If, as planned, I had written this post yesterday, it would have gone much differently. I was prepared to denounce the oversaturation of Obama/Lincoln and Obama/Roosevelt comparisons in the lead up to Barack Obama's inauguration. Instead, I would argue, we should be noting the similarities between the time in which our first president, George Washington, came to power, and the one in which our 44th is now entering the White House. Washington made colonists Americans, I would write, and Obama has reaffirmed their citizenship. As Joseph J. Ellis describes in his fantastic biography His Excellency: George Washington, in 1789 Washington completed the New England leg of his tour of the twelve colonies (Rhode Island was still the lone holdout at the time):
Everywhere he went the residents turned out in droves to glimpse America's greatest hero parading past. And everywhere he went New Englanders became Americans, at least for the duration of his visit... Whatever sectional suspicions New Englanders might harbor toward that faraway thing called the federal government, when it appeared in their local neighborhoods in the majestic form of George Washington, they saluted, cheered, toasted, and embraced it as their own.
I would have argued that just as Washington "walk[ed] on untrodden ground," so, too, does Obama. Pundits' comparisons of Obama to Lincoln almost always focus on there being a cavernous split in the country at their respective times of gaining power -- violence, conflict, and war (the "team of rivals" idea is something Washington more or less did within his own cabinet as well, so I'll leave that talking point out). Their comparisons between Obama and Roosevelt most always remain tied to the financial struggles affecting the country when both ascended to office -- unemployment, poverty, and depression. But Obama's woes, or tests, are possibly greater than both Lincoln's and Roosevelt's combined. Not to take away from the greatness of these great presidents, but both were largely facing only one troubling front upon entering office (though admittedly other troubles did later arise for both presidents). Starting today, Obama must deal with the economic collapse of our country as well as two, if not untenable, then seemingly unwinnable wars, all while being the first African-American president. Untrodden ground? I couldn't think of any so fresh.
Washington was at times an Atlas-like figure, called into service to hold the fledgling country atop his shoulders so it could rest above the muck and mire that ran so deep in the years leading up to and following our quest for independence. Do we not ask the same of Obama? Do we not ask him to hold us tight and carry us through these uncertain times?
George Washington lent a steady hand when the country was at its shakiest, and a wise mind when its people were all but lost. Barack Obama, I would have written yesterday, looks to be just as steady, and his mind to be just as wise.
That is what I would have said. And don't get me wrong, I still believe these words, I would still argue them until I was blue in the face. But, after yesterday's inaugural speech, in which Obama himself referred to the "father of our nation," the line of thinking has changed for many, and already the parallels are being drawn between the two. But despite some very true and obvious links between the two, I fear many will go overboard in these comparisons and overlook key differences -- a disservice to both.
As great as George Washington was, he could have been better. As great a general as he was, his stubbornness in battle needlessly cost a lot of men their lives. As great a president as he was, his aloofness and desire to stay above the political fray at times jeopardized necessary actions. As great a leader as he was, his lapse in moral direction in regards to slavery is a sizable stain on his largely unblemished record. Washington was a great man, and without him it's more than likely none of us would be here today. But despite the deification that started in his time and has been woven throughout our history, he was also just a man.
Barack Obama is also just a man (chalk one up for the comparison crew). But whereas Washington took on the presidency as a reluctant servant (he did not want to risk damaging his legacy, nor did the idea of spending his twilight years away from his beloved plantation, locked in political battle, particularly appeal to him), Obama has sought it out, and overcome the odds, like no other. Obama's legacy is not at risk here -- this is his legacy. So while Washington preferred to leave some of the harder questions to others (essentially calling for a moratorium on the debate over slavery until 1808, long after his presidency would end and, as it would turn out, his death), Obama does not strike me as the type who will shy away from tough decisions. During his campaign, he met every challenge head on, be it a question of race, experience, or the company he has kept over the course of his life. There is little reason to believe his strategy and instincts will change once safely ensconced within the confines of the Oval Office.
Despite the neonatal state of the country, the start of Washington's presidency was slow and relatively unharried. As Ellis writes,
Not much happened at the executive level during the first year of Washington's presidency, which was exactly the way he wanted it... It was not clear whether [Washington] was taking the helm or merely occupying the bridge. Rumors began to circulate that he regarded his role as primarily ceremonial and symbolic, that after two years he intended to step down, having launched the American ship of state and contributed his personal prestige as ballast on its maiden voyage.There will be no such rumors regarding Obama's presidency, nor such luxury of an unencumbered year to get settled. Obama punched his time sheet at noon yesterday, and won't be clocking out any time soon.
Obama's insistence of "one president at a time" notwithstanding, his transition team was the quickest to form in recent memory, and his voice the most sought-after of any president-elect perhaps ever. And as soon as Bush stepped aboard that helicopter yesterday, the new administration raised the sails, and Obama donned his captain's hat. Even his critics could not argue that Obama will be ineffective or hands-off, as another President George may have been in recent years.
I do not mean to say that Barack Obama is a greater man than George Washington, and I certainly do not mean to say that he is a greater president (the very idea of comparing one's single day in office with another's eight years is laughable). Rather, I wish to make it clear that despite our natural inclination to compare him to those who have come before, there really is no precedent for Barack Obama to follow -- not in the 18th Century with Washington, not in the 19th Century with Lincoln, and not in the 20th Century with Roosevelt. Obama is truly breaking new ground here. And you know what? I doubt he's the slightest bit worried about having to forge ahead on his own. And it's that unique confidence that gives me comfort in these troubling times.