Barack Obama and Presidential Parallels
Ever since Barack Obama entered the White House, pundits and historians have been searching for presidential parallels. Is our 44th president the new Lincoln out to give the country a “new birth of freedom?” Is he another Theodore Roosevelt bent on pursuing the Rough Rider’s progressive agenda? Is he some combination of FDR and LBJ delivering a new and greatly updated version of the New Deal/Great Society? Or is he the next JFK, full of youth and energy and a new New Frontier?
Of course, all of these comparisons are meant to flatter all concerned. That’s because all of the above have been activist presidents seeking a more powerful central government. To be sure, we have had a few such presidents who have been committed to trimming the size of the federal government. Think Andrew Jackson and Ronald Reagan.
Two other former presidents loom as potential parallels to President Obama. One works in a very limited sense, and the other works all too well. Think Harry Truman and Woodrow Wilson.
Truman was the first president to put forth a serious proposal for a nationalized health care system. But he was also the president who did not exactly “lead from behind” when it came to prosecuting the Cold War. It’s not an accident that Truman once defined a leader as someone able to persuade his fellow countrymen to do what they did not want to do. When it comes to Obamacare, this president had the audacity to drive it through the Congress, while hoping that his fellow countrymen would eventually accept what was done for them—or to them, depending upon your point of view.
Actually, this calls into question the Obama-Kennedy link. Remember the famous line from JFK’s inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country?” Obama seems to have turned that one around, especially when he’s speaking at a college, which seems to be his favorite venue, thereby calling into question the LBJ parallel. Remember a certain unpopular war in Southeast Asia and what happened when a certain president or his defense secretary dared set foot near any hallowed hall of ivy?
The often related subjects of reform and war bring us to Woodrow Wilson. Here is most telling—and troubling—parallel to Barack Obama. If Harry Truman was the last American president never to have set foot in a college classroom, Woodrow Wilson is the only president to hold a doctorate degree. While Barack Obama lacks that credential, he, like Wilson, is an Ivy Leaguer with an advanced degree and a reputation for intellectual prowess. Nothing necessarily troubling here, but stay tuned.
Like Wilson before him, Obama is a self-proclaimed progressive. More than that, he is the same sort of progressive that Wilson professed to be. Like Wilson before him, Obama downplays the principles of the American founding and celebrates the idea of a “living Constitution.” It was Wilson, much more than TR before him, who put his faith in the possibilities of what might be termed the “administrative state,” or government by bureaucrats and experts—or both.
Like Obama, Wilson burst upon the national scene. A college professor and college president, as opposed to a college professor and a community organizer, Wilson held no elective office until winning the governorship of New Jersey in 1910. Two years later he was in the White House. By contrast, Obama’s four years in the U.S. senate made him a seasoned veteran of the political wars.
Once in the Oval Office, each man based his presidency on a similar assumption, namely that the president, and only the president, represented the general will of the country. This is not to say that both have operated as tyrants. Nonetheless, there is something troubling about the presumptions—and accompanying goals and actions of each. Both have presumed that history in moving in a statist direction. Therefore, the job of the president is to hasten that ever-evolving, and ever-progressive, process along.
Gone is the primacy of any notion of the “consent of the governed.” Even Congress has been shoved aside, or shoved itself aside, by legislating into existence multiple bureaus which will operate without their consent, much less the people’s consent. Think of the Independent Payment Advisory Board among twenty some other such entities about to be instituted in the name of nationalizing health care.
To be sure, the original progressive movement was largely concerned with domestic policy. TR was an exception to this, but Wilson was not—at least not until April of 1917. On the eve of his presidency Wilson confided to his “Man Friday”, Colonel Edward House, that it would be the height of irony if his administration became consumed with foreign policy, given his lack of expertise and interest in that area.
Well, look what happened. By 1914 the Great War was underway, and by 1917 we were in it. Suddenly, Woodrow Wilson was very much a foreign policy president. And if that irony alone was not enough, Wilson moved quickly to use his war powers to further advance the very administrative state that he had advocated as a progressive president.
What does all this have to do with President Obama? Not much, we can only hope. And at first blush the parallels do seem fairly minimal, maybe even nonexistent. In 1914 the United States was not a world power with worldwide interests. Today we are. Unlike Obama, Wilson assumed the presidency at a time in our history when we were just beginning to feel our oats and expand our interests. Today we are tired of the world and the burdens that go with world leadership.
Yes, Wilson did send General Pershing after Pancho Villa in Mexico in 1913, but, unlike President Obama, he did not inherit two wars and continue to prosecute one. All of the above notwithstanding, a troubling potential parallel remains.
Between 1914 and 1917 both England and Germany repeatedly violated American neutral rights. But it was Germany and its U-boats that killed Americans on the high seas. Remember the Lusitania. Wilson huffed and puffed; he drew lines in the sand and offered American mediation. All to no avail. In a late January, 1917, speech he called for “peace without victory.” Germany responded by declaring unlimited submarine warfare.
A safely re-elected Wilson had had enough. All of his overtures, all of his olive branches, had been spurned. It was an aggrieved Wilson who finally asked Congress to declare war on Germany in April of 1917. Of course, this was also a hopeful Wilson who used that same address to transform the Great War into a crusade to “make the world safe for democracy.”
Who knows what a safely re-elected Barack Obama might do? The presumption—and worry—in 2008 and now in 2012 has been that a President McCain or a President Romney would be more likely to take us to war than would a President Obama. But is that really the likelier case?
Having had his entreaties spurned again and again, might an equally aggrieved Barack Obama follow in Woodrow Wilson’s footsteps by dealing harshly with, say Iran, or perhaps Pakistan? It’s quite possible. And might a fully engaged war President Obama put the country on a full-bore war footing by ramping up the administrative state in any number of ways? Such a scenario is far from unthinkable.
The irony in all of this is as inescapable as it is troubling. Between 1914 and 1917 American waffling and weakness ended in war. One wonders where apology tours, defense cuts, and signals of disengagement and appeasement will lead us in 2013 and beyond, especially if leaders in Iran, Pakistan, and elsewhere in the Middle East take their measure of President Obama and bet as the Kaiser bet in 1917. Who knows, our president might even take a page from the Wilson playbook. No longer content to make American democracy safe for the world, President Obama might even recover his Wilsonian instincts by reverting to another American effort to make the world safe for democracy.
Chuck Chalberg, a senior fellow at American Experiment, teaches at Normandale Community College and performs as Theodore Roosevelt and G.K. Chesterton.