Five Ways of Seeing Obama Through Other Presidents

Let’s take a look at some articles comparing and contrasting President Obama with other presidents. With the first one as an exception, these are all from 2008 and 2009.  I think many dismiss these types of article hooks as gimmicky, but I’ve found them to be some of the better writing we have on both President Obama and where we are now.

Obama Goes to Nixonland

Nixon is pivotal for the rise of conservatism, and he makes an excellent comparison point both for what happened before and what happens after.  Bruce Bartlett looks backwards from Nixon in July 2011, with Obama as Nixon:

Although Johnson was done in by Vietnam, his domestic liberalism was as popular in 1968 as the New Deal had been in 1952. Nevertheless, conservatives deluded themselves that Nixon would repeal the Great Society. But just as Eisenhower cemented the New Deal in place, Nixon accepted the legitimacy of the Great Society. His goal was to make it work efficiently and shave off the rough edges. Nixon even expanded the welfare state by expanding its regulatory reach through the Environmental Protection Agency and other new government agencies….

Thus Obama took office under roughly the same political and economic circumstances that Nixon did in 1968 except in a mirror opposite way. Instead of being forced to manage a slew of new liberal spending programs, as Nixon did, Obama had to cope with a revenue structure that had been decimated by Republicans.

Liberals hoped that Obama would overturn conservative policies and launch a new era of government activism. Although Republicans routinely accuse him of being a socialist, an honest examination of his presidency must conclude that he has in fact been moderately conservative to exactly the same degree that Nixon was moderately liberal.

Here Obama is someone who cements the new political dynamics of a previous, game-changing President.  Bartlett focuses on the economy, finances and the age of austerity that Obama is needlessly moving towards, but this critique is equally accurate when it comes to the security and surveillance state.

One can also look forward from Nixon too.  From May 2009, 100 days into the Presidency, Chris Hayes had this:

In his first 100 days, Obama has been compared to Washington, Lincoln, FDR and Reagan. I wonder, though, if we won’t look back and see him as a figure similar to Nixon. I don’t mean we’ll see him as a tragic, corrupt man driven by his pathological attachment to sundry resentments but as a president whose visionary understanding of a new political dynamic didn’t translate into policy changes on a sufficient scale. The ship of state was subject to many of the same inertial forces during Nixon’s time as well, and despite Nixon’s genius in harnessing the power of the culture wars, when it came to domestic policy, he more or less maintained, even expanded, the liberal state.

Conservatives had to wait for Reagan to start the revolution. We are, I believe, at the beginning of a long era of progressive ascendance. It may be that this is the last administration conceptually handcuffed by the residual dogmas of late twentieth-century conservatism.

I’ve been most disappointed by President Obama being bad at losing, especially being bad at losing for the long-run.  For someone who likes to reference arcs of history bending in campaign speeches and his own past as a community organizer, Obama seems oblivious to the idea that he should be setting up a generational battle.  This goes beyond whether he is down for a more social democratic United States; he is a terrible long-term loser even when it comes to the generic neoliberal playbook.

Wilentz Calls Obama the C Word

Sean Wilentz, after giving a history of Democratic Presidents and their approaches to governance, compares Obama’s rhetoric to that of Carter back in August 2008:

Delivered in Obama’s exhortatory cadences, the words are uplifting. The trouble is, though they seem to fit, the passage is from Carter’s acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in 1976.

The convergence is revealing. As Republican strategists have begun to notice with delight, Obama’s liberal alternative to the post-Bush GOP to date has much in common with Carter’s post-Watergate liberalism. Rejecting “politics as usual,” attacking “Washington” as the problem, promising to heal the breaches and hurts caused by partisan political polarization, pledging to break the grip that lobbyists and special interests hold over the national government, wearing his Christian faith on his sleeve as a key to his mind, heart and soul—in all of these ways, Obama resembles Jimmy Carter more than he does any other Democratic president in living memory.

