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Obama Goes from Lincolnian to Carteresque

The November 7, 2008 broadcast of PBS’s Charlie Rose featured a conversation with David Remnick of the New Yorker and historians Alan Brinkley and Michael Beschloss.

“The extraordinary outpouring of celebration, joy, and hope all over the world at this election is something I could never have imagined in my lifetime,” according to Professor Brinkley. “There’s a discipline to Obama that is so extraordinary,” he raved. And then he added: “I don’t think we’ve had a president since Lincoln who has the oratorical skills that Obama has. Obama has that quality that Lincoln had.”

Mr. Remnick also compared Obama’s rhetorical skills to Lincoln. The campaign also “shows him in a decision-making mold that is very encouraging.” Obama demonstrated a “receptivity to ideas outside the frame” and possesses a “worldview that allows for complexity.” He “assumes a maturity in the American public” and possesses “great audacity.” Not to believe Obama’s election will have “enormous effect” on the streets of Cairo, or Nairobi, or Jerusalem is “naive.” It continued in this vein until Remnick finally had to say, “We’ll climb out of the tank soon.” (For the record, Remnick never has.) 

I mention that discussion for several reasons. The first is that as a general matter it’s not wise to compare any person to Lincoln, particularly before they’ve even taken office, which was the case during this 2008 discussion. Second, Obama had achieved nothing in his life that deserved these types of encomiums. It didn’t matter. Journalists and historians were besotted by the Myth of Obama, not the reality. But now that we’re four years and four months into the Obama presidency, reality has set in. And let’s just say that Mr. Obama has lost some distance to Lincoln in the race for the greatest president in American history. Quite some distance, in fact.

One example: In the Daily Beast, the influential Democratic political consultant Bob Shrum has written a column in which the best defense he can offer the president in the context of the IRS scandal is this:

For the White House, there is no crime here, there is no scandal, no matter how feverishly, irresponsibly, or demagogically the GOP labors to concoct one. This is not a case of Nixonian indifference to the Constitution, the law, and the president’s oath of office. But it does look like a reprise of Cartersque incompetence, increasingly so as we learn more about how the White House staff handled—or mishandled—a crisis they knew was coming… For the White House, the problem here resembles Carter, not Nixon.

This critique echoes the comments made to CBS’s Sharyl Attkisson by an Obama administration official, who told her in the context of the Benghazi scandal, “We’re portrayed by Republicans as either being lying or idiots. It’s actually closer to us being idiots.”

Before he took office, we were told time and again that Obama was a Lincolnian figure. Now that he’s been in office and demonstrated his governing skills, his strongest liberal supporters and his own staff are defending the president by insisting that we have a White House that is being run by Carteresque idiots.

Welcome to reality. 



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