O for an administration still in utero, functioning umbillically, when all is still embryonic , and when all analogies still seem plausible. Everyone born in the United States can grow up to be president, as unlikely as that must have seemed in 1961 to the parents of Barack Obama. And everyone elected president can have the chance to grow up to be George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, as unlikely as that seems. Obama has already generated a lot of analogies and analogizers. We look to the past for portents of the future. Will this potential for a new age of progressive reform resemble the 1930s of FDR, a Newer New Deal? Or will it resemble the era of reform in the 1960s, Kennedy/Johnson-like, a Greater Great Society?
It seems to me that most of the analogies have been to FDR. Part of this is because of family resemblances—a huge economic crisis to contend with, and an administration composed of what seems to be competing centers of power and brain trusts on every issue—and part of this is wishing and hoping-- FDR’s presidency, the Great Depression and horrors of WWII notwithstanding, makes for more of a feel-good story than the Vietnam-ravaged presidencies of the 1960s. And Obama has gone out of his way to avoid make references to LBJ including—rather shamefully—keeping the celebration of his centennial, which occurred during the Democratic convention, out of prime time.
But it seems to me the analogy to make, and the analogy to watch out for, is to LBJ, not FDR. All analogies are imprecise. In the 1930s the motive of reform was that America was failing, and we could do nothing else than transform our country and remove its inequalities and injustices. In the 1960s the motive for reform was that America was the richest country on the face of the earth, and doing better every year, and therefore we had no choice to but transform our country and remove its inequalities and injustices. And Obama’s motive for reform will combine both; a very rich and very powerful country down on its luck. The New Deal was primarily a series of economic reforms that left the country’s political realities largely unchanged. The Great Society was primarily a series of political reforms that left the country’s economic realities largely unchanged. Obama is in his appeal a soul changer, not an economic fixer, and the racial component of Obama’s message is inescapable. If his approach has been practical, his basic appeal has been spiritual—to regain America’s good name, after it has been traduced and besmirched.
Obama is starting out as a president primarily focused on domestic matters. My worry is that like both FDR and LBJ, he will find his domestic agenda truncated as he becomes consumed and absorbed in foreign affairs. This ended up better for FDR than Johnson. FDR’s war was a good war (or at least the enemy was a truly evil enemy), and FDR won the war. Johnson’s war was a losing effort in a bad war. I am afraid of analogies to the early 1960s, when Kennedy brought in the “best and the brightest” (which as Frank Rich pointed out a few weeks ago, always needs to appear between irony quotes), and promised a foreign policy brainer and suppler than Eisenhower’s; fighting the Cold War with a bit more panache, and less emphasis on total world annihilation. This was a good thing, and there were successes along these lines, the hot line, and the partial test ban treaty, for instance, before everything got swallowed up by Vietnam. For unlike either era of Democratic reform, we are beginning it while still fighting two wars, one apparently cooling off, the other apparently heating up. Nothing reorders domestic priorities like major combat overseas. Sometimes wars are inevitable, sometimes, as recent American history demonstrates, they can be all too evitable. We can only hope that somewhere in the Middle East there is not a country that bleed an Obama administration into impotence, drowning in the Tigris, the Euphrates, or the Mekong Delta.