In other ways, Obama’s liberal vision appears clouded, uncertain and even contradictory. During his four years in Washington, he has compiled one of the most predictably liberal voting records in the Senate—yet he presents himself as an advocate of bipartisanship and ideological flexibility. He has offered himself as the tribune of sweeping change—yet he also proclaims national unity, as if transformation can come without struggle. He has emerged as the champion of a new, post-racial politics, even though he has only grudgingly separated himself from his pastor of 20 years, who every week preached a gospel of “black liberation theology” that has everything to do with racial politics.

I wouldn’t have wanted to be Wilentz’s inbox when he wrote that, though now it feels like a more normal criticism.  Wilentz made this comparison as the economy was starting to collapse into free-fall.  I sometimes wonder what President Obama’s first-term would have looked like without 15 million unemployed people in the country, millions of foreclosures and a collapsing situation for those who still had a job.  Either way, between a conservative movement that wasn’t going to buckle and a global Great Recession, the post-partisan approach looks especially weak.

Jeffersonian Dreams and Meritocratic Nightmares

Seth Ackerman at Jacobin’s blog asks a question that many have asked in some way – why does Obama go out of his way to provoke “screams from the left”?  There’s the obvious answer of “because he can.”  He thinks it appeals to the center and the crazy field of yahoos on the Right are going to make sure liberal voters support the President.

But I think that rephrases the question.  Why is this the natural instinct when it isn’t on the right?  I wonder if it has something to do with the current liberal emphasis on meritocratic and professionalized rule as the goal and guide for democratic liberalism. The psychology of elite neoconservative thought is build on perpetual breaks from what one just was and, as Corey Robin has pointed out, a disdain for the status quo they are nominally defending from revolutionary forces.  The neocons hate the cold war liberals they once were (who hated the Trotskyites they once were); Barry Goldwater opens his book blasting the establishment, centrist Republicans who are losing the battle against liberalism he wants to win.  It is thoroughly confrontational, against others and yourself, and politicized.

On the elite liberal side, I wonder how the professionalized ethos that requires dismissing concrete political claims of people with bodies in favor of a disinterestedness inquiry of policy aims carried out in a non-confrontational abstract level generates the need to earn the anger of your allies.  Which leads me to one of my favorite online essays, Aziz Rana, Obama and the Closing of the American Dream, September 2008:

Today, however, only one version of the dream continues to make sense as a sustainable personal project. This is the dream exemplified by Barack and Michelle Obama—as well as by their former rivals Hillary and Bill Clinton—a dream of success through higher education and a life in professional work. It is a vision of social advancement that leaves little room for historically important narratives of blue-collar respectability.

This now dominant version of the American dream first emerged around the turn of the twentieth century in the wake of massive structural transformations. Industrialization, heightened bureaucracy, and corporate consolidation helped generate an economic and social need for professional groups such as business managers, lawyers, doctors, social workers, and teachers. Louis Brandeis, in his 1905 Harvard lecture “The Opportunity in the Law,” crystallized the account of freedom and independence that motivated these groups. Brandeis argued that lawyers and other professionals were specially situated to think in terms of right policy rather than divisive politics.

The essence of legal training was “the development of judgment,” in which lawyers learned the value of “patient research and develop[ed] both the memory and the reasoning faculties.” Moreover, legal practice, like all professional work, was marked by a high degree of autonomy and creativity. The lawyer defined his own tasks, ideally served a diverse and broad community, and became skilled at testing moral and political logic against empirical reality. Given these attributes, Brandeis hoped that the professional stratum would struggle to reconcile competing interests in defense of a nonpartisan public good. The professional class would protect the weak against the powerful, but only in ways that reduced conflict and allowed for the smooth functioning of collective institutions.

At the time when Brandeis was describing the promise of professionalism, three earlier accounts of the American dream not only survived but were real competitors for social preeminence. In Thomas Jefferson’s founding republican vision, yeoman farmers were “the most valuable citizens . . . the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, . . . tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interest by the most lasting bonds.” To this Jeffersonian vision of “the cultivators of the earth,” a rapidly urbanizing nineteenth century added the small-business owner and the unionized industrial worker. The former aspired to the same freedom as the farmer by cultivating a shop instead of acreage; the latter strove (with mixed results) to achieve economic independence through collective political activity. In Brandeis’s time, these three versions of the American dream each still constituted a viable route to meaningful political and social life….

