Obama and Wilson

Barack Obama has been compared to Lincoln, FDR, Teddy Roosevelt, and JFK, among others. But few have noted his interesting parallels with Woodrow Wilson. Historical comparisons have their limits. But Wilson-Obama similarities abound, starting with both men's use of the label "progressive."

Wilson was no "community organizer," but like Obama, he was an academic -- among the most prominent political scientists of his day. No other two presidents hang their pre-White House careers so much on academic curriculum vitae. Both then augmented their nascent careers by authorship: Wilson by a treatise on congressional government, and Obama -- an individual perhaps even more self-absorbed than the imperious Wilson -- with a bestselling memoir.

Here the comparisons diverge: Wilson spends key years as president of Princeton, while Obama sojourns in the Illinois State Senate, voting present. But both then achieve statewide office in states in which they not raised: Virginia-born Wilson as governor of New Jersey, Hawaii-born Obama as a United States senator from Illinois. Both succeed Republican incumbents. Both serve just two years before making their move for the presidency.

Both register reputations as orators. Both challenge highly regarded congressional front-runners in hotly-run contests for the nominations. Wilson bests House Speaker Champ Clark in 1912. Obama triumphs over Senator Hillary Clinton. Both easily run roughshod over a badly-dispirited opposition that November. Both appoint high-profile secretaries of state: the aforementioned Clinton by Obama, the aging party warhorse William Jennings Bryan by Wilson. Both Bryan and Clinton soon find themselves largely shunted aside by their respective patrons.

Both more than flirt with racists. Wilson cherishes the South's Lost Cause and segregates federal offices. He praises D. W. Griffith's controversial Birth of a Nation as being "like writing history with lightning." Obama allies himself with black liberation theology advocate Jeremiah Wright. Only political necessity induces him to break with Wright. Nothing keeps him from embracing the execrable Al Sharpton.

It is here that the similarities of style come to the fore. Both Wilson and Obama receive tumultuous receptions in Europe: Obama in his pre-coronation visit to Berlin and Wilson in his unprecedented 1919 European tour. Worshipful crowds greeted Wilson throughout Europe. The adulation, Secretary of State Robert Lansing wrote, "might have turned the head of a man far less responsive than the President was to public applause, and have given him an exalted opinion of his own power of accomplishment and [own] responsibility to mankind."

Yet there remained in Wilson -- and resides in Obama -- a strange academic coldness that stiff-arms natural foreign allies. "I could not bear him," a frustrated George V complained. "An entirely cold academic professor -- an odious man."

In 1916, Woodrow Wilson campaigned as the "peace candidate." Supporters praised him for keeping "us out of war." By April 1917, however, Wilson demanded that Congress declare war on Berlin. In 2008, Obama derided George Bush's Iraqi surge and vowed a quick exit from that nation. He not only reluctantly remains in Iraq, but he has implanted his own surge in Afghanistan.

And while Obama piously vowed to bring an unprecedented "transparency," to Washington, Wilson pledged himself to "open covenants, openly arrived at." Both promises soon entered the dustbin of history.

Wilson's ultimate covenant was, of course, that of his beloved League of Nations, an obsession that caused him to crash his presidency as he stubbornly sacrificed everything to implement a new order of international governance. "The United States must go in [the League] or it will break the heart of the world," Wilson confided to his young Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, presaging Barack Obama's obsession with subordinating American interests to a nebulous world opinion.

Convinced of the necessity of his League, Wilson arrogantly excluded Republicans from the negotiation process and, having compromised at all sides at Versailles, stubbornly refused to allow for any compromise with Republicans (or anyone else) at home. Barack Obama's League of Nations is his national health care plan.

Rather than compromise, Wilson -- and Obama, his fellow Noble Peace Prize laureate -- attempted rather to orate their dreams into reality. Their aim was and is to force a recalcitrant Congress into acquiesce by the force of their oratory -- and their diminishing personal charm. All the while, both chase their dreams while ignoring rapidly deteriorating economies.

Wilson, deciding to circumvent opposing senators, embarked on a grand whistle-stop tour designed to directly sway tens of thousands of constituents, commencing a grueling twenty-two-day, 9,981-mile speaking tour to save his League. Obama hit to road to college campuses and hastily convened town meetings -- and inexplicably even fantasized that he could charm Fox News viewers.

The result for Woodrow Wilson was broken health, broken dreams, no League of Nations -- and twelve years of Republican ascendancy. Enjoying partisan majorities that Wilson did not, Barack Obama finally shoved his League of Notions through Congress, but the result may be a broken health care system, a bankrupt federal government, and a legacy quickly overturned by an overwhelmingly outraged and energized opposition.

For in the end, Barack Obama, despite a Sunday afternoon's bought and bullied triumph, may end up making the world safe not only for Democracy -- but also, once again, for Republicans.

David Pietrusza, author of a forthcoming book on the 1948 election, is also the author of 1920: The Year of the Six Presidents.