What past President does Obama most closely resemble?

We can only guess at what the Obama Administration will do, and what mark it will make on America.   One method of guessing:  playing the “what past president does Obama most closely resemble” game.  This essay provides some haunting similarities between Obama and one of our more interesting presidents, one whose election reveals much about how modern America differs from our past.

When reading this, think of Obama’s speeches about our wars, race relations, the financial crisis, and energy policy.

“Deadly Virtue”, Lewis Lapham, from Fortune’s Child – A portrait of America as a spendthrift heir, originally published in September 1978 — Excerpt:

Mr. Carter was elected to redeem the country, not to govern it. The press, as well as a majority of the electorate, chose to believe that Mr. Carter’s spiritualization of the issues conferred the highest possible benefit upon the Republic.

… {During the campaign} he revolved like a mechanical toy in the bright ball of the media, answering everyman’s question and smiling into everyman’s camera; and yet, then as now, hardly anybody knew anything about him. He had taken positions on both sides of every question that could be identified as an issue, and in June, as in early February, the public-opinion polls showed that liberals believed Mr. Carter to be a liberal and that conservatives believed him to be a conservative. Not even his admirers seemed to know who he was, or what he stood for, or why he wanted to be President of the United States.

… Mr Carter chose to present himself in the persona of the innocent abroad … wandering around the country in search of love and friends. … Like a small boy reciting an inspirational poem he said all the dutiful things that a well-behaved child is supposed to say in the company of strangers.

… The effect of his speech was embarrassing. To an audience of considerable sophistication Mr. Carter had delivered a 4-H Club address, all of it stale and very sweet, utterly devoid of feeling or thought. {Afterwards} there were as many opinions as there were small groups of people coming together to exchange theories and interpretations Mr. Carter has come and gone in a magician’s smoke, leaving his admirers with an empty canvas on which they could paint the images of their heart’s desire.

… In place of a vision of the future he offered an image of the nonexistent past, promising a safe return to an innocent Eden in which American power and morality might be restored to the condition of imaginary grace. … He spoke to the unhappiness of people wishing for a world that never was. The popular suspicion of government is always well-founded. To a greater or lesser extent, all governments commit crimes against the common people. The law is usually unjust, the Capitol always noisy with fools. No wonder that Mr. Carter found so many adherents for his crusade against the lords temporal and the kingdom of Caesar.

His success with the so-called governing class, with people who thought they recognized him as a demagogue, raises a more ominous question. Outside the walls of the citadel the suspicion of government can be taken for granted. Among people inside the walls prevalence of an analogous feeling, expressed as self-disgust rather than as resentment, suggests the possibility of a civilization in decline. A surprising number of people who hold responsible office, in government as well as in the realms of law, finance, and the press, have acquired the habit of denouncing themselves as impostors. They distrust their own legitimacy.

… When they try to envision the future they see nothing that doesn’t look like a Saturday afternoon rerun of the past 20 years. The same slogans, the usual compromises, and the old lies — all of it miserably expensive and none of it made bearable by the romance of youth or the presence of the Kennedy’s. Their lack of imagination makes them sick of themselves.

… Mr. Carter’s idea of self-sufficiency corresponds to the popular belief that the country, like a successful individual who believes the lessons of Michael Korda’s Power: How to Get It, How to Use It, must not be dependent on anybody for anything.

Of all the nonsense associated with the Carter Administration, this strikes me as both the most foolish and the most dangerous. Only madmen believe themselves existing in a vacuum. All living things depend on one another. This is the lesson taught by the environmentalists as well as by the practitioners of Realpolitik, by marriage counselors as well as by poets. how else can life be defined except as the vast play of interdependence among nations, molecules, sexes, species, cells — everything combining and recombining in the theater of light, space, and time.

Afterword

Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 word max), civil and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling). 

