Obama is a unique president for a unique time

November 29, 2009


— For someone who looks and sounds far different from any previous American president, Barack Obama sure invites a lot of comparisons with his predecessors.

First the Illinois senator announced his candidacy at the Old State Capitol in Springfield, where Abraham Lincoln delivered his “House Divided” speech in 1858. He has drawn on Lincoln comparisons and — not a surprise for the first black president — installed Lincolniana throughout his White House.

Then Time magazine portrayed Obama on its cover as a modern-day Franklin Delano Roosevelt, complete with hat and cigarette holder at jaunty angles. Last month the conservative Weekly Standard’s cover showed the president, in classical pose, contemplating a bust of Jimmy Carter. Not long ago The Wall Street Journal carried a lengthy piece comparing the (scant) foreign-policy experience of Obama and Harry S Truman.

And all along we were told this was a presidency beyond compare.

What is it about this president that invites so many allusions to other presidents? Nobody did that when John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan entered office, although both were widely imitated after they left the White House. Is it an extension of the way that so many voters last fall projected their own yearnings onto a relatively unknown figure, believing that their perspectives were his perspectives and their hopes were his hopes? Is it a lack of imagination, or flawed historical literacy, among commentators?

The truth is that all of these comparisons have limited utility. There have been only 43 presidents (we won’t count Grover Cleveland twice) and each has governed in a decidedly different time.

What Lincoln faced as the Union was tumbling apart is a lot different from what Obama is facing at a time of partisan tension. What FDR faced as capitalism itself was under siege in the Great Depression is a lot different from what Obama is facing at a time when, despite the terrible toil of what we might call the Great Recession, most Americans still are reasonably well-off and have at least moderately bright prospects. By the same token, what Obama is facing, with economic distress and two wars raging, is far more perilous than what William Howard Taft faced exactly a century ago.

It is a mistake to reach for the familiar to try to explain the present. “American presidents are different, this one especially,” former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said in a conversation the other day. “His pure existence changes not only the way the world views the United States, but the way we view the American presidency.”

Indeed, there are flaws with all of these comparisons — flaws that exaggerate the president’s failings or overstate the president’s challenges or warp our notions of past presidents. Let’s examine the most prominent ones:

The Lincoln comparison

The 16th president faced the gravest peril presented to any chief executive in history. (George Washington and Franklin Roosevelt arguably tie for second place.) The survival of the nation was at stake; indeed, the nation had split apart by the time Lincoln took his oath of office, with seven states departed by the time the Lincoln era began. Huge economic, social and cultural questions required instant resolution, with the result that the United States instantly became an industrial nation committed to racial equality, though it would take decades for the country to reach full industrialization or to approach full equality.

Today we are in interesting, vital and important times. But, at least so far, the stakes are not nearly as high as they were between 1861 and 1865.

The FDR comparison

The 32nd president faced an economic crisis that was deeper and two wars (one in Asia, the other in Europe and North Africa) that held far more peril for the future of the United States than the current economic crisis and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan — although the advent of a nuclear al-Qaida could change that balance. When the Roosevelt years ended, the nation was comprehensively changed, in economic policy, in global profile and in political philosophy. For all the promise of the Obama era, nothing quite so profound seems likely now, even in health care.

The Truman comparison

Like Obama, Truman came to office from the Senate and with little experience. Like Obama, he acquired strife in stereo — a war that still required mopping up in Europe and one that required difficult practical and moral questions in the Pacific. Then, in an instant, he had to face the threat from the Communist ascendancy in Europe and Asia.

Truman possessed less formal education and perhaps more native smarts than Obama, though the same could be said about any president since Truman and sometimes is. The big difference between these two eras is the confidence factor. Though engaged in a bipolar struggle with the Soviet Union, the United States was strong and bold in the Truman era. Though the single superpower in the Obama years, the nation is tentative and wary today.

The Carter comparison

It is hard to remember this, but the 1976 election, which brought to power the first Southern president since the Civil War (Lyndon Johnson, who assumed the White House after Kennedy’s death, doesn’t count), was regarded as a dramatic turning point in American history. So, too, for racial reasons, was the election of Obama a year ago this month.

Though the country faced a crisis of spirit in both administrations, the challenges Obama faces are far graver than the ones Carter inherited, and his willingness to project strength is greater than that of Carter, who possessed military bona fides that Obama lacks.

At his Notre Dame commencement address in 1977, Carter spoke of an “inordinate fear of communism.” At a Notre Dame commencement a third of a century later, Obama did not speak of an inordinate fear of terrorism but instead talked of the threat from “those who will stop at nothing to do us harm” and warned of what might happen “when weapons in the hands of a few can destroy the many.”

The truth is that while his critics might not consider Obama to be his own man, in history he will be regarded that way — a unique president for a unique time. He may be considered uniquely weak, or uniquely masterly, or uniquely unsuccessful, or uniquely visionary. But critics and supporters alike should recognize this about Obama, or any other president: There’s nobody quite like him.


jaywalker 8 years, 2 months ago

Likin' Shribman more and more, good piece 'cept I thought Truman was FDR's Veep when he passed. Gotta check that.

leedavid 8 years, 2 months ago

Unfortunately there isn't anyone like Obama. Millions out of work, millions and what do we get? Healthcare funding for abortions....geez. Troops killed in Afghanistan what do we get, months to make a decision. I thought we had to elect him because Afghanistan was a priority. Global warming is looking more and more like a hoax with faux numbers and what do we get? A policy that further hurts jobs....yep, nobody like him.

leedavid 8 years, 2 months ago

Porch person....uh what? No one ever said Obama was responsible for the hoax. Obama is committed to global warming and a quick review of the emails where global temperatures were fudged because they could not explain the lack of global warming would bring you up to date.

