Lincoln, FDR, Obama: Presidents' Day Look at Leaders Who Were Men of the People

From Lincoln and FDR to Obama is a tradition of connection with We the People, writes Stanley Greenberg

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Pollster and political consultant Stanley Greenberg is the author of Dispatches From the War Room: In the Trenches With Five Extraordinary Leaders.

The imagery of millions of people crammed into the mall, enveloping the Washington monument and stretching to the Lincoln, there to bear witness on January 20 suggests that President Barack Obama has build some kind of special bond with people. When those people faded away the next day, they left behind what in Washington they call, "political capital" and Obama's got it. Republicans may or may not eventually accept his outstretched hand, but they think long and hard before spurning it because Obama comes to town with the highest job and personal approval ratings since Ronald Reagan. While Obama's bond with people will be tested by the tumult around them, it is one of the reasons he can aspire to lead boldly at a time of crisis.

That contrasts sharply with the departed president and vice president, who eschew any such connection with people. When journalist Martha Raddatz pointed out to Mr. Cheney in a one-on-one interview that "two thirds of Americans say [the Iraq War's] not worth fighting," he offered noticeable silence and then, "So?"

"So—you don't care what the American people think?"

"No, Cheney affirmed. "I think you cannot be blown off course by the fluctuations in the public opinion polls. Think about what would have happened if Abraham Lincoln had paid attention to polls, if they had had polls during the Civil War." For Mr. Bush and many others, it is the leaders who scorn polls, focus groups and popular whims who show strength of character.

With the new president taking office in the midst of a deepening crisis, many have rushed to read about Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt and their times, not least of which the new president who announced his candidacy for president in Springfield, Ill., and noted that Lincoln "moved a nation and helped free a people. It is because of the millions who rallied to his cause that we are no longer divided, North and South, slave and free."

What he did not underscore but likely appreciated was how solicitous Lincoln was of public opinion, as was FDR—as they each build their own special bonds with people to face the crisis of their own times. They viewed public opinion and their relationship with people as integral to their leadership, not an obstacle to it.

Lincoln's overriding mission was the preservation of the union, and to achieve it he believed he had to be sensitive to long-standing opinions, conditioning even his radical goals, like emancipation of the slaves, by his own feelings of how to sustain the greatest amount of popular support for the war and to ensure that the Union could carry on after the war. To succeed with this manner of leadership, Lincoln read closely the newspapers from abolitionist New England, the border slave states, and the Confederacy. But he also said "no hours of the day are better employed" than those that "bring me within direct contact and atmosphere of the average of our whole people," what he called "promiscuous receptions" in the East Room in the White House. He spoke to each of the visitors one-on-one, what he described as "my 'public opinion' baths."

Maybe had Dick Cheney taken more public opinion baths, he could have shown the strength of leadership to avoid an unnecessary war.

With the country sinking deeper into the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt's self-confidence and optimism fed the momentum for change but so did his deep identification with the common people who almost picked him up and handed him the keys to the White House. Before his inauguration, President Hoover had one secretary to handle correspondence from the public, according to Anthony Badger (FDR: The First Hundred Days), but in his first week in office, FDR received personal notes from 460,000 people. He clearly touched people, and that bond was critical to Roosevelt's ability to push back opposition and win support for bold new social policies. Roosevelt devoured newspaper polls and straw ballots from county fairs and was one of the first to use some of the new polling professionals, not just to enhance his popular standing but also to move people and build pressure on the Congress. When fully 60 percent opposed getting involved in the European war, Roosevelt devoted his fireside chats to the need to support Britain, using private Gallup polls conducted before and after the chats to judge his ability to persuade and build support for this historic decision. As with Lincoln, FDR's embrace of public opinion was a precondition for his boldness.