During Barack Obama’s first hundred days, history has provided pundits and politicians with a grab bag of analogies. Obama himself has invoked Abraham Lincoln and put him on a pedestal. I’m not speaking figuratively: a bust of the sixteenth president sits on the same plinth in the Oval Office where Obama’s predecessor had displayed a sculpture of Winston Churchill. Obama has also cited Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, an analysis of Lincoln’s complex relationships with leading members of his cabinet, as a model for his own style of presidential leadership. Journalists have compared the youth and idealism of Obama and his supporters to John F. Kennedy’s Camelot, and fashionistas have twittered about the dashing Michelle being a latter-day Jackie (with sinewy biceps). Still others have suggested that Obama embodies Reagan’s charisma while reclaiming Reaganesque paeans to national greatness for the Democrats. A few wags have tried to burst the bubble of hope by comparing Obama to Jimmy Carter, another Washington outsider and intellectual who promised sweeping change but whose mandate collapsed under the weight of recession, malaise and crisis in the Middle East.
Barack Lincoln. Barack H. Kennedy. Barack Carter. Barack Reagan. None have captured the imagination of editorialists, bloggers and journalists like Barack Delano Roosevelt. A recent New Yorker illustration portrayed the forty-fourth president chin up in the Rooseveltian fashion, exuberant and self-confident, a cigarette holder clenched in his teeth. In this version of history-as-analogy, Obama’s fight against the “Great Recession” will restore a faith in government that has been wholly discredited by the disastrous policies of George W. Hoover. Obama’s most fervent supporters hope that the president’s stimulus package and ambitious budget will launch a “new New Deal” designed to restore confidence in the financial system, curb unemployment, revivify the housing market and rebuild America’s decaying highways and schools. The Obama-Roosevelt analogy is compelling–until you remember that history does not repeat itself. It is not cyclical. And it seldom offers easy lessons for the present. Ultimately, the differences between FDR and BHO and their respective eras are as instructive as the similarities.
Each generation has drawn its own lessons from the New Deal. The first wave of New Deal histories were written by unabashed Democrats during the 1950s and early 1960s, when liberalism seemed invincible. The eminent historian and Washington courtier Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. popularized the heroic interpretation of Roosevelt with a triple-decker history in which the New Deal represents the full flowering of an American political tradition of strong executive power and visionary leadership rooted in the Age of Jackson. FDR created the modern American state, offering a pragmatic, humane alternative to the radical individualism and anti-statism that had long hindered the fulfillment of the American promise of equality and opportunity.