Monday, Apr 23, 2018
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David Shribman

Obama hasn't altered character of presidency

HE sprinkles the phrase "you guys" throughout his remarks, as in, "You guys, I just want to remind you " He drops quotes from William Wilberforce, the 19th-century British abolitionist, into his speeches. He appears in the Oval Office in shirtsleeves. He gave a major speech last weekend in Washington without wearing a tie. He grants interviews at baseball's All-Star Game and before the Super Bowl.

But just how distinctive a president is Barack Obama?

This question arises as we approach Mr. Obama's second Presidents' Day, a holiday traditionally associated with the most distinctive president of them all, George Washington. The holiday occurs by statute on the third Monday in February, even though the first president's birthday is Feb. 22, a date that every American schoolchild used to know. But then again, American schoolchildren used to know a lot of things.

Yet one of the great ironies of George Washington's latest successor may be how indistinctive is the first African-American president. Where once he said that he "doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills," forgetting that nonpresident Benjamin Franklin appears on the $100 bill and nonpresident Salmon P. Chase on the $10,0000 bill, Mr. Obama seems to have blended unobtrusively into the parade of the 42 men who preceded him.

He salutes the troops. He ends formal remarks by bidding God to bless the United States of America. He makes remarks about the boundless opportunity America has always offered its citizens and its immigrants.

Every president takes pains to "act presidential," and every president studies his predecessors for clues and cues. Surely Mr. Obama, a pathfinder as great as any in the Washington succession, has extended his customary caution to this aspect of his presidency. He clearly does not want to seem jarring or incongruous, especially at a time of great political contention and distrust.

But is he succeeding too well in blurring into the vast mass of American presidents?

Presidents get dealt two sets of cards. One set comes with the times, which is why we remember James K. Polk and Woodrow Wilson, accomplished but otherwise indistinct men who led America into wars in the West and in Europe and who expanded American territory and power. To this day, Bill Clinton regards it as his curse that he governed during merely interesting times, an era that denied him the chance to achieve the potential greatness that international strife and economic distress provide.

The other set comes at birth, and it is the quality, undefined but unmistakable, that sets some people apart from others. Theodore Roosevelt had it, William Howard Taft did not. Ronald Reagan had it, Franklin Pierce did not. Some had it only to let Americans forget they did, and here Rutherford B. Hayes comes to mind. Some didn't seem to possess it until they were gone, the great example being Harry S Truman.

Andrew Jackson was a truly distinctive president, inspiring two masterly biographies in two separate eras, both deemed worthy of the Pulitzer Prize. He battled Indians, fought for his wife's honor, struggled against the plutocrats who ran the Bank of the United States, and opened up the White House to new kinds of people and new kinds of possibility.

Abraham Lincoln was a distinctive president, inspiring Walt Whitman and later generations of Americans who recognized his gentleness and genius and saw in them the true flowering of the lilacs of American greatness.

Some presidents conform to types; some don't. In the past century, three patricians became president: Franklin D. Roosevelt (Harvard '03), John F. Kennedy (Harvard '40), George H. W. Bush (Yale '48). Confounding stereotypes, two were Democrats and, broadly speaking, liberals.

This is the place to add that poor forgotten President Hayes went to Harvard's law school. It was no help to him in the presidential legacy sweepstakes, which, if it were a fair game, would recognize him for civil service reform and for removing military troops from the South after the Civil War. American high schoolers remember this for about a day after their SAT II exams and then promptly forget it.

The only other president to graduate from Harvard's law school now faces two wars, an economic downturn, and questions about his suitability and maturity for the presidency. Such questions were raised about Lincoln, both Roosevelts and Kennedy, and Mr. Obama is probably supple and skillful enough to address them.

But we are left, on the eve of Presidents' Day, with wondering less about how the presidency will change Mr. Obama and more about how Mr. Obama will change the presidency.

At most we can say that he has subtly become more populist in his personal style. In truth, this may not be much of an adjustment, for he began his public life as a community organizer, which by definition placed him as a skeptic if not a critic of the established order.

His problem is that the change he believed in has been slow to come, perhaps because he has been slow to recognize how to win it. He addressed that earlier this month in a much-ignored speech to Democratic donors. His remarks are worth contemplating:

"I knew this was going to take a long time, but I knew the fight was worth it. The forces of the status quo, they may not give an inch, but I don't give an inch either. And you shouldn't give an inch either. We didn't come this far to put things off, or to play it safe, or to take the easy road. That wasn't why we were elected. We came here to solve problems - for the next generation, not for the next election."

Fine words and fighting words, but presidents, from Jackson to Clinton, have issued fine and fighting words before.

So now, as Mr. Obama approaches his second Presidents' Day in the White House, it is fair to say that he has changed the complexion of the presidency without discernibly changing the character of it.

Though it was his hope to overhaul the health system, and he has contributed to overhauling the banking system, it may not be in his nature to overhaul the presidency. For all the claims of his radicalism, he is more a conservator if not a conservative when it comes to the office he fought so hard to attain.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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