The Washington Ideas Forum January/February 2010

Making History



This past fall, The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute convened the first annual Washington Ideas Forum, bringing together journalists, policy makers, academics, and business leaders at the Newseum, hoping to arrive at a first draft of the history of our time. Over two days, the attendees discussed subjects ranging from the recession to Afghanistan, from the future of news to the condition of our schools. Several historians and history-minded thinkers from outside the academy also attended, and for this special section, we asked some of them to step back—way back—from the churn of the 24-hour news cycle and hold the first year of the Obama administration up against the sweep of our national history: What, if anything, can we predict about the next three or seven years of Obama’s presidency, based on its first year and on the trajectories of past presidencies? What are the historical roots of the foreign-policy thinking that has informed Obama’s decisions about Afghanistan, Iran, China, and elsewhere? How have epochal changes in the structure of the media changed how Obama (and future presidents) must govern? And where in our history might Republicans look for a model of productive—and short-lived—opposition? The answers lie in the essays that follow.

The Honeymooners
by David Greenberg
One year in, Obama’s approval ratings have slipped, and they’re likely to get worse. He’ll probably muddle through seven more years of partisan acrimony, small-bore achievements, and bitter disappointment. But this is okay. In fact, it’s the definition of success for a modern president.

Bring Back the Mugwumps
by David Frum
During the late 19th century, a handful of Republican reformers earned the scorn of their party by standing up for their ideas—which went on to triumph. Today’s conservatives would be smart to follow their lead.

What Would Wilson Do?
by David M. Kennedy
As the president wrestles with policy decisions about Afghanistan, Iran, and elsewhere, pundits try to pigeonhole him: Is he a realist or an idealist? But the best American foreign policy has always been both, mixing moral aspiration with unsentimental prudence. Obama’s most useful model may be a predecessor who was a realist wrongly pegged as an idealist.

Governing in the Age of Fox News
by Paul Starr
The polarization of the American media has deep historical roots—the republic came into being amidst a vigorous partisan press. But the splintering of public attention and the intensification of ideological journalism—in particular, the rise of Fox News—have created unique challenges for President Obama. Is it possible to have partisan media that retain professional standards of reporting?

Presidential Timeline [PDF]
How Obama’s first 365 days stack up against his predecessors’
(Click here to download a printer-friendly version)

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