From 1932 until 1968, the Democratic Party rested on two descriptions of American life—the American dream as embodied by the rural farmer and the industrial worker. It gained sustenance from a respect for these accounts of middle-class achievement, economic independence, and democratic inclusion. Today’s party, however, has given up on establishing new forms of solidarity for nonprofessional citizens. All it has to offer is a lose-lose proposition: join the competition for professional status and cultural privilege at a severe disadvantage, or don’t join it at all. The party holds on to the social programs of the past, but in ever more truncated form. It presents a politics of consensus while ignoring the fact of basic division. If Obama hopes to save his party and to address the interests and experiences of working-class citizens, he will have to challenge the hegemony of the professional and with it the closing of the American dream. The question is whether he and those around him are interested in this task, or whether they are determined to recycle the failed homilies of postwar liberalism and meritocratic success.


But challenge the hegemony of the meritocratic, professionalized class that is running the country off a cliff is exactly what Obama is not going to be capable of.  This Kevin Baker essay, Barack Hoover Obama, from Harper’s, July 2009, is fantastic:

Why was Herbert Hoover so reluctant to make the radical changes that were so clearly needed?…Ultimately, Hoover could not break with the prevailing beliefs of his day….

Hoover’s every decision in fighting the Great Depression mirrored the sentiments of 1920s “business progressivism,” even as he understood intellectually that something more was required. Farsighted as he was compared with almost everyone else in public life, believing as much as he did in activist government, he still could not convince himself to take the next step and accept that the basic economic tenets he had believed in all his life were discredited; that something wholly new was required.

Such a transformation would have required a mental suppleness that was simply not in the makeup of this fabulously successful scientist and self-made businessman. And it was this inability to radically alter his thinking that, ultimately, distinguished Hoover from Franklin Roosevelt. FDR was by no means the rigorous thinker that Hoover was, and many observers then and since have accused him of having no fixed principles whatsoever. And yet it was Roosevelt, the Great Improviser, who was able to patch and borrow and fudge his way to solutions not only to the Depression but also to sustained prosperity and democracy…But right from the beginning, Roosevelt also endorsed reforms, from regulating Wall Street to saving the farmers to backing labor unions in their organizing wars, that required _conflict—_the only way in which a political and economic system can be fundamentally remade. When the NRA quickly proved to be a bust, FDR discarded it, and replaced his failure with the Second New Deal, in which business, labor, and government were situated as countervailing forces against one another—a fundamental power shift that enabled advances in both prosperity and democracy unmatched in human history…

Much like Herbert Hoover, Barack Obama is a man attempting to realize a stirring new vision of his society without cutting himself free from the dogmas of the past—without accepting the inevitable conflict. Like Hoover, he is bound to fail.

President Obama, to be fair, seems to be even more alone than Hoover was in facing the emergency at hand. The most appalling aspect of the present crisis has been the utter fecklessness of the American elite in failing to confront it….

This is an analysis consistent with Obama’s personal story. Like Herbert Hoover, Obama grew up as an outsider and overcame formidable odds—hence his constant promotion of personal responsibility and education. He came of age in a time when hardworking young men and women like him went to Wall Street or to Silicon Valley…There’s no need to do battle with these strivers and achievers, individuals as accomplished in their fields as Obama is in his. All that’s required is to get them back on their feet, get the money running again, and maybe give them a few new rules to live by, a new set of incentives to get them back on track….

The common thread running through all of Obama’s major proposals right now is that they are labyrinthine solutions designed mainly to avoid conflict. The bank bailout, cap-and-trade on carbon emissions, health-care pools—all of these ideas are, like Hillary Clinton’s ill-fated 1993 health plan, simultaneously too complicated to draw a constituency and too threatening for Congress to shape and pass as Obama would like. They bear the seeds of their own defeat.

