Thursday, January 22, 2009

Who is Obama Like?

It's almost been a party game - which president is Obama most like? Is he Abraham Lincoln? Franklin Roosevelt? John Kennedy? Ronald Reagan? Here's one where he is compared to George Washington. I have one of my own - Bill Clinton.

The parallels with Clinton are striking and much closer than with any of these other historic presidents. Consider:

They have each been called "America's first black president" even though some scholars think that Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge all had black ancestry.

Both lost their biological father at an early age (Clinton's was killed before he was born, Obama's deserted his mother). Both were raised by grandparents at some point. Both graduated with a law degree from an ivy league college and both married ivy league lawyers.

Obama spent time as a community organizer based on the teachings of Saul Alinsky. Bill's wife did a thesis on Alinsky.

Both were known on the campaign trail for their oratory. Clinton ran as the Man From Hope. Obama ran as the candidate of Hope and Change.

Both men chose a Senator as his running mate.

Neither man has any military experience but won against a decorated war veteran (Clinton ran against two of them).

There are rumors that each was involved in corrupt practices when in state politics. Several of Clinton's associates were convicted of various offenses. We do not know how deeply Clinton was involved in these since everyone who did know refused to testify. Obama's relationship with convicted developer Tony Rezco has not been investigated.

The wife of each candidate became an issue during the campaign.

Both ran during a recession. The economic news might be worse in Obama's case but unemployment was higher when Clinton took office (technically the recession had already ended by the time Clinton was inaugurated but it took months more for unemployment to drop.

Even though both men inherited a Congress under Democratic control, each treated his election as "taking back America".

Each followed a President Bush with low approval ratings.

Both invoked a revered president on his way to the inauguration. Clinton made a bus tour with a stop at Jefferson's home, Monticello. Obama recreated Lincoln's train trip from Illinois to DC then used the same bible as Lincoln for the swearing-in.

Both made a point of walking part of the parade route during their inauguration.

Both had cabinet nominees forced to drop out for ethical reasons.

Both promised health care reform.

Both upset gays between the election and his inauguration (Clinton by promising to allow gays in the military, Obama by his choice of ministers for the inauguration).

Then there is the Hillary factor. Clinton let her interview cabinet nominees and allowed her to pick one (Attorney General, Janet Reno). Obama made her his Secretary of State.

Clinton did not inherit a war but he did inherit an occupation in Somalia that was about to turn nasty. Obama, of course, inherited two wars.

So what do these parallels mean for Obama and the future?

Based on the number of Clinton retreads in his cabinet, it looks like Obama's policies will be fairly close to Clinton's especially his foreign policy.

Both men became president sure of their own ability to change government. Clinton soon found out how difficult this is and salvaged his presidency through a policy of triangulation - positioning himself as a moderate and the leaders of both parties as extremists.

What about the other presidents? The Lincoln comparison comes because both were single-term congressmen from Illinois with a gift for rhetoric. Also, as Obama shares his skin color with the slaves that Lincoln freed, there is some sort of symbolic connection. FDR took office during an economic meltdown as did Reagan. Kennedy was young and handsome with a pretty wife and young children.

More important, all of these presidents are seen as successful. Lincoln saved the Union. FDR and Reagan changed how we look at conservatives and government. When people compare Obama to these men they are really projecting their hope that he will be as successful as they were. Clinton, on the other hand, admitted that he was, at best, a second-tier president. None of Obama's admirers want to admit that he could be anything but top-tier.

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