February 17, 2009
Obama and the PantheonBy J.R. Dunn
It's best to wait until the end of a president's tenure before comparisons to earlier presidents are seriously offered. George W. Bush, in light of his tenacity and stubbornness in the face of overwhelming opposition, brought to mind the figure of Harry Truman to many observers in the final months of his presidency. Ronald Reagan stood with FDR in his great popularity and rapport with the American people. Earlier attempts find matches for the two might have come up with Reagan being compared to the dull, hapless Warren G. Harding and Bush to the ever-victorious Teddy Roosevelt. Like all final verdicts, historical comparisons ought to be deferred until all the facts are in.
As with everything else, the Obama cult has turned this stricture on its head. With less than a month in office, the Big O is being compared to not one, but an entire bench of previous presidents. I'm sure it'll come as a great surprise to learn that they're one and all members of the A-team in the public mind, the figures who have contributed most to the American legend. There are no near-greats such as Harry or Teddy for Obama -- no, for the Messiah it's Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. (Only George Washington among the pantheon has been left out. But he, of course, was a slaveholder.)
The embarrassing "Obama Express", imitating Lincoln's progress to Washington, simply didn't take, and would never have been suggested in the first place in a country with more historical consciousness than the United States. Comparing the tall, gaunt, and pleasantly ugly frontiersman to the trim, handsome, and glib son of the islands is asinine on the face of it. It's as if the British of WW II insisted on comparing Winston Churchill -- squat, pugnacious, and pleasure- loving -- to the stern, aloof, and austere Wellington. It's an exercise in missing the point.
There's also the matter of the horrifying climax of the Lincoln story, the one thing about Lincoln that everyone knows, and not a possibility anyone wants to raise in connection to America's first black president. Expect this one to die out of its own. (Despite efforts like this from Kyra Phillips of CNN.)
The incredibly dull inauguration speech put an end to any comparisons to JFK. Kennedy entered office amid serious doubts concerning his youth, Catholicism, and family connections. He had just come off a hard-fought campaign against the wily and tough Richard Nixon, emerging victorious by a far smaller margin than most today are aware of. (And perhaps not even that. There's considerable evidence that those connections of his -- embodied in Bootlegger Joe and his mob friends -- played a large role in... getting out the vote, shall we put it? None other than Harry Truman stated that as a fact. As God's honest man among presidents, Truman viewed JFK with open disdain for that very reason.)
Kennedy needed to make an impact, and he used the inauguration, the ultimate bully pulpit, to do it. His address on that occasion remains one of the most powerful on record (also one of the quickest -- Kennedy recited it at several times normal speaking tempo. It was cold that day, and he wasn't wearing a coat). Several of its phrases have achieved immortality: "The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans". "We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty"... and of course, "Ask not what you country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country." If he had done nothing else, if he had survived his term instead entering legend as the prince struck down, Kennedy would still be remembered for that one speech.
Many were expecting the same from Obama. But they got... well, we know what they got. A boring, sincere drone more suited to Harding or either of the Harrisons than any world-changing figure. Several commentators have speculated that this was deliberate, with the aim of toning down inflated expectations. If so, it was a mistake. In the future, the decline of the Obama administration will be dated to that moment. And there will be no references to Kennedy.
So we reach the obvious comparison to FDR, striding into Washington (so to speak) to right a country set askew by the wicked, inept Republicans. It can be said with little exaggeration that everything in Obama's campaign in some way channeled the spirit of Roosevelt.
Now, Roosevelt is a problematic model. As most of the readers of AT are well aware, his policies did nothing to end or even ameliorate the Great Depression. If anything, they both lengthened and deepened it.
Herbert Hoover raised taxes, tightened credit, stood aside while the Federal Reserve Bank destroyed the American banking system, and willingly signed the Hawley-Smoot tariff act, which effectively curtailed international trade. On taking office, FDR refused to correct these errors. Instead he unleashed such figures as Adolf Berle and Rexford G. Tugwell (diehard admirers of Mussolini), and Harry Hopkins (diehard admirer of Stalin), and looked on benignly as they turned the economy into as close a simulacrum of a totalitarian state as they dared before the Supreme Court stepped in. He then raised both taxes and interest rates, and watched stupefied as yet another crash occurred, equal in magnitude to the first, to leave more Americans unemployed and destitute than when he had entered office. He was at last reduced to begging his cabinet, "Won't someone tell me what to do?"
In light of this failure, why is the myth of FDR the savior still potent? Because of one thing: leadership. FDR's insouciant smile, his jaunty cigarette holder, his unquenchable humor and his common touch kept people going long after they were ready to give up for good. FDR held the nation together by sheer force of personality, expressed in brilliant PR ploys such as the fireside chats. The public FDR was the unbeatable optimist. "To reach a port," he told the voters, "we must set sail -- sail, not tie at anchor -- sail, not drift." And again: "We have always held to the hope, the belief, the conviction that there is a better life, a better world, beyond the horizon."
And not to forget the words of his own inaugural. "First of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."
It is this that Roosevelt gave the country, and this, above all that he is remembered for. He was the man who would not quit. The public never caught a glimpse of a downcast or doubtful Roosevelt, any more than ever caught sight of him in a wheelchair. It can be argued -- and I would argue -- that it was all carried out in a bad cause, a godforsaken, misbegotten effort to turn the USA into a nanny state. In the end, FDR did far more harm than good. But it can't be argued that he did not embody leadership in almost pure form.
Compare this to Obama.
Or how about this: "A failure to act, and act now, will turn crisis into a catastrophe."
Or this: "Recovery will be measured in years, not months."
Nothing less comparable to Roosevelt's cheerful gallantry can be imagined. These are the words of a man in well over his head, bewildered and on the edge of panic. The Barack Obama of the campaign trail was confident to the point of smugness. That has vanished, and as of yet we don't know what's going to replace it. FDR was not afraid to become the focus of national optimism. Obama manifestly is.
(Of course, nothing at all has changed for O's disciples: "As I watched him give an inspiring speech today about how our generation will truly shape the course of this nation, I realized something. You may think it is a little early to say this....but I believe Obama has already proven himself to be the best president that this country has ever seen." The speech in question was one of those quoted above, the Florida "ask what your country can do for you" address.)
The president that Obama now resembles is the president who presided over years of economic stagnation, who offered friendship to the bandits of the world only to be slapped in the face, the president who led the country to its greatest humiliation of the past century. And who in the end, wound up blaming it all on his own countrymen.
The voters may well have thought they were putting in Lincoln, or Kennedy, or Roosevelt. But what they got was Jimmy Carter.
J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker.