Barack Obama and the Last Czar

This summer, the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, has been bait for all manner of comparisons and commentary.  So let me add one more as President Obama enters the last 29 months of his term in office, a century after Czar Nicholas II of Russia did the same.  The two men – unfortunately -- share a remarkable number of traits, which doesn’t bode well for the country or the world at large.  Nicholas, you’ll recall was the last Czar of Russia who led his country to disaster.

Nicholas began his reign in 1894, lost the Russo-Japanese War, provoked and put down the revolution of 1905, also helped provoke the Great War, and 29 months after its outbreak provoked the 1917 Russian Revolution forcing his abdication. His family’s 300-year dynasty crumbled, and his country fell to ruin. For Americans today, international disaster and domestic ruination are significant risks during these last years of Obama’s fraught presidency. 

(Let me also add at the outset, that Nicholas’ own tragic personal fate, and that of his family, is not the subject of this comparison, or something that is even remotely likely to befall President Obama, nor would it be something that any rational or decent person would wish on the man, no matter one’s views of his politics.)  

Outwardly, Nicholas and Obama seem to share little in common, one a Slav born to royalty, the other a middle-class African-American.  But there are nonetheless surprising commonalities in their behavior and backgrounds.  They appear to share many personal traits, good and bad.  On the plus side they are solid husbands to forceful wives, doting fathers, and possess personal charm.  Less positively they both have fixed ideological views, limited vision, unremarkable intellect, narcissism, diffidence, distracted natures and any history of real accomplishment or of overcoming challenges, before achieving great power.

Obviously, Nicholas’ upbringing is privileged, but so is Obama’s.  After a bit of a rough start, Obama lives his formative years in bourgeois Hawaiian splendor, attending private schools and wanting for little. Once he enters the academy, Obama falls into a comfortable leftist cocoon, is quickly identified as a movement princeling, and has to put forth little effort toward advancement. Indeed, his march to the presidency is remarkable not only for its historical significance, but the surprising ease in which Obama enters the national scene, wins election and reelection. The takeaway is that neither man is prepared by way of experience or personal challenge for the burdens of leadership.

Both have daddy issues. Nicholas’ grandfather is assassinated by revolutionaries and his father dies prematurely, forcing Nicholas to assume the throne unprepared at 29. Obama’s father abandons him, also dies young, and Obama is mostly raised by grandparents. Yet both are strongly influenced by their fathers -- Obama supposedly writes a book about it. Though probably inwardly resentful of their premature abandonment, each, lacking a fully formed worldview, adopts his father’s -- Nicholas that of a medieval autocrat; Obama that of an anti-colonial African.  Both remain rigidly ideological almost regardless of circumstance.

Both are well educated and reasonably smart, but not remarkably intelligent. Nicholas is an absolute monarch, so while his intellectual limitations are apparent, nobody dares mention them. Obama supposedly is always the smartest man in the room, yet proof is wanting. Obama’s college and law school grades, while probably not bad, also won’t demonstrate genius, and remain sealed. But he is no dummy, has impressive rhetorical skills, and this combined with other positive political characteristics leads his supporters to exaggerate his intellect. Nicholas and Obama believe their supporters, feeding innate narcissism.  

Intellectual limitations and rigidly ideological outlooks lead both men to misunderstand and throw away large wells of domestic support and good will. In 1905, protesting workers march in St. Petersburg with demands for Nicholas. They do not hate him, yet.  While they protest imperial policies and the extent of autocracy, they still see Nicholas as a father figure, who might be stern but not cruel and capricious to his offspring. Nicholas misreads the intent of the marchers, and rather than meeting with the leaders and seeking a peaceful resolution -- within his grasp -- he orders the army to fire on the people, squandering support among the masses. 

Similarly, as the United States’ first black president, Obama enters office with a tremendous amount of support and good will from Americans of all stripes.  Even those who don’t vote for him largely hope he will do the things he promises -- heal national divisions over race and ethnicity, and begin a new era where “American” no longer is hyphenated.  Obama also misreads the public mood, and governs as a movement leftist, forcing legislation down the throats of opponents when he has control of Congress, gratuitously taking sides in sensitive local racial controversies, and accusing his opponents of racial animus.  

Indeed, both men are willing to stoke racial tensions within the country when it suits them politically. Nicholas outwardly opposes anti-Jewish pogroms, but privately welcomes and encourages them, not only because like most Russians he is an anti-Semite, but because he believes anti-Jewish violence vents peasant anger that might otherwise be directed at him. Likewise, Obama repeatedly stokes racial and ethnic tensions by taking predictable sides in sensitive controversies such as the Trayvon Martin case, or race-baiting opponents of his favored immigration reforms. 

In domestic politics both men hold their legislatures in contempt, assuming the worst of their political opposition, and imputing personal animus to honest political disputes.  Neither can appreciate that the office and the man are two separate things.  Nicholas because he clings to the antiquated idea of the L’etat c’est moi; Obama because he has never had to struggle to get his way, negotiate a deal or manage an office -- much less a government.  Neither man understands the nature of representative government and compromise. 

Both are easily distracted and seek refuge from the burdens of office -- Nicholas by playing soldier during World War I, Obama by playing golf.  They surround themselves with sycophants and yes-men of dubious ability -- Nicholas his uncles, Obama his coterie from Chicago. Both have strong-willed influential wives who are more ideologically rigid than they are. 

Finally, and most critically, we come to foreign policy. It is in dealing with smart, determined, and willful foreign leaders that each man’s limitations are most glaring. In the international realm the degree of deference each man is accustomed too is drastically reduced. Foreign leaders see both men for the weak leaders that they are and take advantage -- Vladimir Putin, would-be new Czar of Russia being the best, but hardly only, example in Obama’s case. Weak international bodies honor them -- Obama wins the Nobel Prize for being Obama; Nicholas almost wins for his role in convening the mostly useless Hague Conference. Otherwise, foreign leaders run circles around them, while both men, unwilling to acknowledge setbacks, keep making the same mistakes.   

Nicholas can’t accept Russian defeat in the war with Japan and compounds his losses. Obama the peacemaker can’t accept that he shouldn’t end the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and does so anyway, with disastrous results. 

Neither man can correctly identify foreign friends or enemies. Nicholas thinks his cousin the German emperor is a buddy, but Wilhelm toys with him as Europe head towards war. Nicholas picks the Austrian emperor as his enemy, with whom he has more in common politically, but who Nicholas resents because his own ineptitude in earlier dealings with the Hapsburgs made him look a fool. 

Obama’s best foreign buddy is the reactionary Islamic ruler of Turkey, an erstwhile ally at best -- his chief antagonist Benjamin Netayanhu is the smart, capable, Americanized leader of Israel, the United States’ only reliable regional ally.

Both men allow ethnic/religious prejudices to influence foreign policy. With Nicholas its pan-Slavism which leads him to precipitously side with the Serbs in the crisis of 1914, despite any clear Russian interest in doing so.  For Obama, it’s his “outreach” to the Muslim world, which has predictably and spectacularly backfired. 

As the world today seems to spin out of control, we have Obama at the helm for 29 more months. I hope it goes a little better that Nicholas’ last 29, but hope is all I have.