An Analogy

I mentioned this analogy in my Twitter feed and was asked to explain it in a bit more detail: that Obama’s Presidency is increasingly resembling James Buchanan’s Presidency. Buchanan was the 15th President, holding office just before Abraham Lincoln and the outbreak of the Civil War.

Historians of the U.S., especially specialists on antebellum history, are welcome to complicate, reject or deepen the comparison. But the rough outline that I see is that Buchanan was regarded by his political colleagues as intelligent, articulate and erudite in matters of law and political procedure. E.g., he wasn’t an inert dud or incompetent like some other antebellum or late 19th Century Presidents.

He’s nevertheless commonly regarded as one of the worst Presidents in American history because of the way he chose to deal with the deepening crisis over slavery, states’ rights and secession. He entered office determined to broker a lasting compromise between the two sides, positioning himself as an uncommitted, neutral figure who could be a trustworthy arbiter. That stance ended up infuriating almost everyone involved in the conflict.

The basic error was that Buchanan approached American politics in procedural or legal terms at a moment when the reigning political conflicts in American life were no longer in any sense shaped or resolved by procedural or legal processes. He waited passively for legal decisions to determine his course of action, and when the Dred Scott decision dropped in his lap, he regarded that as the end of the matter. Open conflict in Kansas baffled him, and again he turned to a safely procedural answer (advocating that Kansas enter the Union as a slave state).

His worst moment in these terms was when he reacted to secession by characterizing it as illegal while maintaining that doing anything about secession would also be illegal. That’s pretty much the definition of clueless, of a basic incapacity to grasp the nature of the situation.

One point that’s important about the discussions shooting back and forth between various bloggers about liberals, neoliberals and the left is that the comparable error in the present moment is assuming that the political conflicts inside the Beltway are still being driven by rules, procedures or processes, either those that structure American governmental authority or those that supposedly drive individual behavior and calculation. There are a lot of differences between 1855 and today, but a key similarity is that the drivers of political conflict are not originating from within the long-standing rule-based norms of American political process nor are they mappable to some kind of rational, game-theoretic or utility-seeking calculations by powerful individuals.

As in 1855, there are moments of potent intersection between the complex social and cultural formations driving large-scale political conflict and the formal political system (remember, after all, that it was Lincoln’s election that was the final catalyst for secession). But any elected official who really wants to lead at this moment needs to stop paying attention to what’s going on inside the Beltway and start paying attention to what’s going on outside of it. Any meaningful action that involves an engagement with the grievances of Tea Party activists has to be aimed at trumping or bypassing the established rules of the game. In those circumstances, compromise for the sake of compromise, justified in the name of necessity or helplessness, doesn’t resolve anything. It just kicks an increasingly explosive can down the road a bit. Like Buchanan did, which I think justifies his reputation as the wrong leader at the wrong moment.

Just to twist the knife a bit: a leader who hopes to restore respect for procedure also would have to do a more consistent job of it than Obama has: he’s done very little to reign in extrajudicial or arbitrary uses of security and military power, very little to call back extreme assertions of executive supremacy by the Bush Administration. It’s the worst of all worlds, really: President Obama has done a good deal to actually reproduce the illiberal, anti-procedural initiatives of his predecessor in security matters and on questions of transparency while hamstringing his own ability to speak to and act meaningfully at larger sociopolitical scales where the nation is most agonizingly at odds with itself.

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8 Responses to An Analogy

  1. All of the metaphors, bedtime stories, and analogies you’ve trotted out in recent days, Tim, I think this one is your best. It lends support to the kind of democratic despair I’m feeling right now. Rather horrible to contemplate that Obama may turn out to have been a Buchanan rather than a Lincoln, and of course Buchanan never had anything like the ACA to his credit. But Obamacare may be washed away in the ugly economic and constitutional retrenchment which default may plausibly invite, so that would leave him with little to balance out the negative picture. Pretty sad.

  2. rob loftis says:

    Lincoln avoided Buchanan’s dithering compromises by forcefully taking one side in the conflict (the right side) and then fighting the bloodiest war in US history to uphold it.