Obama is doing nicely his first year? Please tell that to the millions out of work or those that have lost their homes. They would love to hear about that. Cash for clunkers...oh that went great....for Toyota and Honda. He is a great orator and a nice man but a leader....Tell you what...when your finished with your little laugh, tell us what great things Obama has done for our economy, war in Afghanistan or any other thing the average American worries about at supper time.

Flap Doodle 8 years, 2 months ago

Dear Leader was the go-along, get-along guy for the Chicago corruption machine. The fact that he was able to parlay willingness to turn a blind eye to crime into a ticket to the White House is the biggest shock of the 21st Century to this point.

leedavid 8 years, 2 months ago

Porch person...poor thing forgot Obama was a senator and voted for every spending bill that came his way. How did that happen? You want numbers? Well Ok the planet just underwent the coldest summer on record. No one knows why global warming has slowed since the 1960's and the hacked emails indicate more fraud than in Al Gore's movie. That and the south pole is getting bigger each year.

The dow is never an indicator of the economy and any one that knows anything about the economy knows that. Just ask the millions that lost their jobs under Obama, coupled with the fact that he has done nothing to help the situation other than fake numbers of created or saved jobs from districts that don't exist. If the economy was doing so well, why create a term called saved jobs and why so much fraud over jobs in districts that do not exist.

Looks like Obama has another lap dog. (Laugh)

leedavid 8 years, 2 months ago

As a side note regarding global warming Porch Person. If there was global warming the planet would be experiencing more hurricanes and they would be bigger than ever. That comes to us from MIT scientist named Kerry Emanuel who first proposed the idea that global warming causes more hurricanes. Yet we have less hurricanes and they are smaller. Where is your warming now?

On the economy you use the Dow. Yet how many states are on the edge of going bankrupt? How will they benifit from the Dow being better now that last year at this time. A time I might point out....Obama had already been elected president and the Dow went down even lower as a result.

leedavid 8 years, 2 months ago

Porch Person... I think rather you like the LJ World cause it gives you a place to show just how uninformed you are. Here is some meat for ya; From no less than World Natural Health Organization


The official position of the World Natural Health Organization in regards to global warming is that there is NO GLOBAL WARMING! Global warming is nothing more than just another hoax, just like Y2K and the global freezing claims in the 1960's and 70's were. Global warming is being used to generate fear and panic. Those behind this movement are using it to control people's lives and for financial gain.

There are not a lot of individuals, groups, or organizations willing to stand up against this fraud that is being perpetuated for fear of being persecuted, harassed, and ostracized by those that support global warming the scientific and other communities. But fortunately, a few have decided to do the right this and take a stand against this evil, proving just how unscientifically sounded global warming is and exposing those who are behind it. Below, you will find links to information and articles showing the proof that global warming is nothing more than just a bunch of hot air (pun intended).

The dates that you see by each headline are the date when it was posted here. If you know if a news story, research, or information that should be posted here, please let us know what it is and please provide us with a link. The articles posted for previous years have been archived and links are provided to them, by year, at the bottom of this page.

leedavid 8 years, 2 months ago

Darn you did not do your homework on Kerry Emanuel....well I did...

April 13, 2008 MIT Scientist Kerry Emanuel Backs Away from Global Warming Hoax Another top scientist is jumping off the sinking ship of global warming.

Kerry Emanuel of MIT used to get his name in the papers by claiming that global warming caused Katrina. His opportunistic findings were eagerly seized upon by the deranged Robert Kennedy Jr., who tried to spin them as proof that George W. Bush caused the hurricane.

In an attempt to retain some credibility, Emanuel is now backing away from his hysterical claim that global warming will cause a plague of hurricanes. Now he says there will be a reduction in the number of hurricanes over the next two centuries.

leedavid 8 years, 2 months ago

Porch looks like you got busted with your own source. Sorry about that:


From Yale no less. Not what you would call a Right Wing organization by any means.

leedavid 8 years, 2 months ago

So now I am dishonest....here I thought we were having a great conversation and now you want to run from the fact that Kerry Emanuel has backed off the larger and more frequent hurricanes are due to global warming. Especially since there are fewer and smaller hurricanes. You did not look at my source because it had article after article from the AP, USA Today and others that debunked every one of your claims. So now I am dishonest. OK we are done.

budwhysir 8 years, 2 months ago

I am a unique tax payer during a unique time of bailing out unique ceo scam artists currently running our large companies. during the unique problem of not enough money being available, I find myself using a unique way of saving my unique money that wont be used to bail out unique companies unable to apply a unique way of operating a business that has a unique way of blaming me for this time of unique corporate greed. Please keep my unique name away from the unique greed that has had a unique impact on our unique children.

fastwalker 8 years, 2 months ago

Obama: the most unique long-legged mac daddy to ever strut into the white house

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