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Woodrow Wilson

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The model for Obama? Woodrow Wilson -- alas.

  • Article by: CHUCK CHALBERG
  • December 25, 2012 - 5:33 PM

During his first term as president, Barack Obama has been compared to a number of predecessors. The current favorite, of course, is Lincoln, given the hit movie. But whether it's Lincoln or Roosevelt or Kennedy or Johnson, the comparison is typically meant to be flattering, likening Obama to activist presidents seeking a more powerful federal government.

But the most striking parallel is seldom mentioned and terribly troubling. That would be the intellectual and political kinship between Obama and Woodrow Wilson.

Let's begin with a seeming superficiality. Wilson was the only president to hold an earned doctorate degree. While Obama lacks that credential, he is like Wilson an Ivy Leaguer with both an advanced degree and a reputation for intellectual prowess.

Like Obama, Wilson burst upon the national scene. A professor and college president -- as opposed to a professor and community organizer -- Wilson held no elective office until winning the governorship of New Jersey in 1910. Two years later, he won the White House. By comparison, Obama's four years in the U.S. Senate made him a seasoned politician.

Once in the Oval Office, each man based his presidency on a similar assumption, namely that the president, and only the president, represents the general will of the country. Both also presumed that history is moving in a statist direction. Both deemed that what Wilson called the "administrative state" -- or government by experts and bureaucrats -- is a good thing, and both sought to hasten this ever-evolving, and ever-progressive, process along.

The original "Progressive" movement was largely concerned with domestic policy. Wilson confided to his "man Friday," Colonel Edward House, that it would be the height of irony if his administration became consumed with foreign policy, given his lack of expertise and interest in that area.

Well, look what happened. By 1914, the Great War was underway, and by 1917, America was in it. This truly was a watershed in American history. A country peopled by those fleeing European conflicts was now going to send an army to save Europeans from themselves. Suddenly, Wilson was very much a foreign-policy president, and he moved quickly to use his war powers to enhance the very administrative state that he had promoted as a progressive.

What does all this have to do with Obama? Let's hope not much. And at first the parallels seem minimal. In 1914, America was not a world power with global interests. Today it is. Unlike Obama, Wilson assumed the presidency when Americans were just beginning to feel their oats and expand their ambitions. Today, we are tired of the burdens of world leadership.

Still, a troubling potential parallel remains.

Between 1914 and 1917, both England and Germany repeatedly violated American neutral rights. But it was German U-boats that killed Americans on the high seas. Remember the Lusitania? Wilson huffed and puffed; he drew lines in the sand and offered American mediation. All to no avail. In January 1917, he delivered a speech calling for "peace without victory." Germany responded by renewing unlimited submarine warfare.

A safely re-elected Wilson had finally had enough. All his overtures spurned, he asked Congress to declare war on Germany and used the same address to call for a grand crusade to "make the world safe for democracy."

Who knows what a safely re-elected Obama might do as he faces today's dangerous world? The worry in 2008 and again in 2012 was that a President McCain or a President Romney would be much more likely to land us in a wider war than would a President Obama. Really?

Having had his entreaties spurned repeatedly, might an equally aggrieved Obama follow in Wilson's footsteps by dealing harshly with Iran or Pakistan or Syria or North Korea? It's possible. And might Obama, as a war president, put the country on a full-bore war footing by ramping up the administrative state in any number of ways? It's far from unthinkable. It's just what Wilson did in 1917.

Between 1914 and 1917, American waffling and weakness ended in war. One wonders where apology tours, defense cuts and signals of disengagement will take us in 2013 and beyond, especially if a leader in the Middle East or Far East takes his measure of President Obama and bets as the Kaiser bet in 1917. No longer content with his campaign to make America safe for the world, might President Obama mount a new American effort, with guns drawn, to "make the world safe for democracy?"

After all, that's just what happened when another Ivy League progressive occupied the White House nearly a century ago.

John C. (Chuck) Chalberg teaches at Normandale Community College in Bloomington.

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