Obama will have to directly attack the fortified bastions of the newest “new class”—the makers of the paper economy in which he came of age—if he is to accomplish anything. These interests did not spend fifty years shipping the greatest industrial economy in the history of the world overseas only to be challenged by a newly empowered, green-economy working class. They did not spend much of the past two decades gobbling up previously public sectors such as health care, education, and transportation only to have to compete with a reinvigorated public sector. They mean, even now, to use the bailout to make the government their helpless junior partner, and if they can they will devour every federal dollar available to recoup their own losses, and thereby preclude the use of any monies for the rest of Barack Obama’s splendid vision.

What other articles and comparisons have I missed in this list?

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16 Responses to Five Ways of Seeing Obama Through Other Presidents

  1. Jacob H. says:

    Ta Nehisi’s Obama/Lincoln column from the other day was pretty great:

  2. Corey Robin says:

    Mike — One of the best, if not best, books on the presidency is Steve Skowronek’s The Politics Presidents Make; he’s also got a follow-up called Presidential Leadership in Political Time, which I haven’t read. Anyway, his framework very much supports the Obama as Nixon thesis, providing that argument with more than anecdotal or impressionistic evidence. It’s a real structural and historical thesis. The basics go like this. Obama, like Nixon, is what Skowronek calls a “preemptive president.” These are presidents who belong to parties that are at least putatively opposed to the dominant party regime. In Nixon’s case, as Bartlett points out, the New Deal regime was still strong, but he came into office on some kind of platform, and representing some kind of inchoate and still formative movement, that opposed that regime. Inevitably these presidents disappoint their bases. Partially b/c the regime is still too strong to completely topple (in the way FDR toppled the Republican regime and Reagan toppled the New Deal regime); partly b/c they don’t have a sufficiently articulated alternative ideology to topple it; partly b/c they themselves are, for reasons ideological and electoral, ambivalent about toppling these regimes. Anyway, it seems pretty clear that Obama fits into this historical pattern (others would include Andrew Johnson, Woodrow Wilson, Bill Clinton). These types of presidents often wind up getting impeached (Johnson, Clinton, and almost Nixon), in part because they are so universally reviled in their own party for breaking with what many in that party thought was the mission of the party and b/c they are reviled in the opposition for stealing its thunder or not going far enough. Anyway, is an extraordinarily complicated and subtle argument that is definitely worth a look. Skowronek is one of those scholars who’s very well known within the field and who should have a much more formidable presence in the public discussion.

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  4. Christian says:

    Grover Cleveland . . .
    A old book, but historian-political economist J. Rogers Hollingsworth’s THE WHIRLIGIG OF POLITICS detailing what happened to the democratic party in the years of Cleveland and Bryan suggests where we will be going forward. A “Bourbon” democrat who takes an unpopular, Republican position in the middle of a major economic crisis that splits his parties into establishment and populist wings. I think this is the best lens to view Obama. Cleveland’s post-presidential career is likely to be Obama’s lot.

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  6. JW Mason says:

    This analogy kind of shows the limits of the Presidential lens, tho. Bryan’s nomination was the result of a massive, sustained popular upsurge in the form of the Populist movement. From where I’m sitting, the question of why movements like that don’t exist today, and how they might come to, is a lot more important than the personality or personal background of whoever happens to be president. Similarly with Buchanan. There’s really no point in asking, Where is Lincoln until you’ve first asked, Where are the abolitionists? (And what are they trying to abolish?)

    I’m as angry and disappointed with Obama as everyone else on the left, but at the end of the day a politician, even the president, is just an agent. We should be worrying less about what are Obama’s principles, and more about who are his principals.

  7. AlanDownunder says:

    Just as M Thatcher exhibited more testosterone than the average bloke, B Obama’s exhibits more whiteness than the average Democrat. Both overcompensations were personal careerist necessities that were too ingrained to be jettisoned once careerism had done its job.

    In the long run, I’m glad the UK has had a nominally female Prime Minister and the US a nominally black President.

  8. Steve Roth says:

    Two words: Neville Chamberlain.

