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Obama in 2008: More Like 1912 Than 1932

[Cross-posted from ProgressiveHistorians.]


Daily Kos has recently been abuzz with speculation that the coming Presidential election will play out similarly to that of 1932 -- a dramatic realignment election that puts Dems on top for a generation.  DHinMI advanced this argument in a very good three-part series last month.  Today, New Deal democrat provides more evidence of this phenomenon by pointing out that economic conditions were similar in some ways then to how they are now.


It's an interesting, if optimistic, argument, but I disagree with one of its underlying assumptions -- particularly if Barack Obama becomes the Democratic nominee.  In that eventuality, I think Woodrow Wilson's campaign in 1912, rather than Franklin Roosevelt's in 1932, is more likely to serve as a useful model for the 2008 election.

I should state at the outset that my record of historical model-choosing for this election is decidedly mixed.  While I correctly foresaw as early as November that the lack of a Thomas Dewey-1948-like bedrock conservative in the race would result in a Republican field filled with subpar candidates, ripe for the picking by an ultraconservative politician, I incorrectly pegged Sam Brownback instead of Mike Huckabee for that role.  Then, I compounded my error by suggesting that Fred Thompson would fill the Dewey role in the Republican field.  On the plus side, I did use the model of the 1960 election to correctly predict that Al Gore would not run for President.  So, I guess what I'm getting at is that you should take my attempt here with a grain of salt.


Still, I'm going to venture an argument that with Obama as the Democratic nominee, 1932 doesn't make a very good comparison to 2008.  The reason, as DH himself admits, is that the needs of the American people are very different now from what they were then:


In 1932, the Depression dominated American life in ways that none of our current issues do.  The Republican failure to deal with that catastrophe was the dominant, nearly exclusive reason for the Democrats' huge victory in 1932.  Fortunately, no single issue dominates our lives the way the Depression did in 1932.


Americans in 1932 weren't voting for an inspiring candidate who promised "unity" or "an end to partisanship."  They were voting against a morally bankrupt administration that had proved incapable of dealing with a bona fide economic crisis, choosing in his place an experienced leader with a definite platform for change.  FDR's voters knew exactly what they were getting, down to the policy specifics, and that's exactly what they got; indeed, Roosevelt enacted many of his recovery plans within the first hundred days of his presidency.


Obama is a different kind of candidate, for a different kind of era.  Despite widespread opposition to the Iraq war, the dominant disillusionment of American voters today is cultural, not economic or policy-based.  They are looking for a leader who conveys some intangible cocktail of hope and inspiration, and by all accounts they are finding it in Obama.


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To illustrate this point, let's take a little detour down memory lane and compare Obama with a very different Presidential candidate -- Jesse Jackson, shown here in 1984.  We hear a lot about Obama's vaunted charisma, but let's face it -- this guy really puts him to shame.  Running on a platform (scroll down) almost identical to that of Dennis Kucinich today, Jackson managed to win five primaries as a dark horse in 1984; four years later, he terrified the establishment by winning 13 states and briefly leading national primary polls.  Watching this video, it's not hard to see why.  Jackson's passionate delivery takes his audience on a roller-coaster journey through a history of racial injustice, spouting specific policy proposals as he goes.  The audience is emotional, but Jackson is more so.  His campaign resembles a pyramid, with Jackson at the top, pulling the masses along on his spirited oratory.  "Reagan won Pennsylvania by the margin of despair, by the margin of the fracture of our coalition," he says, and we believe every word.


Compare this model of leadership with Obama's, expressed here in his Iowa victory speech.  Don't get me wrong -- Obama is a supremely talented orator in his own right, though his style does suffer a bit from the comparison with Jackson's.  But what does he really say in this speech?  He talks a lot about hope, but hope for what?  He never tells us; his policies and positions and even his intentions remain as securely under wraps as they have been from day one of his campaign.


Yet the most striking feature of this video is behavior of the crowd.  They are simply wild about Barack, and they show their support with a fervor bordering on hysteria.  Note the woman who shrieks, "Yes they did!" after Obama's very first line, "They said this day would never come."  The candidate is still getting warmed up at this point, but the crowd is already at a fever pitch, directing their adulation at the spot where they imagine Obama stands.  If Jackson brings his audience along with him to new heights of inspiration, Obama's crowd displays the same intensity as they bring Obama along with them.  If Jackson's candidacy is a pyramid, Obama's campaign is a donut -- a great big ring of inspired supporters projecting their hopes and dreams on an enigma in the center.


This picture of Obama is very different from that of FDR, who dominated his moment in a way Obama simply does not.  But it is strikingly similar to that of another candidate who ran, and won, twenty years before FDR did.


