President Obama: The next Clinton, Carter or Truman?
President Obama made a deal with Senate Republicans this week, and with it comes an answer to those who've been asking whether he will be more like Clinton--bowing to the right in order to win over independents--or closer to the more partisan Truman, another Democratic president whose party suffered a major defeat midway through his first term. Most who ask do so as a way of wondering how Obama will avoid becoming another Carter.
It's enough to wonder whether anyone thinks Obama is capable of charting his own path. The comparisons to past presidents are endless: Obama has been accused--or praised, depending on your viewpoint--of being like everyone from Herbert Hoover and George W. Bush to Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson. If the press and pundits knew all 43 other presidents as well as the most recent or famous ones, it probably wouldn't be long before our 44th president was compared with each and every one of those who came before him.
The problem with doing this, of course, is that the comparisons ignore the context. Obama may be pulling a Clinton, and trying to woo independent voters after tough midterm elections. But in 1994, the United States was on the cusp of an extraordinary boom in the economy, and any of Clinton's achievements, no matter how skilled a leader and politician he may have been, must be viewed against that backdrop. Similarly, Obama may have focused on major social legislation like LBJ. But the 36th president failed to win re-election not because he pushed sweeping domestic policies--which have Obama's opponents most angry--but because of turmoil within his own party over the escalation of the Vietnam War.
To be sure, learning from history is important. Studying how past leaders have navigated the treacherous office of the president is essential reading for any president. Obama himself told Katie Couric back in 2008 that he thought Doris Kearns Goodwin's famous study of Abraham Lincoln's presidency, "Team of Rivals," would be his most essential book in the Oval Office other than the Bible.
I understand why this happens. We somehow need to fit our leaders into the molds of their predecessors in order to better comprehend what they've done and what they might do next. Especially early on in their tenure, and especially for presidents without a long tenure on the national stage before they were elected, people want to impose the narratives of a past leader's actions on their current one as a way to comprehend how they might respond to adversity, or the strategic moves that might make most sense for them to take next.
But the comparisons, while an interesting exercise for pundits and historians and an opportunity for Obama to learn from the past, only do so much good to help us. Obama's circumstances are unique, and the context in which he governs is, too. If he's going to succeed as president, he can't emulate his predecessors too much. Nor can we expect him to.
December 10, 2010; 9:25 AM ET |
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