Why Comparisons of Barack Obama to Past Presidents Should Be Used Sparingly


It is human nature to compare and contrast everything around us. Comparisons to predecessors in politics can work two ways, to increase one’s reputation or to devastate it. With the exception of the extremely hubristic politicians who compare themselves to boost their ego, these political comparisons are primarily made by three groups: the allies, the enemies, and the press.

Each powerful in their own way, political comparisons — specifically presidential ones — should be used carefully. It can be extremely dangerous to compare a president to another, either setting impossible standards for our future leaders or unfairly comparing two of our heads of state based on lies and half-truths. But then again, since when has politics been a field dominated by fairness?

There is a major upside to the usage of presidential comparisons, besides the ulterior motives achieved by the comparer; it can ultimately keep our system democratic. An extreme negative comparison shows the president has room for improvement, for example if they are compared to Nixon with the invention of a new “-gate” scandal or the ineptness of James Buchanan, a press release justifying their actions usually follows.

In just three years, our current man in the White House has already had his share of presidential comparisons. In a New York Times article, Dan Pfeiffer, the current White House communications director, is quoted to have said “sometimes I think the only president we haven’t been compared to is Franklin Pierce.” 

A Time Magazine article called Obama to learn from FDR’s example, referring to our current president as a “president of continuity” for his actions in foreign policy situations like Iraq and Afghanistan, while chastising those who quickly compared the two Democrats. While Obama did come into the Oval Office when hostilities aboard were high, the economy less than favorable, and a message of progress in the air, he fell short of our FDR expectations. Unlike FDR, he was not able to ride his motto of change to the finish line; rather he was stopped by the obduracy of the Republican Party. 

In comparing the approval ratings of recent presidents to Obama, one can see who negative comparisons of the President are pretty common this time around. With such high expectations and no room to move, it is easy to attribute all blame to the president, only now we are continuing judging Obama’s shortcomings harsher than the value of his successes. Obama’s successes of fighting terrorism and handling the crisis in Libya were shortchanged by Republicans moving left of the Democrats, questioning our continued positions in two foreign wars. Abroad Obama was compared multiple times to George W. Bush in his refusal to leave overseas conflicts and even doomed to fail like LBJ’s war agenda during Vietnam.

Perhaps the reason we compare presidents to their predecessors is because there have only been 43 other men who have held the title. The office is unlike members of Congress, who number 535 at any given time plus the thousands of past office holders or even the 112 past and present Supreme Court justices.

On an individual basis, the president is the most powerful single person in the United States government, whether he is a part of the most powerful branch is arguably and irrelevant in this case. Both to better understand the meaning of a presidency – what has been accomplished, the administration’s goals, etc. – and characterize the officeholder himself, we have compared Obama and his predecessors to all those before them. Each subsequent president is automatically held in the shadow of the accomplishments of Washington, Lincoln, and the Roosevelts and the spotlights of Buchanan, Hoover, and Andrew Johnson’s failures.

Because of these inevitable comparisons, we find each election to have more dislikeable, imperfect, and human candidates than the ones of yesterday. We have built the heroism of our greatest presidents and flaunted the inadequacies of our worst in our American culture. We have become more critical as more politicians fail to be all that they were promised to be. And while we hold them accountable, by making them care about their reputation and have daily polls measuring own approval of them, we also limit the number of men and women willing to step forward. We scare off those who do not want to be stuck in the limelight, those who do not want their reputations to be unjustly tarnished, and are left with those we complain about daily.

Whether you call these candidates egotistical, overly confident, or unashamed, they are brave enough to put themselves out there; to endure everything we can throw at them in order to make this nation into the one they think it should be. But then again, maybe that’s making them sound a little too Messianic. 

Photo Credit: ethan bush