Magazine article The American Prospect

Organizer in Chief: Great Presidents Are Great Movement Builders

Magazine article The American Prospect

Organizer in Chief: Great Presidents Are Great Movement Builders

Article excerpt

What do you do if you've just been elected president and you lack a working majority in Congress?

A lot, actually. Our most effective presidents have moved not just legislation but public opinion. Eventually, they moved Congress-because they had influenced public perceptions and values first. And that's not all.

Presidents also have enormous executive power (see Clay Risen, "The Power of the Pen" page 27). John F. Kennedy famously abolished segregation in interstate public transportation "with the stroke of a pen." Harry Truman, likewise, desegregated the armed forces. Conversely, much of the mischief perpetrated by Presidents Reagan and Bush, pere and fils, to weaken regulation in the public interest, has been done administratively.

Recent Republican presidents, most notably Ronald Reagan, have used their office to inspire their base, build their movement, and advance their ideology. Reagan gave comfort to the religious right, to the gun lobby, to the anti-abortion activists. He and the Bushes also steered federal dollars their way, through "faith-based" social-service initiatives, abstinence-only sex education, marriage-education programs, and other policies. The Reagan ad ministration very explicitly "defunded the left" by blackballing liberal grantees. Under George W. Bush, that blacklist was expanded to include mainstream environmental scientists, biologists who refused to genuflect to Bush's bizarre theology on stem-cell research, and countless other opponents of Bush's brand of junk science. A new president can not only restore objectivity to the funding of science but can remind voters of how it has been dangerously politicized by the ideological right.

Presidents can teach. A President Kerry could remind Americans that the "liberty and justice for all "that we ritually invoke is not, in fact, God-given, but is a function of whether our government safeguards or tramples due process and civil liberty. In reforming the USA PATRIOT Act and in restoring due process to immigrants, the new president could infuse abstract conceptions of the land of the free with practical meaning that is politically safeguarded in the hearts of the citizenry. John Kerry, recalling Martin Luther King Jr., could reclaim religion as a force that teaches social justice as well as private piety. And he could remind voters why separation of church and state exists: not to discourage faith but to protect the private right of worship from zealots wielding state power.

Presidents can choose whom to lionize. Reagan, in the 1980 campaign, disingenuously told an audience of tax-exempt and presumably nonpartisan conservative preachers, "You can't support me, but I can support you. …

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