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Obama Should Take a Lesson from Woodrow Wilson

Author: Charles A. Kupchan, Senior Fellow
June 12, 2009


During last week's trip to the Middle East and Europe, President Barack Obama once again demonstrated an exceptional ability to connect with citizens around the globe. Confronted with partisan division at home and abroad, Obama has become the political insurgent, rising above the partisan fray and pursuing a progressive populism aimed at mobilizing Americans behind domestic reforms and rekindling foreign enthusiasm for U.S. leadership.

As he now seeks to translate popularity into policy, Obama should look to President Woodrow Wilson. Not since Wilson has an American president combined progressive reform with such ambitious outreach.

At the close of World War I, Wilson crossed the Atlantic, wowing Europeans with his call for free trade and collective security. He next crossed America by train to sell the League of Nations at home. But Wilson's agenda foundered on the shoals of partisanship as the Senate ultimately rejected U.S. participation in the League. Wilson's defeat offers important lessons for Obama.

Obama began to practice the politics of insurgency as a candidate. He captured the Democratic nomination only by overwhelming then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's lock on the party establishment through a grass-roots revolution. Since assuming the presidency, Obama has been on the airwaves continuously to rally support for his leadership and handling of the economy.

Obama has become a "people's president" in part because he has the skills. Like Wilson, Obama combines an articulate intellect with moral passion. But also like Wilson, he is turning to populism out of necessity - forced by domestic division to go directly to the people.

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