But the rest of the speech is also interesting and especially relevant in today’s political environment. It is built around the conceptual framework of a word that is decidedly out of fashion today: “balance.”
Eisenhower propounded the notion that American democracy required balance, and that part of the job of government was preserving this balance. He wrote: “…each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs -- balance between the private and the public economy, balance between cost and hoped for advantage -- balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable; balance between our essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual; balance between actions of the moment and the national welfare of the future. Good judgment seeks balance and progress; lack of it eventually finds imbalance and frustration.”
He was especially concerned that policy not be focused on short-term gain at the expense of the long-term interests of the country. He said: “Another factor in maintaining balance involves the element of time. As we peer into society's future, we -- you and I, and our government -- must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.”
For Eisenhower, leadership involved more than attempting to implement one’s own agenda. It required sober recognition of the complexities of American society and an appreciation of the broad range of forces at work in our political system. Success could not be achieved by a single party or one branch of government in isolation from the others.
His quest for balance did not preclude dynamic action and risk-taking. Having commanded the D-Day invasion, Eisenhower was no stranger to bold endeavors. As President, he ended the Korean War, launched the interstate highway system, sent Federal Troops to Little Rock to enforce the desegregation of public schools, and extended American security guarantees to Taiwan, among many other initiatives.
In each of these cases, Eisenhower acted on a firm legal basis and sought Congressional allies. He saw bipartisanship as a necessary element of balanced governance. As he noted in the speech: “Our people expect their President and the Congress to find essential agreement on issues of great moment, the wise resolution of which will better shape the future of the Nation.”
Political expectations and the norms governing national leadership have changed since Eisenhower’s day. But as the United States debates its direction in the coming year after an especially divisive election, we must seek opportunities to reinforce bipartisanship and societal unity.
Dan Diller is the Director of Policy at The Lugar Center.