by Aaron David Miller
With only 43 different presidents, (44 to account for Grover Cleveland’s two non-consecutive terms), there’s a natural tendency to compare and contrast our chief executives. The presidential rating game is alternately fun, silly and even potentially rewarding and educational.
But the game can also be downright misleading and even potentially dangerous, particularly in cases when we think one President is very much like another in style or in the circumstances they confront. Indeed, all presidents have exemplars, but sometimes the shoe fits better for some than for others.
One presidential pair where the shoe never quite fit was the Barack Obama/FDR comparison. And yet, had you looked at the media coverage during the latter days of the campaign and right after the 2008 election, you might have been persuaded that the country was about to get another FDR moment. Time featured Obama on its November 24, 2008 cover as FDR complete with fedora, cigarette holder, sitting inside a 1930s roadster with the headline “The New New Deal.” Journalist Peter Beinart likened Obama’s coalition to FDR’s and talked of his prospects to save capitalism—much like FDR—by making it more stable and less savage. And it was the inestimable Rahm Emanuel echoing the FDR-like trope from the 1930s that “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” False analogies were bound to generate false hopes and raise expectations to levels that were dangerously outsized and unrealizable.
There’s no doubt that President Obama—like Roosevelt—believed that the crises the nation confronted offered him a chance to be an historic game changing leader and that the country was ready for transformation. At the end of 2011 he told Steve Croft of “60 Minutes” that with the possible exception of Johnson and FDR, “I would put our legislative and foreign policy accomplishments in our first two years against any president.” Without undermining Obama’s achievements, it’s fair to say that things didn’t quite work out that way. I remember the wonderful line from the 1988 Dan Quayle-Lloyd Bentsen vice presidential debate when Bentsen picking up on Quayle’s self reference to JFK, coolly replied: “I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
So, why is the Obama/FDR comparison so wildly exaggerated and inappropriate? In my new book, The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (And Doesn’t Want) Another Great President, I identify what I consider to be the 3C’s required for greatness in the presidency: crisis, capacity and character. Bottom line, FDR had them in sufficient quantities; Barack Obama did not. And that more than anything else undermined the relevance and accuracy of the comparison.
Crisis: The most important difference between the two was the circumstances they inherited, specifically the severity of the crisis. Because in the end it was the nature of their respective challenges that would set the stage for what was possible politically.
Obama inherited a deep downturn but one not nearly as calamitous as FDR’s. Obama faced unemployment of 8.1% in 2008; FDR’s jobless numbers were 25%. In 1933, GDP was 30% below normal; Obama’s recession GDP was 5-10%. Between 1930 and 1933, over 9,000 American banks failed, 50% of the total; between December 2007 and May 2009, 57 went under, roughly 0.6% of the total. By July 1932, the Dow had declined 89.2%; between October 2007 and March 2009, Obama’s Dow had fallen 53.8%.
The stats, however, tell only part of the story. The Great Depression—the “granddaddy of all economic downturns”—witnessed breadlines in every major American city, despair, hopelessness, rising extremism and violence. The Great Recession remains a terrible tragedy for millions of Americans who lost homes and jobs and carried grave implications for long-term growth, particularly in the area of employment. But the existence of a social and economic safety net (courtesy of Roosevelt) and more coordinated fiscal and monetary policies (as a consequence of lessons learned from the Great Depression) offered a much stronger foundation to weather the crisis. “We are starting from a position,” Christine Romer, head of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, noted in 2009, “far stronger than our parents and grandparents were in 1933.”
At the same time, the severity of Roosevelt’s crisis gave him political advantages. The Great Depression shocked the nation, stunned the political class and made it easier for a president with the right policy and political instincts to master the politics of a transformation in the role of government in public life. Indeed, even though three-quarters of America’s work force held jobs (a fact often overlooked in Depression lore) there was an overwhelming sense that the country was at the edge of a precipice. Since the civil war there were few periods darker than the winter of 1933. Roosevelt had a nation-encumbering crisis that generated real urgency and thus gave him more latitude and room to maneuver.
If Roosevelt’s crisis and challenges were much deeper, so was his capacity to deal with them. FDR was a deeply experienced politician with the best resume in the presidential business since his distant cousin Teddy. As Assistant Secretary of the Navy and Governor of New York he had actually run things, even though administration wasn’t his strong suit. And as controlling a leader as he was, he had a deep bench of talented advisers ready and willing to experiment and innovate.
He confronted a Great Depression that was already three years old; the nation had been hammered and battered and was ready for far reaching action. FDR had huge Democratic majorities in Congress; and as Michael Hiltzik points out in his book The New Deal: A Modern History, Congress frequently pushed FDR for more federal action than he was at times willing to offer. Contrast that with the situation that Barack Obama confronted on the Hill.
Moreover, FDR had some short-term success. His hodgepodge economic policies couldn’t break the Great Depression; but by 1936 government action seemed to be working. Unemployment had fallen by ten points; real GDP had increased by 13%; and industrial production had surpassed its July 1929 peak. The economic crisis would worsen again in the 1937 Roosevelt recession, but FDR had instilled enough confidence that matters seemed to be improving.
Then, there was his wartime leadership, which alone would have earned him a spot in the pantheon of America’s great presidents. Indeed, FDR would preside over America’s last good war, a conflict that was undeniably worth waging and whose result left the nation stronger at home and abroad, the last war to claim such a distinction. Contrast the world FDR confronted with the one Obama faced. The former gave Roosevelt an opportunity to demonstrate his leadership skills; the latter reflected an environment in which President Obama has been attacked and criticized for being leaderless.
Finally, there’s the matter of character. William Leuchtenburg, the dean of the Roosevelt historians told NPR he thought he had heard echoes of FDR in Obama’s 2008 Inaugural. Two years later Jonathan Alter would write in his book The Promise that Obama “was in the company of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson now in terms of domestic achievement, a figure of history far beyond the color of his skin.” But for all the putative comparisons, Obama wasn’t FDR. He lacked FDR’s political skills, his love of politics, his willingness to risk, his clarity and simplicity of message and that infectious confidence that in time things for Americans would improve. But even more than this was FDR’s willingness to fight and to attack his opponents if necessary. He was, biographer Jean Edward Smith argues, “a divider, not a uniter, and he unabashedly waged class war.” Obama, historian David Brinkley suggests, projected “cool rationalism”; FDR, on the other hand, “fierce emotion.” That strengthened Roosevelt politically, and despite his willingness to bend and triangulate too left his supporters clear about where he stood on the issues most important to them and to the nation as a whole. Of course the times demanded as much; and who FDR was as a leader made it possible.
In the end that remains the reasons for the fundamental difference. FDR reached for greatness and achieved it because the crisis he faced and his own character and capacity made it doable. President Obama could look to FDR as an exemplar and borrow the themes and tropes of his times and his presidency. But as the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger concludes, no one could teach Obama how to actually be FDR.
AARON MILLER is vice president for New Initiatives and a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. For two decades, he served as an adviser to Republican and Democratic Secretaries of State. His pieces on the presidency have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Politico, and Foreign Policy, and he appears regularly on CNN, CNN International, NPR, Fox, MSNBC, CBS, NBC, and BS NewsHour, as well as BBC and Canadian Broadcasting. His latest book is The End of Greatness.