Pundits and politicians, perhaps struggling to make sense of their own era, are fond of finding parallels between contemporary figures and those
from times gone by. President Obama, in particular, appears to takes great comfort from this exercise.
Such comparisons are certainly interesting and often enlightening. But though it is full of helpful lessons, the past does not always provide a workable blueprint for resolving contemporary quandaries and pointing out one’s similarities to history’s heroes does not exactly constitute leadership.
This corollary continues to elude Mr. Obama.
The president, seen earlier this week getting his Bull Moose on in Kansas, has indulged in an immodest progression of presidential self-comparisons that leave the distinct impression of a man unable to define his presidency and a chief executive obsessed with greatness but unsure how to grasp it.
The evocation of Theodore Roosevelt came during an address in Osawatomie, Kan., where the 26th president (then seeking another non- consecutive term in the White House) unveiled an ambitious, statist agenda in 1910. Mr. Obama used the occasion to signal, a la TR, (who listeners were reminded was branded a “radical,” a “socialist” and even a “communist”) his “willingness to affirm his own populism.”
Perhaps this latest guise would be more remarkable if not for the fact that less than a year ago, we were told that Mr. Obama, a copy of Lou Cannon’s “The Role of a Lifetime” strategically tucked under his arm, was Ronald Reagan reincarnate. The two recession-era presidents, you see, were transformative purveyors of sunny optimism and pragmatic brokers of grand compromise who also happened to be loners who relied on their wives - traits which, apparently, they alone share among the men who have been president.
The Reagan/Obama nexus was explored extensively in a January issue of Time magazine featuring a photo-shopped cover image of Barack yucking it up with the Gipper, which itself brought to mind an issue of the same magazine presenting a picture of Mr. Obama morphed into Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This, of course, was during the dawn of the current administration, when excited observers and historians, sensing the emergence of a “new liberal order,” cheered as Mr. Obama unleashed a flurry of legislative and regulatory activity to, in his own words, “emulate” Roosevelt’s frenetic first 100 days in office.
The historical allusions, though, actually predate Mr. Obama’s presidency. After all, his bid for the presidency was launched on the steps of Illinois’ Old State Capitol, where the man Mr. Obama most often seems to see in his own reflection and references with great frequency, spent no small amount of time.
Of the president’s various identities, none has been more enthusiastically documented or indulged than his turn as Abraham Lincoln. In addition to the Old State Capitol stunt, Mr. Obama has delivered major policy addresses at New York City’s Cooper Union, where Lincoln delivered his own star-making speech in 1860, and based his inaugural travel to the nation’s capital on the 16th president’s journey from Springfield to Washington, only to take the oath of office on the same Bible used by Lincoln for the same purpose.
Meanwhile, the president’s supporters have gone to great lengths to reinforce the parallel. They were, we are reminded, men from families of similarly modest means who became lawyers, then legislators with a knack for stirring oratory and a belief in “civil debate.”
All this is not to disprove Mr. Obama’s associations with our great presidents, but rather to point out that at some point, the comparisons surely lose their utility, and this president, like any occupant of the Oval Office, must carve out his own character and find his own place in history.
Lincoln admired Thomas Jefferson, and loved George Washington. Theodore Roosevelt described Lincoln as “my great hero.” Franklin Roosevelt idolized his cousin Theodore. And though he hung Calvin Coolidge’s portrait in the Cabinet Room, Reagan’s early role model was FDR. They, like all presidents, drew inspiration from their predecessors, but they were also their own men, with their own approaches and, ultimately, own legacies.
Though, as Mr. Obama argues, these were not of his making, America faces all serious threats and numerous impending crises: anemic economic growth, an unemployment epidemic, vanishing economic mobility, $15 trillion of national debt, a social safety net fraying from currently unfulfillable commitments, a broken immigration system and a completely dysfunctional and overextended federal government.
“Great things are wanted to be done,” as John Adams wrote. But despite this calling, the president seems intent on imitating men who already have done great things, rather than doing his own. The address in Osawatomie, a recitation of Mr. Obama’s tired assaults on CEOs and other assorted wealthy Americans (who the president mistakenly blames for widening income inequality), tax cuts, deregulation and something he calls “you’re on your own economics” is instructive in its unoriginality.
A comparison that may actually be of use: By the winter of 1863, when Lincoln’s presidency (which would only last for another year and a half) was, like Mr. Obama’s, three years old, the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued, Gettysburg was won, and the tide of the Civil War turned. This presidency, for all its grand pretensions, does not have a comparable record.
Lincoln famously wrote that “as our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.” The current president, preoccupied with historical role-playing, has thus far been unable to follow his hero’s advice.
He is Abraham Lincoln. He is Franklin Roosevelt. He is Ronald Reagan. He is Theodore Roosevelt. If he truly wants a spot on Mount Rushmore, he needs, for better or worse, to be Barack Obama.
With an election right around the corner, perhaps the shape-shifting will end and the president will finally find his own identity. Or, more likely, he will soon reappear in Missouri recast as Harry S. Truman.
Ryan L. Cole served in the administration of George W. Bush.