Daniel W. Drezner

The search for the correct presidential analogy continues

In yesterday’s Boston Globe, James Verini trotted out the latest historical analogy for Barack Obama, arguing that the president he’s really like is George H.W. Bush. If you read the article, however, you’ll see that Verini’s argument is primarily based on how the events are similar, rather than the men: In the first year of ...

In yesterday’s Boston Globe, James Verini trotted out the latest historical analogy for Barack Obama, arguing that the president he’s really like is George H.W. Bush. If you read the article, however, you’ll see that Verini’s argument is primarily based on how the events are similar, rather than the men:

In the first year of Bush’s term, he was beset by three unforeseen calamities that are eerily resonant. First was the savings & loan crisis…

Then, in the spring of 1989, student-led protestors began assembling in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and in June Chinese police and soldiers took to beating and murdering them. Like Obama, Bush came into office with higher than average respect from foreign leaders, but he had to shelve plans to improve American-Chinese relations, a blow to his larger ambitions to redefine American engagement with the Communist world…

That didn’t turn as many people against him as what was, until this year, the worst man-made natural disaster in American history. In March of 1989 the Exxon Valdez spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound… Bush, a former oilman, bore only somewhat less blame than Exxon.

Jump to 2009-10: The Troubled Asset Relief Program and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, otherwise known as the stimulus, are seen by many Americans as bailouts, not legitimate attempts to stave off economic catastrophe. (TARP was created by the George W. Bush administration, but according to recent polls two-thirds of Americans attribute it to Obama.) Obama, who has arrived in office with the hopes of foreign leaders and populations riding high, wants to redefine relations with, most of all, the Muslim world, but before he has the chance there are protests, and then violent crackdowns, in Tehran. (Unlike the crisis Carter faced in 1979, this was not a revolution, and the Iranian government was in no danger of crumbling.) He is criticized for not expressing enough support for the protestors, criticism that pales in comparison to that of his handling of the BP oil spill.

George H. W. Bush came into office facing what many economists called the worst economic downturn since the Depression, accompanied by a collapse in the real estate market and a Wall Street racked by scandal and stock market decline. He succeeded a president, Ronald Reagan, who staked his reputation on limited government while expanding it in certain costly areas, particularly the military, leaving record deficits…

Twenty years later, Obama followed on the heels of a self-proclaimed Reagan Republican whose tenure ended in straits like those Reagan’s had…

I really don’t think this holds up terribly well for a number of reasons. I don’t know which economists called the 1989 "downturn" the worst since the Great Depression, but I’m sure they were smoking something not looking at all of the data. That downturn wasn’t even the worst one of the 1980’s — the 1982 recession was far more severe in its effects. Plus, beginning with the fall of 1989 the Bush administration started reaping unparalleled foreign policy developments — the collapse of Eastern European communism, the release of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, the cresting of the third wave of democratization, yada, yada, yada.

Still, Verini’s essay points to the ways in which humans can’t help but search for historical analogies to try to explain the present day. We’re hard-wired to look for patterns like this, even if they are exaggerated. Indeed, I’ve just spent a week of conferencing about the future of the global political economy in which various historical analogies were deployed to explain the current moment. It’s possible that I contributed to this analogy-fest just as much as I consumed others.

I’ll get to those historical analogies in a later post, but for now, I’ll leave it to readers — which past U.S. president do you think Barack Obama evokes?

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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