The New York Times’s Peter Baker had a piece in Sunday’s paper dealing with an issue close to many hearts at the CJR office—that reliable pundit go-to, the presidential comparison. You know the kind of thing: columns and covers suggesting Clinton’s having a Carter moment or that Obama’s walking in Reagan’s footsteps, about to take a Bush-senior-stumble, only to rise—Clinton-style—with one of those Kennedy-esque orations he’s prone to. Stuff like this. Or this. Or pretty much every segment of Hardball.
Baker attempts to get to the bottom of the presidential comparison phenomenon and uncover its remarkable allure to the political reporter and pundit. He lists a bunch of examples—from a New Yorker cover showing Obama as Washington to a National Review cover showing Carter as Obama, Shepard Fairey-style—before asking a bunch of presidential academic-types for their theories.
If you were to get into the comparative spirit and compare the Baker piece to another kind of story, you might think of it as one of those new science staples parsing out why women are attracted to tall, athletic, broad-shouldered types. And the reasons Baker comes up with for presidential comparisons don’t differ, at a basic level, from what you might unearth in such a story: it’s got to do with instinct.
Of course, pundits aren’t drawn to a Lincoln-Obama comparison because the framing will better help them fend off any pesky mammoths that should come stomping by their cave entrance. Their instincts are less primitive than that, more ingrained by education and practice, built and bolstered by years of study, TV talk-time, and repetition. Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director, suggests to Baker that it’s natural for political writers to compare and contrast because so many were history majors. Thus, when pontificating, instinct leads them to predecessors.
Naturally, he, too, has read many books on presidents. “The key,” he said, “is studying the similarities and differences and understanding that history is informative but not determinative.”
Mark K. Updegrove, director of the Johnson Presidential Library, says it might have more to do with another instinct that we all in fact share with political writers: the desire to sound smart, informed, and not make an ass of ourselves on the box.
“In my view,” he said, “pundits often make comparisons to previous presidents because it allows them to sound authoritative without putting forth a great deal of thought.” He added that he has been among those who have made such comparisons.
All interesting and valid ideas, but my instinct is to go with the last of these musings Baker himself makes in a nut graf grappling with why comparisons are so attractive regarding our current president (our emphasis):
What makes us so eager to find historical parallels for Mr. Obama? Why do we take one president and try to fit him into the mold of another? Maybe it is because more than halfway through his term, we just cannot agree on who Mr. Obama really is. Or maybe it is the same public fascination with historical personalities that lately has filled best-seller lists with presidential biographies. Or maybe it is just a surplus of shallow punditry in an era with endless hours of airtime and Internet space to fill.
Baker’s piece is worth a read, if only for the way in which he lays out the various and often conflicting comparisons between Obama and his predecessors that have appeared in coverage, and the way those comparisons have tied in with different points of the Obama presidency. We see examples of these kinds of comparisons often, and media critics often note them, but for the most part they come at us somewhat scattershot: a Time cover here, a Politico column there. When synthesized by Baker, it’s really quite eye-opening to see where they fit in the presidential narrative.
After last year’s Republican midterm victories, the Clinton comparisons surged, and Mr. Obama himself said he was reading the historian Taylor Branch’s book on Mr. Clinton, “The Clinton Tapes.” (Mr. Branch last week deemed the analogies the product of a passive electorate and cynical era in which “politics is reduced to a dangerously complacent form of entertainment.”)
As political tides shifted again, the analogies turned to Reagan, who “posed” next to Mr. Obama on another Time cover, making the argument that the 44th president could be for Democrats what the 40th president was for Republicans — a comparison stoked by Mr. Obama, who has praised Reagan as a “transformative” president.