Supporters of President Obama are fond of comparing him to illustrious predecessors like Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy while his opponents have drawn comparisons between Obama and infamous names like Wilson, Hoover, and Carter. However, as we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the first shots of the Civil War at Fort Sumter today, it is worth considering how our nation got to that point and a disconcerting parallel between the 44th and the 15th presidents.
Things started going really badly for President Buchanan when he was shut out of his own party’s nominating convention. Then, a little more than a month after Lincoln’s electoral victory, South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860. In those days, the inauguration was not until March, so Buchanan had almost three months to deal with the secession problem. Instead, he stated to Congress that the government had no legal authority to stop the newly-formed Confederacy.
When the Confederacy started seizing military installations, Buchanan requested authorization from Congress to mobilize the state militias, but his request was denied. Buchanan had downsized the federal military earlier in his term and lacked the resources to mount an effective defense. Faced with the disintegration of the nation he had sworn to protect and defend, he sat out the remainder of his term as one fort after another fell to the rebels.
By the time Buchanan left office, only Fort Sumter and three other forts in Florida remained under Union control.
Fortunately President Obama does not have to worry about armed insurrection and the disintegration of the Union into a tragic and bloody civil war. However, with the coming debate on the Treasury’s debt ceiling, the threat to our nation is just as grave.
Even with the modest cuts won by Republicans in eleventh-hour negotiations last week, the national debt is projected to exceed 100% of the gross domestic product as soon as next year, putting the United States in the dubious company of countries like Portugal and Ireland which have already defaulted. Meanwhile, economists and business leaders all agree that a default on the U.S. national debt would be an unimaginable catastrophe.
Faced with tough choices, President Obama has become a Buchanan-like passive observer while Republicans in Congress make the difficult decisions. After waiting for Representative Paul Ryan to release a budget proposal, Obama simply rehashed the tired liberal cliché of raising taxes and cutting defense spending, even at a time when the military is fighting a third war in Libya and several other countries in the Middle East are descending into chaos.
The president needs to stay ahead of emerging threats, but with each new foreign or budgetary crisis, even liberals admit that we are witnessing a disturbing trend of Obama waiting for events to unfold before finally giving an ineffectual press conference taking credit for the efforts of others. His supporters used to praise him for his public speaking ability, but actions speak louder than words.
As we commemorate the first shots of the Civil War and ponder what Buchanan might have done to avert the bloodiest conflict in our history, we must also learn from the past. If, because of President Obama’s lack of leadership, Democrats block comprehensive spending reforms and the Treasury defaults on the national debt, it would be a blunder so historic that Obama’s presidency would not even measure up to the meager benchmark of incompetency that was set by James Buchanan 150 years ago.