Monday, March 7, 2016

Obama Is Luo For Fillmore

The cultural critic James Howard Kunstler, who voted for Barack Obama for President in 2008, hoped in 2009 that the new President would rise to the occasion and address the fundamental problems of our economy, particularly our banking system and the nation's health care system.  He decided fairly quickly that, rather than electing another Abraham Lincoln, to whom some compared Obama early in his Presidency,  we had elected another Millard Fillmore.
Ironically, Fillmore was an unelected President. 
I think Kunstler is right.  Fillmore, one of our more mediocre leaders, became the nation's thirteenth President in 1850, when President Zachary Taylor (whom Fillmore served as Vice President) died in office during a contentious debate over the extension of slavery into land newly won from Mexico.  Taylor had opposed a compromise brokered by Henry Clay and Daniel Webster in the Senate that would admit California as a free state and would allow two new territories, New Mexico, and, when it was later created by the compromise, Utah, to vote on whether to allow slavery; Taylor, though a slaveowner himself, wanted California and New Mexico to enter the Union as free states immediately.  So, like Obama during the financial crisis of 2008-09, Fillmore came into office with a dire situation that could have torn the country apart.
Fillmore ultimately supported the so-called Compromise of 1850 as President and got enough members of Congress in his Whig Party to support it and get it passed, and he averted a civil war.  But he merely postponed the day of reckoning, and his efforts to secure passage of the legislation of the compromise, which also included a new fugitive slave law and finalized the present-day boundaries of Texas, disrupted the Whig Party and led to disagreements within it.  Particulars shortly.
Obama, similarly, came to office at a time when bold action was required, but his response to the worsening economy was only a qualified success.  He was able to get modest stimulus money to help pay for some new infrastructure, but he backed away from a second New Deal program when it became apparent that independent voters wouldn't stomach it; the spending plans Obama did get through were enough on their own to anger voters who wanted fiscal restraint, and the Republican takeover of the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014 weakened Obama and the Democratic Party.  Obama partisans blame racist Republican obstructionism for Obama's limited success, and there's a good deal of truth to that, but it is hardly the whole story.  Obama  deliberately took things slowly while the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, and he pushed more lightly for some programs than for others, causing discord within the party.  He ruled out single-payer health care almost as soon as he took office, and the Affordable Care Act that ultimately got passed didn't go far enough.  He didn't do much to rein in Wall Street, either.  The one issue Obama had the most interest in pursuing, after health care reform, was high-speed rail, but the plan he offered was piecemeal at best.  As soon as Republicans took over in Washington and elsewhere and scuttled high-speed-rail initiatives at the state and federal levels, he dissociated himself from the issue altogether, leaving California to struggle to get its proposed rapid-rail system up and running.  (It hasn't yet.)  Meanwhile, Democratic Party disagreements over domestic policy have grown and led to a severe split between Sanders progressives and Clinton moderates, which at this writing is playing itself out in the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination contest.  
But Obama did accomplish other things, right?  Yes, and Fillmore got a lot done as well, even though he too had to deal with a Congress controlled by the opposition (the antebellum Democrats).  Fillmore presided over a decent economy as well as a robust foreign policy that kept the U.S. out of European conflicts and helped keep France's Louis Napoleon from annexing the kingdom of Hawaii.  Obama has presided over an improving job market and has re-opened diplomatic relations with Cuba (ironically, annexation of Cuba was a hot topic during Fillmore's administration, though Fillmore did not wish to take it over from Spain).  But Fillmore's successes were mostly ephemeral, and most of Obama's achievements will likely prove to be the same, the domestic achievements in particular providing only a temporary change of course for the nation while not addressing its core problems.  In foreign policy, Obama's Cuban initiative may succeed, but the Iran nuclear deal could be in jeopardy should a Republican become President in January 2017.
And, of course, Fillmore was the last President of his party.  Fillmore's desire to make Henry Clay's and Daniel Webster's slavery compromise work alienated northern Whigs while appeasing southern Whigs.  The Whigs would thus spend much of the Fillmore administration fighting over the direction and the soul of the party, with a special focus around the slavery issue.  This split the party nationally and in some of the states, including Fillmore's own state of New York (William Seward ran the New York Whig Party's more liberal wing with boss Thurlow Weed, and Fillmore led the conservative wing); the party then suffered in the 1850, 1851, and 1852 state and congressional elections.  You know what happened to Winfield Scott, the party's 1852 presidential nominee; I won't repeat it.  But, in the 2010s, Democratic splits over health care, income inequality, and foreign policy have damaged the party just a split over slavery damaged the Whigs, with electoral failures partly being an outcome of the discord.  The Democrats are thus headed for oblivion. This, to me, is the most obvious reason why the Obama-Fillmore comparison is all too apt.         
Obama partisans have insisted that the forty-fourth President of the United States will go down in history as one of our greats, but I suspect that his inability to address America's biggest problems substantially and prevent his party from losing ground to a mostly white Republican opposition in an increasingly ethnically diverse nation (remember also that most Democrats, including the few southern Democrats left, refused to associate themselves with the President in the 2014 elections, and lost big time) will reduce his stature after he's out of office.  We are going into a dangerous period in our country as the far right is gaining more power, just as the slaveholding aristocracy and their northern Democratic allies gained more power in the 1850s.  And just as Obama has proven to be incapable of addressing today's crises ( his slogan of "hope and change," journalist Matt Bai wrote, might as well have been "rainbows and unicorns"), so Fillmore proved to be ineffective at preventing a civil war in the end.
Historian David Jacobs once wrote that Fillmore did indeed accomplish a good deal in a term of less than three years, and had he led the United States at a different time, he might have been remembered as one of our better Presidents. "But Millard Fillmore became President in 1850," Jacobs concluded, "and history in its judgment cannot divorce his achievements from the needs of the times. He is counted among the mediocre because of what he did not and could not do." Obama partisans won't like this, but future historians may very well say the same thing about our current White House occupant.

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