Last week, President Barack Obama interrupted his regularly scheduled (domestic) programming to take belated control of the war in Afghanistan, hoping to be, like President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a domestic transformer who triumphed abroad. And perhaps he can, but there are three things working against him that put future successes in doubt.
FDR, too, had to fight two different crises, but the conditions were not quite the same. Roosevelt handled the two things in sequence, being Dr. New Deal between 1933 and 1939, when war broke out in Europe, and focusing on foreign affairs from then on.
By that time his big wins were already behind him (he had already passed social security), his domestic agenda had lost its momentum, and the crisis abroad would revive his political fortunes. Obama, however, is in his first year, he has no big wins, and health care reform is in serious trouble.
He cannot afford to shift his attention. He has to fight two different wars — with two coalitions — in the same exact moment. And what an odd couple they are.
When FDR made his shift, he shed the pacifist left and picked up a big swath of mainstream Republicans, but he never lost much of his base. Large numbers of Democrats joined centrist Republicans to back his war measures. On the other hand, Obama’s base loathes his surge in Afghanistan (including the bulk of his fervent supporters) while his most ardent backing comes from the right.
FDR led two coalitions in sequence, one center-left, in support of big government, and one center-center, against isolationists on both the right and left wings (by 1944, FDR and Wendell Willkie, his 1940 opponent, considered forming a centrist third party — a plan that expired when both of them died).
By contrast, Obama now leads two coalitions, which are highly partisan, and detest one another: the domestic one led from the left by Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, and the foreign one, driven by center-right interventionists, the people his own base abhors.
Karl Rove praised him. John McCain and Sarah Palin are his strongest supporters, while his vice president argued against his new policy. Obama may spend odd days defending his health plan against the objections of Rove/McCain/Palin, and even days supporting the latter against his own people.
No one, it hardly needs saying, has faced something quite like this before.
In becoming a war president, FDR never went against his own instincts, which had been of a piece since day one. He had no trouble becoming a warrior. He took his politics, progressive and otherwise, from fifth cousin Theodore, and the two, beyond expanding the state to cope with the rise of big business, wished to expand the American presence worldwide.
In World War I, he was TR’s mole in the Navy Department, pressing the interventionist case to his pacifist bosses. He took on the Axis with utter ferocity.
The United Nations he planned near the end of the war was not one in which America bowed to the views of the nations assembled. It was one in which, through the Security Council, the U.S. and its allies kept order, throttled aggressors at the first sign of trouble, and benignly patrolled the whole world.
Patrolling the world is not an idea that appeals to Obama by nature, nor one he can reach without strain. He did not get his ideals from his cousin, the president. He was not taken, like Kennedy, to North Church as a toddler and made to recite “Paul Revere’s Ride.”
In more ways than one he grew up outside of the mainland, with an outsider’s view of America’s presence, and when he came here he gravitated to its more radical critics. He ran against force and the projection of power until it happened that he became president — the final insider — and the job of protecting the country was his.
If a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality, Obama is a liberal who is being mugged slowly by the realization that the weight of the world really does rest on his shoulders — that he is no longer an outsider or activist or a professor, but the real-life commander in chief.
Examiner columnist Noemie Emery is contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of “Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families.”