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.