Obama won’t be Lincoln (or FDR) for quite some time

I have been extremely loath to write any post about the upcoming inauguration, mostly because I feel like there are far too many people that know so much more than me – and not just the analysts and journalists, but also even some of my classmates in school, friends from college – that I’ll just look like an idiot.  

As a history major, I have never subscribed to the idea that any event at a particular time is unique, and that past lessons are largely irrelevant.  I say “largely” because I can’t imagine any historian not agreeing with the whole “those that don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it” mantra.  At some point history is relevant.  But I have run into some through my intellectual travels (ie – dinner with friends) where the point has been made that the circumstances surrounding one event in history make it so unique that it is not applicable to current events (or other events in the timeline of history).  So Waterloo happens just once and is not relevant other than as a concept.

A lot has been made about President-elect Obama’s incoming administration and the comparison to Abraham Lincoln’s 150 years ago.  The “Team of Rivals” where Obama and Lincoln both built cabinets composed of his biggest political rivals, the national crises each has/had to face while entering office, and of course even the fact that both are from Illinois.

However, while these are not only already over exaggerated and hyped up at least for the sake of media and today’s tagline-hungry population (myself included to an extent – I certainly read the headers on my RSS feeder a lot, even when I think the article looks good), the differences are, in my opinion, so different that it merits consideration as a unique situation, where one cannot even compare the tremendous challenge facing Lincoln fairly.

First, for Obama, it might be worse.  Yes, it is hard to imagine something worse than a nation poised to tear itself apart with an incoming president, whomever it was, facing the almost inevitability of that event.  But Obama faces not one but two massive challenges.  The first is the economy, which is now a global one with tremendous cascading relationships and may in fact be tearing itself apart in many ways.  The second are the two military conflicts ongoing. One is a mess.  The other is perhaps more worrisome as a situation – once we get out of the mess, we then have to go full bore into the other one to finish it off properly.  And “finish it off” is ambiguous – find bin Laden?  Get “enough” of Al-Qaeda leadership?  What is enough?  I’m not sure the public entirely realize that we have to finish one then move forward on yet another one that hasn’t gotten enough attention for years now. 

The economy issue is closer to what FDR faced than anyone else.  No, we are not in full blow depression, with 20% unemployment for years on end.  But then again, FDR didn’t have to nationalize the largest insurance company in the world, take over the likes of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (nationalizing organization run essentially like private enterprises but backed by the government of course), nor institute what I believe are a $200 billion stimulus package, $700 billion (approved) rescue plan, and bailed out a number of banks that has all added up to something like $1.4 trillion so far.  And Obama has to sell the country on another $750 billion minimum, in my opinion (and that of many economists) and possibly a lot more.  He has to clear out a credit freeze, inject huge amounts of money into the financial system, work on infrastructure without being wasteful and then set everything back up for a final reconfiguration of … a whole lot of things ranging from banks to investment banks to regulation of both at some point in the future so that we don’t end up relying on this as a long-term solution.  

The fact that the economy is now so global is what makes this actually even closer to what FDR faced, despite the stats not being as bad (20% unemployment is insane).  But Obama has to pull up the entire world, essentially.  The EU and other nations will be able to do a lot on their own, of course, but if the US economy doesn’t pick up it doesn’t matter much what else others do.

FWIW – while I am not happy with the speed at which these rescue operations have occurred nor some of the decisions (Lehman Brothers was a mistake), I do believe that with enough injection of money the government can get out of this.  But I would not be surprised if it took 10 years. 

As for the wars, well, that’s actually not that much like Lincoln to be honest.  The resentment over the war was tearing the country apart for a long time but everyone dislikes it so maybe it’s a unifying force now.  But Obama has to somehow recommit everything back to Afghanistan – no easy task since it’s saying “let’s get out of this mess…and then get into the war we should have been doing all along.”  Kind of a hard pill to swallow.

So, in many ways, Obama isn’t like Lincoln.  And, remember this – Lincoln, himself, wasn’t “LINCOLN” until very late in his administration.  Yes, he was the one that gave the Gettysburg address the minute he gave it and a book on just his speeches would be a riveting one.  But like FDR, things didn’t pull out for the better until fairly late, when Grant took over and Lincoln was finally able to put down the Confederacy.  And even then…his dreams and plans for Reconstruction faded by the end of Andrew Johnson’s term.  Overcoming huge odds – that would already be a giant step.  Rebuilding from there would be a lot harder.  

That’s what I’ve been wanting to say for a while.

Comment (1)

  1. Debbie

    Interesting perspective. I have long had the opposite sense about history – that EVERY particular time is unique and that we are ALL living through history every day. It’s the small stuff, accumulated, that comprises the long-term trends, movements, cycles, and times on which history sheds its peculiar light.

    My acute sense of living in history was developed from many incidents through which I have lived, incidents that I knew, immediately and without doubt, would be in future history books. The campaign and election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 when I was 11 years old was the first I remember vividly. It was the first election to which I paid attention, and we had many school assignments to help us understand the process and formulate our own opinions on the issues. The Challenger shuttle explosion in 1986 when I was a junior in High School is another “instantly historical” moment for which I have very personal memories. My visit to the Berlin Wall in March of 1989 didn’t feel like history at the time, but I was there the week after the man who would end up being the last shot trying to cross to the West was shot. I knew immediately and emotionally in November of 1989 when the wall came down that I was living in history – and I could NOT understand why so many of my fellow college classmates were not as glued to the television as was I. And of course, I remember 9/11/01.

    Perhaps my sense of living in history also comes from my belief that every life is a story to tell. As a memory preservation coach who helps people organize and celebrate their memories, I am continually amazed at the rich significance of every person’s stories and memories.

    We are history. We make history. We live history. What’s your story?

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