With the election and inauguration of Barack Obama, the White House has reclaimed its place as an intellectual playground for some of the most capable minds in the country. It is in keeping with this tradition that I propose a permanent addition to the White House staff: a historian-in-residence. Sure, President Obama's inner circle doesn't lack for academic moxie. But they'll probably be too distracted to notice the lessons of history. An expert is needed.
Former New Statesman editor, Paul Johnson, told us: "it is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions... have been tested before, not once, but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false." It is clear then. History matters.
President Obama wasted no time in showing an appreciation for the lessons of history by immediately reversing some of the key policies of the past eight years. However, he must broaden his historical frame of reference beyond the Bush years and recognize that the problems he faces are far from unique. He would benefit by imitating where others have succeeded and learning from the mistakes of those who have fallen short.
President Obama has signaled that the number one national priority is the economy. It is vital that the president takes a page from FDR's playbook. Presidents Obama and Roosevelt both inherited economic train-wrecks from highly unpopular presidents. President Roosevelt took the U.S. into uncharted territory, launching the largest set of government spending programs in the nation's history. President Obama has indicated that he is far from shy when it comes to activating the immense powers of the government spending machine; and he would be well-served by continuing to emulate the recovery model set by FDR.
President Obama's understanding of the past can do more than help guide policy; it can help determine his style of presidential leadership. Many past presidents have fallen victim to their own obsessive desires to maintain tight control over their administration. LBJ frequently concerned himself with minute details of the Vietnam War - to the extent that he created a to-scale version of a Vietnamese battlefield in the White House so he could involve himself in theatre strategy. This proved counter-productive, both by taking his mind off the "Great Society" programs, and hindering military strategy. Both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were of a similar mold, and consequently were criticized for getting bogged down in the small details, while fumbling the big decisions. While it is too early to tell whether President Obama will run his White House along these lines, he must be weary of what the past tells us about those presidents who fail to see the wood from the trees.
Given the importance of history, President Obama must make room for an academic who has mastered the discipline. This historian would have no official job description. He would simply act as a reference for the president and senior aides, to be called upon for historical input, and to weigh-in during important policy debates. Far removed from the political-electoral concerns of the senior aides, and floating apart from the traditional bureaucracy and its innumerable constraints, this historian would be the consummate advisor.