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When Woodrow Wilson was elected President in 1912, he was a two-year governor of New Jersey and the most famous college president in America.  By contrast, Wilson's opponents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft were, respectively, the former and sitting Presidents.  Roosevelt was riding high on a new platform of policy proposals, called the "New Nationalism," while Taft was defending his own record of what he called "legalism."  These two men were known quantities; Wilson was a charismatic unknown, a polished speaker but not nearly so forceful as Roosevelt nor so experienced as Taft.  As the only man in American history ever to run against two Presidents simultaneously, Wilson was outmatched, outgunned, and out-campaigned.  


And yet, Wilson managed to win the race by being all things to all people.  Like Obama does today, Wilson played throughout the campaign an excellent game of cat-and-mouse with the issues.  As does Obama's scant experience, Wilson's own short political history helped him evade questions on where he stood.  Additionally, Wilson had won the governorship of New Jersey because the people thought he was a Progressive reformer, while the local boss thought he would fall in line behind the boss system (and had good reason to think so, since Wilson promised him he would).  As soon as Wilson was elected, he dethroned the boss and shocked the staid world of New Jersey politics -- but there were still people for whom his willingness to work with a boss in the first place signaled an alignment with the moneyed interests.  So Wilson got himself into a perfect situation: Progressives thought he was a Progressive, while conservatives thought he was a conservative.  He was endorsed by Progressive Republican Bob La Follette and by the conservative Democratic bosses of Tammany Hall.  In an era in which the balance of power between President and Congress was a contentious issue (sound familiar?), Wilson had literally written treatises on both sides of the question.  In the end, Wilson simply gave good speeches and stayed away from the issues, and he won by a comfortable margin.


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Barack Obama, I suggest, would follow a similar electoral course were he to be nominated for the Presidency.  But now we come to the real value of this predictive model: can Wilson's history as President provide us any special insights into how Obama might govern?  I argue that it can.


Wilson was elected on a vague platform with wide-ranging support.  In addition, he had another advantage that Obama is also likely to possess: a substantial Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, but one under weak and divided leadership.  This provided Wilson with a stunning amount of power, since he was restrained neither by his campaign pledges nor by powerful Congressional leaders.


Most people interested in politics dream of broad governmental changes that they never really expect they'll get a chance to pass.  For instance, I support a scheme of radical trustbusting in local markets that would require a constitutional amendment to enact, but if I ran for President I'd never suggest such an outlandish idea, nor would I anticipate being able to pass the necessary legislation after I was elected.  Wilson, however, owing to the confluence of power he obtained in 1913, found himself with the unique ability to enact the sweeping changes that had been hiding in the recesses of his mind, and he quickly made the most of his opportunity.  Economic historians gush about the incredible advances made under Wilson: the establishment of the Federal Reserve and the passage of the Clayton Antitrust Act, the Underwood Tarriff, and the income tax (which did, in fact, require a constitutional amendment).  Wilson, his political stars perfectly aligned, seemed to be able to get this legislation through just by talking to its opponents until enough of them broke down and supported it to guarantee its passage.


However, Wilson's lack of political constraints also produced another, less positive outcome: he showed an uncanny tendency to be buffetted about by events, particularly in foreign policy.  From 1914 to 1916, Wilson invaded Mexico (twice) and the Dominican Republic, showing himself to be quite belligerent; in late 1916, he swung to the left and ran for reelection on a peace platform; barely five months later, he reversed himself and declared war on Germany; in 1919, he played peacemaker again at the Versailles conference.  Some of this flip-flopping was shrewd politics, but a lot more was merely heedless indecision, and while Wilson did resurface on the other end with a coherent foreign policy vision in 1919, his five years of floundering were perilous for Americans and foreigners alike.


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If we are to draw any lessons from a comparison between Obama and Wilson, these two would be at the top of the list: a President elected on a vague promise of change and hope, unrestrained by a competent Congress, is likely to be both more brilliant and more dangerous than other commanders-in-chief.  If nominated and elected, Obama will likely be a powerful executive animated by a cohesive vision and demonstrating an uncanny ability to turn that vision into reality.  However, he will also be unpredictable, the head of an administration subject in large part to his whims rather than to the political winds.  Such a leader represents a powerful tradeoff, because, though he can do incredible harm, he is also empowered to accomplish truly astonishing good.  If Obama is elected President, we must hope that he will find his way, more often than not, to the latter.

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    by Nonpartisan on Tue Jan 15, 2008 at 12:10:12 AM EST
    I am not currently supporting any candidate for President in 2008.

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