Role models

Obam isn’t Lincoln: is he McClellan?

President Obama would like to be Lincoln, but is not: that’s not a criticism. But he increasingly resembles one of Lincoln’s subordinates: a handsome, charismatic leader, brilliant at organizing, popular with the troops, but fatally passive and unaggressive on the battlefield:

General George B. McClellan (wartime photo by Matthew Brady, via Wikimedia).

Perhaps it’s time for American liberals to look for a scruffy guy with a rumoured drinking problem.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

21 thoughts on “Role models”

  1. I fantasize about President Pelosi putting Sherman’s face on the trillion dollar coin the next time there’s a debt ceiling fight. Just to rub their ignorant redneck noses in it.

  2. Obama has definitely “got the slows”. But the Dems haven’t got fight enough in ’em to ditch him. A sorry spectacle.

  3. Semi-OT: Does anyone else find Mark Kleiman’s refusal to re-visit his pre-deal analysis in light of the actual deal signed a bit sad?


  4. Wouldn’t it be just like dem Dems to primary, and who knows maybe even replace, a sitting Democratic president? Perhaps one party comprised of everyone from cross-dressing, trans-sexual lesbian college-Marxists to “If I run as a Democrat, I’d better be a damned good Republican” Blew Dawgs is not really the best way to operate? The spread between Top 1% extreme capitalist, hyper-Christianist, and red neck Tea Partyist is obviously a lot narrower than what dem Dems endure among their constitutents.

  5. Perspecticus,

    Do you really think that the way to good government and good policy is through ideological purity? I think that the extreme wing of the Republican Party’s obsession with RINOs is hardly good for the country. And therefore is not something we of the left should emulate.

  6. It is a sad comment on the incumbent that I find myself wishing LBJ could take his place. I think LBJ actually believed in something, and while I frequently disagreed with him, I sometimes agreed strongly. By comparison figuring out Obama’s convictions is like trying to build a house out of silly putty.

  7. Nice. But I am afraid it does not stack up. I admire Grant and Lincoln, but Grant would not have succeeded as a General without Lincoln watching his back. Lincoln supported Gratn at least twice when he might have been demoted or dismissed. There were not many to watch Lincoln’s back, in fact at different times he had to defend Seward and Stanton, while Chase had the “Presidential Bug” from the start.

    A better comparison might be with Grant as President. Grant was a success at dealing with the Indians (if you call that a success), and at suppressing the terrorists of the KKK. But he could not square the circle of an exhausted North, an economic Depression, and a white South determined to have its own way, and willing to use violence to get it. Black freedom and the ascendancy of Jim Crow was a legacy that did not come into fruition until later, but its seeds began under Grant. And there was not much he could do about it.

    To use an analogy, Lincoln was a great President becuase he combined the qualities of both a hedgehog and a fox. He was a hedgehog on the Union, and a fox on Slavery. Obama does not seem to know when to be one or the other.

  8. Cranky: No. Just give him a little more time.

    It bears repeating: we’re still lucky to have this president and not the other one.

    All the president needs is a good primary challenger on the left who will get out after winning a couple states. Maybe they can make a show of the president trouncing him out. That might be nice.

    Assuming, of course, that this actually moves the president left in some sort of measurable and enforceable way. (I don’t go in for mind-reading and I don’t know what the president really wants.) Republicans seem to pull off this sort of thing all the time and I don’t see why we on the left can’t manage it.

  9. @cranky–do you have links to the posts featuring that pre-deal analysis? Maybe having them easily available would prime the pump, as it were.

  10. Obama drew them out onto the battlefield. The Republicans, in the midterms, claimed they were all about jobs (i.e. stewards of the economy) and protecting medicare. Obama made them take the field, and they exposed they are only about cutting medicare and cutting taxes for the rich.
    Grant knew the key was keeping the fight going; when he was put in charge of the Army there was no bold stroke of genius. It was a slog. It was the siege of Petersburg. It was an ugly and bloody battle of attrition.
    In the debt ceiling fight, Obama got dirty. But respect for the Republicans plummeted. They have laid their priorities bear. In the next election, they can’t run on economic stewardship and protecting medicare.
    So I think Obama is more Grant than McClellan. If he was McClellan, he’d be popular among the base for all the positions he was taking, without the results (due to senate filibuster and no house control). The left base would idolize him, but he’d lose the election because he’d be seen as not trying to do the hard work to get the job done.
    In the short term, it would have been better to find some questionably legal way around the debt ceiling (so no hostage). But I think his way pulled them out of their fortifications of empty rhetoric.

  11. Mr. Wimberley-

    Your complaint seems to be that Mr. Obama won’t fight for your cause(s) … Do you have any reason to believe that their his caused too? Any reason to believe that Mr. Obama didn’t get more-or-less what he wanted out of the budget negotiations?

  12. McClellan was undone more because he was a political moderate who wasn’t trusted the Radical Republicans than because of any failures as a general. In 1862, after launching the largest amphibious invasion in history, McClellan had a powerful army southeast of Richmond, and had a good shot at winning the war 2 years early. But congressional critics dismissed his successes and Lincoln forced him to withdraw. It’s true that the radicals were right and that McClellan had done a lot to earn their distrust. But it’s also true that McClellan’s cautious approach might well have won the war early, if only his critics on the left had been able to recognize victory when they saw it.

  13. @Ragout,

    McCellan’s problem was that he was not prepared to radicalise his agenda. Probably if offered a loose sham-Union with slavery (in 1862 or 1865, if he won the 1864 election), he would have accepted it. If victory over Lee needed slavery to end, then he was not over-eager to defeat Lee at all. he said as much in a notorious memorandum to Lincoln, which was politely ignored.

    Lincoln actually got the best out of McCellan – the General produced a fantastic fighting force, if a bit timid in its upper echelons.

    The closer you look at James’ analogy, the more the focus goes back to Lincoln. Presidents and Generals fight in different cirsumstances. I would love Obama to channel Grant’s bulldog determination and his strategic insight – when it is appropriate. Tactically, Grant had embarrassing and woeful defeats at Vicksburg (a frontal attack), Cold Harbor and the Crater, where his full-frontal determination and the incompetence of his reportees produced disaster. His focus on Petersburg let Jubal Early advance to the gates of Washington. He fumbled a bit at Shiloh. Obama, maybe, is entitled to at least one Shiloh or Cold Harbor.

  14. Ragout – “McClellan was undone more because he was a political moderate who wasn’t trusted the Radical Republicans than because of any failures as a general.”

    McClellan was undone precisely by his “failures as a general”, both in the Penninsular campaign and at/after Antietam. On the Penninsula, he grossly over-estimated the Confederate forces facing him, and consequently failed to come to grips with them. That let the seriously out-numbered Confederates pivot to destroy Pope’s army at Second Manasses while McClellan sat on his hands. Then at Antietam, fortune served up the Army of Northern Virginia to him on a platter; but the best he could do was a draw that let the enemy escape. How did President Lincoln or “congressional critics” force him into either of these blunders?

    Mr. Lincoln had it right when he wrote to McClellan, shortly after Antietam: “Are you not over cautious when you assume that you cannot do what the enemy is constantly doing? Should you not claim to be at least his equal in prowess, and act upon the claim?”

    That is, as Mr. Lincoln recognized, a profound “failure as a general”.

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