The Obama Analogy Trap

In the couple of days between the arrival of that fateful Rolling Stone article and President Barack Obama's firing of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, one pundit after another asked if this would be Obama's "Truman-MacArthur moment." It was just the latest in a long line of historical analogies into which people attempted to fit Obama. While it would be hard to prove with any certainty, it does seem that this presidency has seen more historical analogizing than those of the past. Why is that?

Before we answer that question, let's just run down a few of the comparisons. Is the BP oil spill Obama's Katrina? Is Elena Kagan his Harriet Miers? Was his recent Oval Office address his "malaise" speech? Did he have a "Mission Accomplished moment" on Iraq? In recent days, Fox News personalities in particular have compared Obama's actions to Iraq, September 11, Enron, "Heckuva job, Brownie," and even George W. Bush reading "The Pet Goat" while airplanes hit the Twin Towers (see a montage from The Daily Show here).

Which gives us the first clue about why these analogies are so prevalent in public debate: They're made most often by people who want to cast the present in the worst possible light. As Jon Stewart noted, it's awfully ironic for conservatives to be saying, in effect, that Obama is so bad he's like the president they spent eight years defending. One purpose of the historical analogy is to take today's controversial issue and cram it into a box where one interpretation dominates. We all agree that Katrina was a gigantic failure of leadership and competence. So if the oil spill is Obama’s Katrina, then we’ve all agreed that he’s a failure, too. While we do occasionally have renewed arguments about history (not long ago, some conservatives tried to make the case that the New Deal made the Depression worse), the analogies almost always refer to events about which there is a consensus on how to understand them. They're meant not to expand debate but to narrow it.

Of course, no analogy permits less debate than the right's current obsession, Hitler. Godwin's Law may state that the longer an online discussion proceeds, the greater the likelihood someone will invoke Hitler, but today's conservative pundit seems to reach for Nazis right from the beginning, whether the topic is health-care reform, financial regulation, fighting obesity (Hitler advocated physical fitness!), or convincing BP to set aside an escrow fund for the oil-spill victims. The Hitler analogy has an almost unique ability to banish all rational thought, which is the reason why it is so often used. If a current event really is like World War II, then every decision has only one option. If Saddam Hussein is Hitler, then negotiating to avoid war is appeasement, and war is inevitable. If liberals are really fascists in disguise, then their policy ideas don't need to be taken seriously; they just need to be fought. If Obama is Hitler, then all we should be debating is which tactics would best stop him.

You could argue that in today's decontextualized din of information, we have trouble understanding a new event unless someone tells us, "It's like that other thing you kind of remember." That may be an exaggeration, but what is true is that there's only so far back you can go to produce a resonant analogy, because our memories are so short. As time passes, a presidency gets reduced to a few very simple concepts. Ask Americans what Franklin Roosevelt did, and they'll all come up with the same three or four ideas -- the New Deal, fireside chats, "Nothing to fear but fear itself" (many of those remnants are about rhetoric). But Bush is the president we remember best. The details of his eight years are still fresh in our mind, so it's easiest to come up with analogies to his administration that will actually make sense to the audience.

Which is why the MacArthur analogy didn't get very far -- not only were the situations very different, but more important, people don't quite remember what that controversy was about. It happened 58 years ago, and if you do remember it, chances are that about the best you can recall is that it had something to do with Korea. (For the record, Harry Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur after MacArthur complained publicly about Truman's unwillingness to follow MacArthur's plan to expand the Korean War into China.)

Another reason this presidency may be so ripe for historical analogizing is that after the Obama campaign, the Obama administration was bound to be a letdown. The campaign was something truly extraordinary -- a walk into the light after eight years of anger and frustration, led by a candidate who seemed to be everything progressives had wished for all their political lives: a thoughtful, intelligent politician who was also a brilliant strategist running circles around Republicans, and the embodiment of racial reconciliation to boot. His campaign deftly used new technologies and weaved a brilliant narrative, bringing meaning to the election. Not least, he was a stunning orator whose speeches could make you feel that you were part of history -- not a spectator watching it on television, or a student learning about it after it was over, but an actual participant in events that would be long remembered.

During that campaign, few felt the need to compare what was going on to some prior series of events. It was so obviously unique, so obviously historic, that to do so would make it less meaningful, not more. We didn't need a memory of something else to place it in an understandable context; the campaign created its own context.

It's nearly impossible to create that beautiful narrative arc out of the process of governing, which has no climactic end date and is not about the hope of what we might do but about the messy reality of what we're actually doing now. One day, we'll compare another president's successes and failures to Barack Obama's. But in the meantime, the search for historical parallels almost never helps us understand the present any better than we already do.

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