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For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about the Obama Administration, see the FM reference page (on the right side menu bar) about Obama, his administration and Ameican policies today.  It has these 4 sections:

  1. About President Obama
  2. About Team Obama
  3. About change
  4. About the policies of the Obama Administration

Posts about President Obama (section one):

  1. Is Obama running for the office of Chief Shaman?, 6 June 2008 — Weirdness from our next President.
  2. Does America need a charismatic President?, 15 July 2008
  3. More about charisma, by Don Vandergriff…(#2 in the “getting ready for Obama” series), 16 July 2008 — About charisma:  know it before you buy it!
  4. Obama might be the shaman that America needs, 17 July 2008 — At what point does criticism of Obama’s charisma and rhetoric become criticism of leadership itself — and blind faith in technocratic solutions so loved by policy nerds?
  5. Obama describes the first step to America’s renewal, 8 August 2008 — Obama’s statement about America may be the simple truth; this may be why so many find it disturbing.
  6. America gets ready for new leadership (or is it back to the future?), 14 November 2008
  7. About Obama’s coronation – wisdom from Fred, 23 January 2009
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14 thoughts on “What past President does Obama most closely resemble?

  1. Bush is Obama’s Nixon and Iraq/Gitmo his Watergate. The Obama story differs somewhat, however, in that with Carter we were supposed to distrust government and with Obama we are supposed to rely upon government to provide our health care, education and other benefits.

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  2. According to Philip Kotler there are four “P’s” of marketing; product, placement,positioning, and price. Previous presidents were strong in some areas but weak in others.

    Carter was successfully positioned as morally superior to Nixon, a brand that was thoroughly destroyed by Watergate, the most successful attack on any brand until the “Pepsi challenge”. But the Carter product was weak, not attractive to women, not macho enough for men, he prevailed by default in the aftermath of Watergate through a “Not Nixon” positioning with few other P’s if you will. Voters were convinced by Reagan that the Price of four more years of Carter was too high, while he was positioned as a “Marlboro Man” straight shooter right off the ranch, chaps included. I’m sure you can see how the four “P’s” applied to more recent presidents, but Obama uniquely scored a 10 in each category.

    The Obama product is/was a marketer’s dream, a gifted speaker, physically attractive to women, black, and charismatic. He is/was positioned as a premium brand, an elite among elites; Johnny Walker Black, not Johnny Walker Red label. As a concept, he was distributed through every conceivable distribution channel (Place). All media: major networks, cable, books,internet, blogs, grass roots “volunteers”, were all used to cram brand Obama into our consciousness. And the Price was unbeatable, he asked for nothing, yet promised everything, the end of war, comfort for all, even the oceans would begin to heal and all for free. I think of him as the culmination, the apotheosis, the triumphal zenith of modern marketing technique. He is the Coca Cola of politicians, the i-Pod of presidents. Think of this as you watch events unfold.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I find this is depressing. Insightful, brilliant, probably correct. But depressing nonetheless.

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  3. Both Lapham and Kotler are right by focusing onto the American exceptionalism mythic structure, in that we, as opposed to the rest of humanity, have somehow evolved from an arcane line of prehistoric free roaming individuals that treat with suspicion others of their own kind. Or at least until the corporations came up with a totemic system suitable enough for proper social identification. Because that made us free buy (into) whatever we think we are without the the (the “disadvantage” of) reciprocal social obligation. And that much we can agree upon.

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  4. I find Latham’s view overwrought and overwritten… the same sort of deconstruction could be performed on the cowboy movie of the Reagan presidency, public perception of which to this day is almost utterly unencumbered by factual analysis… leaving us with what? The notion that human nature is the problem.

    Were one to pull the temporal lens back and focus on the 19th Century rather than the 20th in American history, what would one find? Most of the time, a country with slavery. Imperialist wars stealing large amounts of land, violations of treaties, an unconstitutional war for union, and the irony of one of the century’s heroes due to his postwar behavior being arguable a greater traitor than Arnold… the great Robert E. Lee. The rise of government-enabled corporatism, multiple corruption scandals, an election ‘fixed’ to defer a racial crisis for a century, many severe recessions, and as a coda yet another farflung imperial adventure getting the US involved in the Philippines, Cuba and so forth.

    It should be sufficient for any American to read the works of Mark Twain to realize that we are not exceptional, or at least not moreso than any other people, and that there never was any Golden Age when we were nobler or more moral or ethical or anything else than we are now. Twain’s characters are accurate, and they are the enemy, and they are us. Our problems lie not in our superstars, nor our graven images of them, but in ourselves. We need to direct our attention there, or continue to fritter away our existence in futility.

