Presidents Barack Obama and James Buchanan
November 30, 2008
by William P. Meyers

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What kind of President will Barack Obama be? A lot depends on what happens during his term of office.

Take James Buchanan, President of the United States of America from March 1856 until March 1860. James Buchanan was a nice guy, an optimist, a uniter of a fractious Democratic Party. The two big guns, and expected Presidential nominees of that era's Democratic Party, were Stephen A. Douglas and the incumbent President, Franklin Pierce. Pierce was fiercely pro-slavery, so Douglas supporters nixed him. The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, sponsored by Douglas, had led to free soilers and slavers waging a small civil war in the Territory of Kansas. Lucky James Buchanan was a minister to England when this all happened. He owned no slaves, being from Pennsylvania, but had no problem with the institution of slavery in the slave states. He got the Democratic nomination because he had done little of importance up until then.

Barack Obama was lucky enough to still be in Illinois when the initial votes on the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions took place in Congress. During the early primaries he hinted to Democratic Party grassroots activists, most of whom had by then turned against the wars (blaming it on George W. Bush, even though almost every Democrat in Congress voted for the wars), that he would have voted against it had he been in Washington. In particular Hillary Clinton was hurt in the primary contests by the perception that she was a militarist. But Obama later united the party by promising to send more troops to Afghanistan. He could be the peace candidate only because John McCain's war rhetoric was even more inflammatory.

Just as George W. Bush's Presidency came to be defined by the September 11, 2001 attacks by heroes of the Islamic revolution, James Buchanan's Presidency was defined by the Dred Scott decision. The U.S. Supreme Court in its wisdom declared that slaves could not be freed by any law passed by a state or Congress, and in fact did not even have the right to start a lawsuit in the court system. Many Americans at that time were against slavery, but were willing to leave it alone in the slave states. Those who wanted to actually end slavery everywhere, Abolitionists, were a tiny, but active, minority. The Dred Scott decision pushed many people into the Abolitionist camp, and even more people into the welcoming arms of the Republican Party.

Before James Buchanan's last day of office, several slave states had withdrawn from the United States of America. Buchanan himself was for keeping slavery and keeping all the states united. He has to be rated as the least successful U.S. President. Then again, he was dealt the worst cards of any U.S. President.

What I want to emphasize is that more often than not, events make of break a Presidency. Hoover did not campaign for office expecting a Great Depression. Harry Truman did not know that Chiang Kai-Shek would not be able to hold onto power in China. Neither Lyndon Johnson nor Richand Nixon thought that the armed peasants of Vietnam could defeat the army that defeated both the Nazis and the World War II era Japanese military establishment.

If we are lucky and he is lucky, most of the economic storm will have passed by the time Barack Obama enters office. He will have the uneventful kind of Presidency we associate with Calvin Coolidge. Maybe he will work with Congress to fix a thing or two, like the health care system.

On the other hand, it seems like the pace of change is accelerating to roller-coaster rates. Six months ago one of the biggest economic concerns was inflation; today it is inflation. No one was worried much about Afghanistan when George W. Bush took office. Climate change seems to be accelerating. Anything could happen.

And in their wisdom, with the help of Madison Avenue and a bunch of special interest groups, the American people have chosen Barack Obama to be President for four years. A man most noted for ducking controversial votes in the Illinois legislature. Maybe that is a good thing, maybe it is time for a mellow, compromising U.S. President again. It will be interesting to watch.

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