Obama’s Forebears: FDR, Lincoln . . . Gorbachev??
Talk about anticipation: political pundits are already engaged in a spirited debate about which historical leader faced circumstances most closely paralleling the financial crisis now confronting President-elect Obama.
The most obvious candidate is FDR, and the broken economy he inherited in early 1933.
Now like then, the economy is dealing with the aftermath of an enormous asset bubble caused by easy (if not promiscuous) credit and exacerbated by excessive leverage. The carnage includes millions of foreclosed homeowners; a tanking stock market; catastrophic banking and insurance failures; impoverished savers and investors; and the specter of rising unemployment.
Lincoln comes to mind because he also saved the nation from a mortal threat, albeit a political, not economic one.
Through leadership, moral clarity, and sheer resolve, Lincoln prevented the Union from being ripped apart by slavery. Lincoln also appears to be a personal hero of Obama’s, who seems to be emulating Lincoln’s “team of rivals” leadership style. Of course, as the nation’s first Black President, it would hardly be surprising if Obama felt a special affinity for, and kinship with, the Great Emancipator.
But there’s a third, more contemporary leader whose situation and challenges at least superficially evoke Obama’s: Mikhail Gorbachev.
Gorbachev’s policies of Glasnost (openness and freedom) and Perestroika (economic restructuring) correctly perceived that the old, Soviet-style command-and-control system required radical reform. Like Obama, Gorbachev was also a figure of great personal appeal, and evident political and intellectual gifts.
Unfortunately (at least for Gorbachev), the changes he initiated spiraled out of his control and ultimately swept away the system he was trying to save (the old U.S.S.R.).
Like Gorbachev, President Obama must preside over a very tricky transition.
His task is to repair and reform a strained system that has already left millions of Americans without homes, without jobs, and with little or no retirement savings. Even before the current financial crisis, tens of millions lacked access to decent health care. As 2009 begins, there are signs that conditions may in fact be deteriorating.
While Obama enters office with a huge store of goodwill amongst everyday Americans — and especially African Americans — he must surely be aware that economic desperation and patience don’t easily coexist.
It’s one thing to campaign on a platform of “change you can believe in.” Delivering the right change– and the right amount of change — is entirely another.