Streetwise Professor

March 12, 2010

Woodrow Obama

Filed under: Politics — The Professor @ 11:04 pm

The analogy is not exact—historical analogies never are—but there is more than a passing similarity between Obama’s health care battle and Woodrow Wilson’s campaign for the League of Nations; there are also striking similarities between the men themselves.  Obama should mark well the lesson—but I doubt he will.

Like Wilson, Obama is a self-styled progressive who is deeply skeptical of the Founders’ creation.  Like Wilson, Obama is firmly convinced of his own rectitude and his moral superiority over his political foes.  As with Wilson, this makes Obama firmly opposed to compromise with these foes; he views compromise as betrayal of a fundamental belief, and as Wilson did, he views his opponents as morally defective.  Obama, like Wilson, is a Nobel Peace Price winner (although Wilson actually did something to merit it).

When faced with a political battle over a deeply divisive issue about which he self-righteously believed himself on the side of the angels, and his opponents allied with the devil, Wilson refused to compromise with Republicans on the League of Nations.  Before this, Wilson had refused to include prominent Republicans in the American peace delegation to Versailles, making it a purely Wilsonian creation in which the opposition party had no stake, and hence could readily oppose.  Wilson assumed that since the League was a righteous thing, Americans would support it; he did not take seriously the misgivings of many Americans, considering them either ill-willed or uninformed. Faced with the prospect of defeat of his cherished goal in the Senate, Wilson embarked on a whirlwind speaking tour in attempt to rally support.  He failed.  The public was not swayed.  The initiative failed in the Senate.  And Wilson’s health was broken in the attempt, leaving him an invalid for the remainder of his term in office.

Does this sound eerily familiar?  Republicans were effectively excluded from the entire process of drafting a health care bill.  When his initiative ran into trouble, Obama refused even to contemplate compromise with those he deems to be morally deficient.  Obama also fails to take the widespread unpopularity of his pet initiative seriously, dismissing the widespread popular opposition as ignorant or malicious.  As the battle is reaching its climax, Obama has embarked on a Wilson-esque national speaking campaign in a last ditch effort to prevail.  God willing, the effort will not cost him his health, but the Wilsonian parallels are clear.

One major difference is that Wilson fought his League battle politically weakened after Republican electoral triumphs in the 1918 midterm elections, which Wilson himself had nationalized as a referendum on his presidency.  Obama and his party face a rout in the 2010 vote in similarly nationalized elections that will be a referendum too, but this presents different challenges than Wilson faced.

Wilson’s failure to compromise on the League—a failure rooted in his progressivism, overweening self-confidence, and belief in his moral superiority to his political opponents—is considered one of the greatest failures by an American president.  Obama may well succeed (though I pray he does not) in the narrow sense of seeing his initiative passed into law, but regardless of whether he does or not, he and his party will reap a political whirlwind.  Wilson’s political misjudgment cost America, and the world, in the balance of the 20th century.  Obama’s political misjudgment is likely to be very expensive for America in the balance of the 21st.

It would be wise for Obama to learn from Wilson’s example.  But his Wilsonian personality makes it almost inevitable that he will not.  He will pay a price, but the rest of us will pay a much greater one.

Marx said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.  We are at risk of repeating history, and we would be lucky indeed if farce is the worst that comes of Obama’s imitation of the Wilsonian precedent.

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  1. […] Streetwise Professor » Woodrow Obama […]

    Pingback by Obama says he will push for education overhaul – Reuters : World online news — March 13, 2010 @ 7:02 am

  2. This is a ridiculous comparison. Obama has already compromised on the majority of what he felt important in health care reform. What little remains is infinitely better than what we have now.

    By the way, what exactly did Wilson do to “earn” the Nobel? Haven’t you ranted against that in the past as well? Is that why you fail to mention what is was?

    Comment by George — March 19, 2010 @ 7:32 am

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