|For Obama Analogies, Look Deeper than Carter|
By Troy Senik
Thursday, August 15 2013
There was a time early in Barack Obama’s first term when armchair analysts thought they had an analogy all worked out for the new president.
Obama, by this telling, was the second coming of Jimmy Carter, another figure swept from relative obscurity to the commanding heights of the presidency in a short period. Like Carter, Obama is an unrepentant liberal with a self-righteous streak and a tendency to look feckless on the world stage.
In reality, the analogy may have sold both men short.
Obama, for his part, has not come to be viewed by the public as the utterly helpless figure that Carter was (though he is certainly not above whining, Obama has not had a moment as pathetic as Carter wearing a cardigan and lecturing the American people about their thermostat settings). Nor did Obama – particularly after the killing of Osama bin Laden – develop the same reputation for foreign policy incompetence as Carter, whose reputation was forever stained by the abortive mission to rescue American hostages in Iran.
For his part, Carter also shepherded a few initiatives that it’s difficult to imagine Obama -- a progressive par excellence -- so much as entertaining. Carter deregulated large swaths of transportation, especially the airline industry, while Obama has yet to find a sector of the economy he wouldn’t prefer to see under the further control of the regulatory state. Carter also began the military buildup that was eventually handed to Ronald Reagan, while the Pentagon represents virtually the only department of the federal government that Obama thinks should get by with less money.
For a more fitting analogy we may have to go back a century, to the presidency of Woodrow Wilson.
Like Obama, Wilson’s trip to the top of American politics was meteoric. While Obama went from an obscure Illinois state senator to President of the United States in four years, Wilson transformed from the president of Princeton Universty – who had never before held public office– into a resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in just three. Like Obama, Wilson also had a background in higher education (though, to be fair, Wilson was an academic of some distinction, while Obama was a lecturer almost certainly employed for political purposes rather than scholarly merit).
Another similarity is both men’s sweeping vanity. Wilson had a tendency to address even his allies with condescending lectures rather than actual conversation. He would frequently attribute the views of the opposition party to ill motives rather than legitimate, substantive disagreements. And he counted on governing through the power of his speeches, admitting that he was worthless at persuading people in a one-on-one setting. Sound like anyone we know?
The similarities, alas, run deeper than just style. Wilson oversaw the ascendance of the progressive movement in the Democratic Party, a sharp break from the previous Democrat president, Grover Cleveland, who looks like an arch-conservative by the standards of modern politics. Wilson created the Federal Reserve, implemented the first federal income tax, established the Federal Trade Commission and fought for the League of Nations.
During his second term, when the country was embroiled in World War I, he also aggressively abused civil liberties, signing the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act, throwing political opponents in jail, and sharply curbing the free speech rights of opponents of the war.
Look at Obama by comparison. He too has moved his party back to a full-throated progressivism, rejecting the more moderate inclinations of a previous Democratic president. He too has marshaled a sweeping leftist agenda that includes ObamaCare, Dodd-Frank, the stimulus plan and thus far unrealized goals like cap and trade. He too has become increasingly suspect on civil liberties in a time of war – though, it must be said, in a fashion considerably milder than Wilson.
There are two reasons that the comparison with Jimmy Carter likely enjoyed such currency in the early days of Obama’s first term. The first and most obvious owes to historical proximity. Unlike Wilson, many Americans actually remember Carter’s tenure in the White House, making the comparison that much more accessible. There was also, however, probably an element of hope.
Carter thoroughly discredited both himself and his party -- and he paid the price at the ballot box. There’s not much to his historical legacy apart from an object lesson in how to ruin a stint in the Oval Office. Many conservatives likely hoped that Obama would prove to be a similar historical parenthesis.
As conservatives grapple with how to think about Obama during his final years in office, they ought to keep the Wilson analogy in mind. Obama’s tenure may be baleful, but there is no question that it is consequential. Though we’re a century removed from Wilson, we’re still dealing with a country that was fundamentally reshaped by his presidency. Much the same may be said for Obama in the future, particularly if his health care reform endures and reshapes such an essential part of American life.
When Wilson finally left office with the 1920 election, his Republican successor, Warren Harding, was elected on the basis of a campaign that promised an end to the progressive mania of the Wilson years – a “return to normalcy” in Harding’s inelegant construction. The country could do a lot worse than a similar promise in 2016.
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