My Shadow Government co-conspirator Peter Feaver's post below on the similarities between the Eisenhower administration and the Obama administration probably elicited some smiles over at the White House. After almost two years of trying to fend off persistent-but-unwelcome comparisons with the Carter and Johnson administrations, the Obama team no doubt would find the Eisenhower analogy a welcome change. Eisenhower is, after all, regarded as a near-great president for his prudent Cold War posture and careful stewardship of the American economy during a decade of postwar growth and innovation.
The Eisenhower-Obama similarities that Peter identifies in his first few paragraphs are intriguing. However, the parallels are not unique; for example, Peter's first two paragraphs could easily have described the Nixon administration's early years in office following LBJ. The more important question in testing the analogy is how it does as a net assessment -- that is, while there may be similarities between the Eisenhower and Obama administrations, are they outweighed by the differences? This was one of the cardinal tenets developed by the late Harvard historian Ernest May for how scholars and policymakers should approach historical analogies. Identify the similarities, yes, but be sure to list the differences as well. [Insert obligatory academic joke here about political scientists playing in historians' sandboxes].
Taking the examples cited by Peter, a number of substantial differences emerge between the Eisenhower and Obama administrations:
There are other interesting differences. For example, the Eisenhower administration engineered a dubious regime change in Iran in 1953 against the popular will, whereas (perhaps partly in overreaction to the Eisenhower legacy) the Obama administration has been too reluctant to support the popular will of Iranians themselves calling for a change in their regime. Or on nuclear weapons; Eisenhower's "New Look" expanded the nation's nuclear arsenal and made the option of their use (asymmetric response) central to U.S. strategy, whereas President Obama seeks to further minimize, if not abolish outright, the role of nukes in the United States' force posture. To be fair, there are other similarities between the two presidents as well, whether difficulties with Israel, or efforts to improve U.S.-Russian relations based on the perceived appeal of a new Russian leader, or even the time that both spent at Columbia University trying to ascertain their future calling.
Yet in the net assessment, while I share the hope that the Obama administration will follow the best of the lessons from Eisenhower, thus far the disparities between the two presidencies are more substantial. And if the Obama administration does change course and start following more of an Eisenhower model, perhaps as Peter suggests the parallels between Truman and Bush will further sharpen as well.
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.