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?