I suppose it’s only natural to evaluate a president by comparing him or her to previous presidents, and President Obama has been the subject of quite a few of these analyses over the years. Is he Clinton (modern, two-term Dem who bounced back after a rough midterm cycle) or maybe JFK (dynamic young speaker with an ambitious vision)? Is he FDR (leading the nation through an economic crisis and time of war) or LBJ (breakthrough legislative accomplishments)?
For much of the Beltway, however, there’s been an ongoing urge to draw parallels between Obama and a much more notorious predecessor.
Back in 2009, the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus was so bothered by Obama’s criticism of Fox News that she said the White House had a “Nixonian … aroma.” More recently, a pointless dispute between Bob Woodward and Gene Sperling led to a flurry of equally pointless comparisons between Obama and Nixon, for reasons that still don’t make any sense.
And, of course, this week, following the IRS controversy and the Justice Department’s AP subpoenas as part of a leak investigation, the Nixon comparisons are practically ubiquitous.
They’re also dumb.
Just yesterday, the media’s fascination with the bizarre comparison even reached a White House press conference, with this exchange between Obama and Reuters’ Jeff Mason.
Q: [H]ow do you feel about comparisons by some of your critics of this week’s scandals to those that happened under the Nixon administration?
OBAMA: Well, I’ll let you guys engage in those comparisons and you can go ahead and read the history and draw your own conclusions.
Yes, and the conclusion is history points in a very different direction.
There is no comparison. Nixon, in a series of crimes that collectively came to be known as Watergate, directed from the White House and Justice Department a concerted campaign against those he perceived as political enemies, in the process subverting the FBI, the IRS, other government agencies and the electoral process to his nefarious purposes. Mr. Obama has done nothing of the kind.
This is not to say the recent stories are unimportant, but Nixon ran a criminal conspiracy out of the Oval Office, using federal agencies and law enforcement as weapons against his perceived enemies. The fact that some bureaucrats in Ohio asked some Tea Party groups some unnecessary questions in IRS paperwork doesn’t even belong on the same page as Watergate.
Is these controversies worthy of investigation? Of course. Are they proof that Obama resembles Nixon? Not if you know anything about Nixon.
Indeed, part of the problem may be that the president’s detractors have been so desperate to draw these invisible parallels that the entire exercise has become farcical. Updating a post from October, Republicans think:
* The IRS controversy carries “echoes of Watergate.”
* National security leaks are “worse than Watergate.”
* A job offer for former Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) might be “Obama’s Watergate.”
* “Fast and Furious” might be “Obama’s Watergate.”
* Solyndra “makes Watergate look like child’s play.”
* The White House’s relationship with Media Matters might be “Obama’s Watergate.”
Peggy Noonan is so overwhelmed by her contempt for the president, she wrote in her column this morning, “We are in the midst of the worst Washington scandal since Watergate,” and then neglected to mention which perceived “scandal” she was even referring to.
Whether you consider the ongoing controversies as serious or trivial, there has to be a smarter way of looking at the news.