Four Lessons for Barack Obama from George Washington

Things aren't going so well for President Obama. Maybe it's time 44 listened to 1. 

Eroding support for President Barack Obama’s domestic and foreign policies—reflected both in the editorial pages and in public opinion—has prompted many to suggest that the president should emulate Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and even his immediate predecessor George W. Bush, whom voters decisively rejected in 2008 to elect Mr. Obama. What the 44th president really needs is not to copy the 43rd or 42nd, however, but to look to the 1st: George Washington.

Washington’s America was obviously profoundly different from today’s in innumerable ways. It was a new country, weak both in the internal connections between states and in relation to Europe’s great powers. It covered only a small portion of modern-day America’s territory with a thin population, little industry, poor roads, and limited infrastructure. The federal government was still emerging. And the country was hardly what most Americans today would consider a democracy—only 6 percent of the population could vote, African slaves were counted at the rate of five slaves to three free citizens in apportioning seats in the House of Representatives, and even if Mr. Obama had been a free citizen (an unlikely prospect), he could never have won the office he now holds.

Nevertheless, George Washington and America’s other founders were nothing if not astute observers of politics and of the fundamental truths of human nature—only thus could they produce the remarkably successful United States Constitution, which has endured for well over two centuries with only minor adjustments. However much we may periodically pat ourselves on the back for the great strides the country has made, the political realities of that era still endure in most important respects. As Washington’s close friend and comrade-in-arms the Marquis de Lafayette might say, “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose”—the more things change, the more they stay the same.

No less important, before becoming president, Washington was a political general whose ultimate success may well have owed more to his ability to keep Americans united and focused on the war for independence than on his skill as a military strategist or tactician. It is easy to forget that individual state governments were often unwilling to contribute soldiers, money or supplies to fighting outside their own borders. Not to mention the divisions among Washington’s own commanders and the Continental Congress’s combination of interference in his decisions and unresponsiveness to his requests.

With all of this in mind, here are four lessons from George Washington’s Farewell Address—a contemplative and self-conscious message to the country and to future generations. Obama would do well to ponder them.

1. Cool the partisan combat—don’t fuel it. In the era before one-party government, Washington saw partisan differences—for example, those between Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton—come close to tearing his administration apart. Washington acknowledged that “the spirit of party” as he called it, “is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind.” Nevertheless, he said, in “popular” governments like America’s, “it is seen it its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.” The reason for this, he continued, is that “the alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissention, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.” In brief: rule your partisan passions, or they will rule you. Mr. Obama will accomplish little in his remaining time in office if he does not take a different approach to governing.

There are, of course, two sides to every fight—and Congressional Republicans would do well to think about the ways in which partisanship damages America’s national interests and undermines public confidence in government, including if not especially the legislative branch. Nevertheless, the president is the president and has a special responsibility to lead by example—to prevent partisanship that Washington acknowledged in modest forms can serve as “useful checks upon the administration of the government” from “bursting into flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.”