over,” and, “There is no way we can go forward except together.” His sensitive speech resonated in the country as well as in Congress.

In my commentary at that time I noted that the new president was expected to have an extended period of good relations with Congress, since—having previously served twenty-four years in the House—he was viewed as “one of ours” and was promising to “consult and compromise” with Congress. Yet two years later I was observing that “the 94th Congress and the president slugged it out for two years on economic issues with no clear winner,” and pointed to only modest legislative accomplishments. The Ford years turned out much differently than we expected in Congress. It was the reverse of the Nixon years, which had low initial expectations yet significant legislative accomplishments.

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4. The Carter Years (1977–80): Intraparty Discord

Lee H. Hamilton Indiana University Press ePub

THE CARTER PRESIDENCY SHOWED THAT THERE IS A BIG difference between campaigning and governing, and between coming up with ideas and getting them through Congress.

Carter was a marvelous campaigner, and he struck just the right tone as the country was coming out of the Watergate years: lack of pretense, down-to-earth, a new kind of leader more attuned to average Americans, even to the point of carrying his own briefcase and luggage. He came across as someone with strong values, independent, an outsider, not your typical politician. He had a strong element of integrity about him.

Once elected, Carter was never comfortable with the political process of Washington. He had campaigned against it when running for president, emphasizing that he was not part of the system. But once he was there, it became clear that insider skills—like those possessed by Lyndon Johnson—are needed to make the system work and get proposals through Congress.

He liked to analyze issues carefully, thoroughly, and comprehensively with the highly organized mind of a nuclear engineer—which he was. But he was less skilled at working with Congress. He thought the strength of his ideas would carry the day, but the 535 members of Congress and especially the powerful committee chairmen, many of whom had decades of experience and expertise in working on major national and international issues, felt that they had much to say about the challenges facing the nation.

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9. The Obama Years (2009–14): Continuing Struggles

Lee H. Hamilton Indiana University Press ePub

WHEN BARACK OBAMA FIRST RAN FOR PRESIDENT IN 2008, I SUPported him in the Democratic primary in Indiana—I was one of the few current or former public officials in the state to do so—and it was his strong showing that day that made the media predict he would win the nomination over Hillary Clinton. So he was appreciative of my support. I liked his pragmatic, nonideological approach to the issues, and thought there would be a change—a new direction—with his administration. He had an idealism about him that inspired people, and I thought he would be able to energize young people, minorities, and others who had been outside the process to become more civically involved, something our country has needed for years.

During his first campaign I was on a panel to advise him on foreign-policy issues. Obama had been in the Senate for just a few years, and in the Illinois state legislature before that, so his foreign-policy credentials were thin. But in the meetings I found him to be a quick learner. He asked a lot of good questions and seemed to enjoy digging into the range of issues.

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7. The Clinton Years (1993–2000): Opportunities Missed

Lee H. Hamilton Indiana University Press ePub

IN MY COMMENTARY AFTER THE 1992 ELECTIONS I LOOKED AHEAD with considerable anticipation to the Clinton years. For the first time in more than a decade, we no longer had a divided government at the federal level, with the Democrats now in control of the presidency as well as both houses of Congress. In addition, Clinton came across as someone who was moderate, willing to look for new ways of doing things, willing to rethink the role of government, and able to work with people of the other party. That, combined with public demands for change, gave me reason to think that “highly productive” days lay ahead. Despite my own optimism as well as the optimism of many others, Clinton’s presidency started out badly, the next eight years were a time of major ups and downs, and the overall results of the Clinton years were to me disappointing. There were important and impressive achievements, but much more could have been accomplished had the president not been distracted by his personal misconduct.

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6. The George H. W. Bush Years (1989–92): A New World Order

Lee H. Hamilton Indiana University Press ePub

I KNEW GEORGE H. W. BUSH WELL FOR SEVERAL YEARS, GOING BACK to the time when we both served in the House of Representatives in the late 1960s. He was a decent, honorable, positive person.

And, I might add, enjoyable to be around. I remember a relaxing Christmas Day I was spending at home with my family. We had just finished our holiday dinner when a phone call from the president came through. He wished me and Nancy happy holidays and then asked whether I could meet him in a few minutes in the House of Representatives gym for some games of paddleball, which is not something you look forward to after a large meal. I hesitated, pointing out that the House gym would be locked on Christmas. But he said that would be no problem, he’d take care of it—and as leader of the free world that was something he was able to handle.

Bush excelled at making and maintaining friendships. When he first came to Congress in 1967, he was elected president of the House freshman class. Throughout all his years of public service he was known for writing personal notes, staying in touch. His engaging personality made him popular among members of Congress.

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