Barack, Meet James
He was a man who spent considerable time overseas, who turned away from a promising career in law, who rose above the partisan politics of his time and was unsullied by the raucous politics of the decade prior to his election as President of the United States.
But he became a President who dithered while the republic was torn to its core by controversial domestic issues, whose promise was overwhelmed by the realities of the office, and who was either unable (for gross incompetence) or unwilling (a clear dereliction of duty) to deal with attacks on American property and officials.
The man I write about is Barack Obama, whose decision to push an unwanted and unpopular healthcare overhaul law on the American people upended the political landscape and whose handling of the Benghazi terror attack is dictated more by waiting out the clock on November’s election than it is by fulfilling his most sacred Constitutional duty of providing for the common defense. With an eye to our past, history tells us that this description also belongs to another president, consistently rated as among the nation’s worst: James Buchanan.
Much has been made of President Obama’s similarities to Jimmy Carter: the stagnant economy, a failed energy policy, ballooning deficits, and a feckless foreign policy. These comparisons are fresh in the minds of many voters, having lived through the Carter years themselves. However, in the presidency of James Buchanan we find a more apt historical comparison, albeit shrouded by the mists of time.
James Buchanan was a seasoned lawyer, spending years in the service of his country as Secretary of State and Minister to both Russia and Great Britain. Somewhat fortuitously for his political career, Buchanan’s foreign service kept him separate and apart from the sectional politics that embroiled the nation over the issue of slavery. He simply wasn’t in the country during many of the controversial and bloody years leading up his election in 1856. He was the ideal compromise candidate in an era of fierce partisanship and remained a blank slate to the electorate as he assumed the White House in 1857.
President Obama burst onto the political scene in 2004 with an inspiring address to the Democratic National Convention. He spent his years in the Senate as an ideologically undefinable figure, threading the needle of remaining palatable to the political middle while appealing to liberals who wished to permanently erase the sin of slavery from the American story. He went on to launch a presidential campaign whose historic aspects transcended the reality of his carefully disguised history of radical politics. In 2008, Barack Obama was who Americans wanted him to be. We projected our hopes and desires on his blank screen, creating our own narrative about what the election of this young, attractive candidate with the lovely family meant to us.
Reality, though, showed us something very different than the hopes of the 2008 campaign promised. Reality showed us a man who did not transcend racial politics, who used class warfare to make a case for a second term, and who effectively ignored the 5PM call while the consulate in Benghazi burned and our ambassador was assassinated.
In 1860, reality showed the republic a president who squandered his presidency while the final stiches of union broke under the unbearable pressures of sectional politics. Congress was deadlocked, and America waited for an election to learn the direction of its future. By February of 1861, seven states had seceded from the union with no response from the Buchanan administration. His attempts to reinforce the Federal battery at Fort Sumter by the sea was met with fire from South Carolina state batteries. He made no attempt to prepare for war and failed to preserve the union politically.
A week before the November 6 election, President Obama now races back to Washington to direct the federal response to Hurricane Sandy. It is no doubt important, as his advisers in Chicago are telling him, to appear in charge and to remain apolitical. Appearances, though, often mask reality. As Americans prepare to vote, they are told by Obama for America of the need for a second term to accomplish the great change promised in 2008. The problem, the great indictment of this president, is found in the minds of voters who are driven away from a president who blames his predecessor, claims that tough questions are above his pay grade, and who lies about the reasons for a terror attack on our mission in Benghazi.
Both Presidents Buchanan and Obama failed to grasp the political realities of their times. Amidst the turmoil of his last year in office, Buchanan chose not stand for reelection. As Election Day approaches this year, President Obama shows no such humility and is fighting bitterly for every last vote. It is up to the American people to turn him out of office and reject the failed policies of his presidency.
For more on Buchanan’s presidency and the events leading up to the firing on Fort Sumter, check out David M. Potter’s seminal work The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861.
Kyle Sabo | Hunter College