The following piece was written by Alejandro Penafiel, a friend and former HCHS student of mine. Alejandro is a third year student at American University in Washington D.C. Moreover, he spent his first semester of college interning for the Republican Party at its national head office working for Senator John McCain. Alejandro is one of only three students that I have taught in four different Advanced Placement courses. He has submitted articles to the Professor in the past.
As I have been watching Obama’s transition and his first few weeks in office, I have been asking myself this question and trying to decide if he has more in common FDR or Bill Clinton? I got this idea from talking to Carson about the Time cover of Obama stylized as FDR. I am sure he will be kind enough to include the photo with this post. While he has displayed much in common with both his Democratic predecessors, I think he fits much better in the Clinton mold.
What gave me the most trouble in coming to this conclusion is the fact that all three have a great deal in common. They all came after republican administrations during a time of recession and public outcry, as well as with a great deal of popularity. However, what make me tip Obama towards Bill are his centrist tendencies and his pragmatic governing philosophy. Throughout the campaign Obama has consistently shown that he is highly flexible in handling issues and crises, and thus not overly attached to strict ideology. For example, his posturing on NAFTA during the primaries and more recently, his inclusion of Sec. Robert Gates in the new cabinet both show his understanding of the need to be pragmatic in order to get the results he wants. I think the strongest case can be made off his governing philosophy, but you can also see that his administration is filled with Clinton alums. Take into account that Hillary is his foreign minister, which speaks volumes on the similarity of their approach to government policy. This can also be seen with his economic policy and the rise of Larry Summers as Obama’s chief macroeconomic policy advisor. If you take a look at the press releases coming out of the White House regarding the intent and effects of the proposed stimulus package, they match up almost entirely to what Summers has said publicly. I guess the administration is a better fit than Harvard. Maybe this keeps him from talking about social issues that he is “oh so good” at doing. Obama is enacting standard counter-cyclical fiscal policy in order to fight the contraction in the economy.
It is still far too early to say anything lasting about his legacy, and it is impossible to put any two presidents in the exact same category. The only useful part of this exercise, besides the fact that it is fun to talk about, is that it helps create a frame of reference to study his presidency. While I hope he does take after Clinton, the true test will come a few years later when the time comes to apply the flip side of Keynesian fiscal policy rules. It is always much easier and popular to spend more money. The stimulus will get passed. It has to, and everyone knows it. The hard part will be to start cutting spending and moving to balance the budget as the economy begins its expansionary cycle.