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  5. My marketing text was written by Kotler, but I recall the 5 P’s of marketing being product, price, promotion, public, and “distribution.” Such a difference changes, only slightly, the essence of comment #2.
    Also, Laphan’s writings have provided many insights during the last several decades.
    Historical resemblance may have some predictive possibilities but as FM has said many times: the first task is to define the problem well.

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  6. Carter was by the worst president in my lifetime, running a reactionary and corrupt economic policy -cronyism of the worst sort with a soft leftwing foreign policy based on total disregard for reality. We know the result. Obama has inherited an exhausted and bankrupt system which he is attempting to pump up by huge deficits. Anyone who thinks there is a plan here is smoking weed. This may reflate for a bit — for midterm elections and then it will crash and burn. Then we are going to begin to learn who America is. If more than 10% of the Congress now sitting is still in office in 8 years, I will be sorely disappointed. We need upheaval.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Nicely said!

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  7. Many good comments here.
    1) Jonathan: Carter didnt create the exhausted, bankrupt system Obama inherited. It’s been a bi-partisan affair all along.
    2) Greg: nice point; every presidency, including Kennedy and Roosevelt, could be similarly deconstructed as noble imagery masking violence.
    3) all: Presidents aren’t really policy makers, but cheerleaders, salesmen in chief of policies already determined by those who funded their campaigns. Neither Bush nor Obama thought up TARP (I almost slipped and typed TART), Paulson did, after a few phone calls to former boss Robert Rubin. I can’t prove but imagine that few Presidents if any have ever initiated policy outside the parameters laid down by those who put them in office. Roosevelt or Lincoln might be exceptions.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Also nicely said. A consensus in the comments; this is an extraordinary event on the FM site!

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  8. Carter created nothing especially at home, did not suggest that. But think you are wrong about Ps being simply creatures of their funders, though generally this is more right than not and in real conversation mos would not even deny it, but the recent collection all being from the single party that rules America, the National Treasury Party — TARP is a perfect expression of what it believes and supports — they seem remarkably similar except for the atmospherics and a reason there is growing hysteria in the land.

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  9. My comment @ 8 was too simplistic. Presidents as individuals do have some impact on policy. For a negative example, Bush II was asked to promote a major change to Social Security and couldn’t sell it to the public. Truman had the option of refusing to use the atom bomb, but wasn’t strong enough (although later he was strong enough to fire McArthur.) In the conventional view, Kennedy was strong enough to let Russia back off from its Cuba threat without loss of face. Who knows what Bush II might have done?

    Still, the personal traits of a President are less important in determining what happens under his administration than they are indicators of the popular culture of the time — what traits we admire, what are our hopes and fears, what we don’t want to know about current events, what grand narratives we believe, etc. This stuff belongs in cultural anthropology more than serious history.

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  10. A quick follow up to my comment in 2 above: from the Wikipedia entry for “The Pepsi Challenge”

    In his book Bad Habits, humorist Dave Barry describes the Pepsi Challenge as “Pepsi’s ongoing misguided attempt to convince the general public that Coke and Pepsi are not the same thing, which of course they are.”

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  11. This could be a comforting view of Obama, but I don’t think it is accurate. He has been quite diligent in pushing the key elements of his platform and his eye appears to be very much on the ball. Yes he has made some abhorrent compromises with the Democrat controlled Congress, which from the first was the prime enemy of his vision, but that may be tactical.

    I see more parallels to Octavian than to Jimmy Carter. Octavian didn’t win all his battles early on, but he steadily increased his lock on power and, in the end convinced most Romans (his dead former enemies excepted) that what he had done was for their own good. They were quite willing to accept the fiction that he had restored the Republic as what they really wanted was the restoration of stability and prosperity. Of course things didn’t go as well with some of his successors, but that is another story.

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  12. The US under Obama is beginning to resemble the US under Carter, just before Reagan, and the UK just before Thatcher.

    Obama has his eye on the ball, the screwball that is. A perverse vision is often worse than no vision at all. Mr. Obama is creating his own Zimbabwe. Mugabe was wildly popular once.

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