    • Ted K says:

      Mr. Roth,
      I am not known for my subtlety in blog comments (ask Mr. Konczal on that), but Neville Chamberlain reference is a very very harsh comparison in my view. I am guessing you mean it in a different context, but it implies Pres. Obama would lay over and play dead to groups such as the Nazis of WWII Germany. When you look at the drones in Pakistan and the no fly zone in Libya, I think Pres. Obama has shown he is stronger than he appears on first glance.

      I think you probably meant President Obama has been too compliant to Republicans. But I think you should explain your meaning better than just drop Neville Chamberlain’s name, as it is easy to misperceive your meaning there.

  9. teddyrex says:

    You’ve forgotten Obama’s own comparison: Ronald Reagan. Most folks thought he was referring to Reagan’s approach to the Presidency, his ability to mobilize the conservative moment, change the dialogue, etc. But in retrospect, as many have pointed out, Obama’s core ideological beliefs and the solutions he’s touted are actually fairly similar to Reagan’s.

    But I tend to think that Obama is really the “McKinsey/Platonist” President. He believes that the best answer to any problem is discovered by getting a bunch of smart people in a room together and having them hash out an answer together. This form is more important than the actual substance. He seems apathetic and disengaged much of the time on important issues, not because he doesn’t care, but because he doesn’t care about the specific solution, because he believes the proper process will produce the proper outcome.

    But maybe I’m psychoanalyzing too much here…

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  11. JPRS says:

    I see parallels with the Carter comparison, but give Obama his due — he is much more adept at the inside game than Carter was. Carter did not have a signature achievement like the health care legislation, which for all it’s short-comings, still has the potential to be significant legislation in practice. The problem with Obama’s inside game is that he isn’t as good at it as some more established figures on the Hill. The odious Mitch McConnell also deserves his due as a parliamentary and as a strategist — he has run circles around this administration and created challenges in the Senate for Democrats. If Obama was more adept at mobilizing his support outside of DC, I think he would be (or at least have been) more effective, and he might have been able to use that support to counter his weakness when he found pathways blocked on the Hill. He squandered the enthusiasm and mobilization of his supporters after his nomination, and unlike the political campaign in 2008, which blended outside activism with the main campaign operation, his over-reliance on a top-down approach and inside maneuvering has largely sidelined the enthusiasm that he marshaled during the campaign. The closest comparison is in terms of governance is probably more more akin to George H.W. Bush, who campaigned in 1988 like a demagogue, but governed like a solid centrist. Their political campaigns bear little resemblance prior to their first term, but once in office there are some strong similarities in terms of temperament and distaste for confrontation.

    In terms of the broader context, JW Mason is on the mark. It’s easier to focus on the personalities than it is to actually create a genuine movement around policy ideas. Over the long-term though, a genuine movement is what will produce more lasting change. President’s almost always tend to get more credit and blame than they deserve.

  12. Ted K says:

    I don’t think it is easy to compare President Obama to any President. Although my knowledge of history is sadly lacking in some areas, I think you more likely than not end up comparing apples to oranges every time.

    I basically have two criticisms of President Obama. He has lacked backbone at some very crucial pivot points on policy (March 27, 2009 meeting with 13 Bankers is one such pivot point where he failed royally). Also I think he has passed off educating himself on economic/finance matters too much to banker lapdogs Summers and Geithner. Much to the detriment of taxpayers, bank depositors, and himself.

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  14. Mark says:

    Had not seen the Bartlett article but on my own have come to the Nixon view. Look at the parallels:

    1) Inherited a war. Check.
    2) Expanded the war. Check.
    3) Bombed countries adjacent to the one where the war was officially approved. Check.
    4) Trampled the Constitution in expansion of war power. Check.
    5) Signed an arms treaty with Russia. Check.
    6) Economic stagnation. Check.
    7) Expanded domestic bureaucracy. Check.
    8) Expanded domestic surveillance of US citizens. Check.
    9) Vice President from mid-atlantic state who says dumb things. Check.
    10) Attended small California college. Check.
    11) Two daughters.Check.
    12) Supposedly a good poker player. Check.

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