    What would the contemporary analog of Lincoln do?

  3. Stephen Frug says:

    Sadly plausible, to my mind. Save that I don’t see a Lincoln anywhere in the wings.

    Yours is probably better, but the analogy I keep thinking of from roughly the same period is that Obama is to liberals like George McClellan was to the Union: on the right side, basically (he was in the military sense, but of course he was not actually a Republican or anti-slavery), but so cowardly and inept that he blew chance after chance to win and had to be replaced to get anything done. And, of course, McClellan ultimately betrayed his cause by running a campaign in 1864 that would have been tantamount to surrender (he pretended it wasn’t, but I think he mostly fooled himself); luckily he lost.

    Oh, and just by the by, since you said 1855 more than once: I’m probably missing something, but you do remember that Buchanan was president from March, 1857 to March, 1861, right?

  4. andrew says:

    Buchanan probably wasn’t the worst president ever, but his failure may have been the most consequential.

    A contemporary analog of Lincoln would need a contemporary analog of Lincoln’s Republican Party, which was then still new, energetic, and guided by fairly coherent and strongly held beliefs as to how a free country should work. That their platform later crashed when faced with the realities of free soil, free labor, and free men in an industrializing, corporatizing nation willing to turn its back on African-Americans in the south shouldn’t overshadow the fact that as a set of guiding principles in the 1850s and 1860s it was far better than the alternative.

    Without an analogous party or movement like that today, it doesn’t really matter what Lincoln’s analog would do. You’re probably better off hoping it’s more like 1850 than 1860, and that there’s a contemporary analog of a younger Lincoln waiting, working, preparing for the struggle ahead. Fortunately, in the world of analogies, that’s an easy switch to make.

  5. larssondj says:

    You raise a useful observation; the country’s mood does seem a little like the late 1850s, maybe even 1860. But I think it’s more because of the point you make here about the “ideologically coherent social movement with clear political aspirations” than it is about any similarity between Buchanan and Obama.

    Buchanan was the consummate insider. He had been trying for years to become president, and more than one Democratic president went out of his way to send Buchanan to another continent to remove him as a rival. Obama, in contrast, certainly campaigned as the opposite of an insider, accusing Hilary Clinton of being “Bush/Cheney Lite,” which may have been true, but certainly does seem true of the Obama Administration, at least in respect of Wall Street policy, war policy, and the power of the executive (I’m not even sure it’s “Lite).

    I think the real similarity is between the Tea Party (or, more specifically, the people with power and money who seek the rise of the Tea Party and politicians like Paul Ryan) and the “Slave Power.

  6. BillWAF says:

    This is a bad comparison. Buchanan was pro-South and pro-slavery. Some would argue that he committed treason during the run-up to the Civil War. I am not sure about that charge, but it is clear some in his administration did commit treason. Alex Cockburn and “Counterpunch” may be right that Obama is actually a conservative who liked the outcome of the debt ceiling deal, but he does not seem to be a member of the tea party.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    But Buchanan, from what we can tell, didn’t see himself that way, and it didn’t seem to be his intent to be pro-South and pro-slavery, only to resolve the conflict with a negotiated, procedural solution. You’re basically taking the view at the time, agreed upon by most since, that Buchanan’s actions amounted to being pro-South and pro-slavery whatever his intention.

  8. Tom says:

    @ Stephen Frug

    You painted McClellan as “inept” which he most certainly was not. McClellan was a wizard of logistics who built the damn Army of the Potomac and instilled it with confidence after Bull Run. Clearly though, he was not an effective battlefield commander by any means. But someone who was truly “inept” at command could never have displayed the administrative prowess that McClellan did.

    He is not an apt comparison to Obama either. McClellan’s primary failing was his supreme and often times ludicrous caution……(sending cables back to Washington putting the rebel army at 200,000 men, for instance). But he wasn’t actively working for the Confederate States.

    Obama isn’t cautious, he is deceptive. He isn’t cowardly, he is enacting the agenda he has wanted all along. Obama isn’t playing for the tea party, but he isn’t playing for anyone making under $200,000 a year either…..You know, the people the democrats largely claim to represent?

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