11/09/2011 03:42 pm ET Updated Jan 09, 2012

Is Obama the New Nixon?

Both political parties will cringe at the comparison, but the parallels are mounting between Richard Nixon, Republican president from 1968 to 1974, and the current resident of the White House, Barack Obama.

Start with brains. For raw candlepower, not many presidents have been in a league with Nixon or Obama. Their academic talents led both to the meritocratic world of the law, where they won distinction as students at elite schools. Nixon's student article in the Duke Law Journal was required reading in my first-year torts class, while Obama famously was the first non-white president of the Harvard Law Review.

As politicians, both had to overcome the detached, cerebral styles of legal analysis, which they had found so natural. Nixon's awkwardness in public settings could be painful to watch, while critics increasingly target Obama's aloofness as a major cause of his sagging popularity.

As leaders with greater gifts of intellect than empathy, Nixon and Obama each adopted policy initiatives usually identified with the opposing party.

The Nixon administration saw the greatest growth in environmental protection laws in our history -- including the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. To battle inflation, the Republican Nixon imposed economy-wide wage and price controls that came far closer to the socialist structures that Obama is often accused of inflicting on an unsuspecting America.

Similarly, Obama has embraced a variety of his opponents' policy demands, including the authorization of offshore drilling and maintaining the Guantanamo detention facility for an apparently indefinite future. On the all-important challenge of the economy, Obama tilts strongly toward Republican demands for deficit reduction rather than the renewed economic stimulus urged by many Democrats.

Both achieved foreign policy successes -- Nixon in China, Obama in the war against Al Qaeda and the Libyan revolt -- with greater impact on history than on the electorate.

To sustain their political popularity, both men deployed populist-tinged, us-versus-them appeals. Nixon pronounced himself the choice of the "silent majority" that supposedly supported the Vietnam War and disdained the era's counterculture. Expressing sympathy with the Occupy Wall Street movement, Obama has tried to identify himself as battling, on behalf of the nation, against the richest elites.

Though these similarities are striking, perhaps the strongest quality the two presidents have shared is their ability to stir their political opponents to irrational rage. Nixon's name became an imprecation in liberal circles, while the Right has transformed Obama into a prefix for policies it wants to scuttle (viz., "Obamacare").

In 1972, a disgusted Democratic party demanded ideological fervor from its presidential candidate and ended up with the zealous but unelectable Senator George McGovern of South Dakota.

In this presidential election cycle, Tea Party Republicans have flitted from conservative standard-bearer to conservative standard-bearer: from Michelle Bachmann to Rick Perry to Herman Cain to ... who knows? Their desperate search continues for someone who can articulate and embody their visceral revulsion with Barack Obama.

We've seen this movie before. We know how it ends. In the voting booth, more Americans will go with cool calculation than with passionate ideology.

Four more years.