June 23, 2010

Obama and Woodrow Wilson

By: AFF Editors

I am in the middle of 1913. At least that’s how far I’ve gotten in Prof. John Milton Cooper’s recent biography of Woodrow Wilson.

The most striking thing about Wilson’s ascent to the presidency was how rapid it was, even in comparison to Barack Obama’s. Wilson served as president of Princeton University until his election as governor of New Jersey in 1910. It was the first time Wilson held public office, either by election or appointment.

Within twelve months of his inauguration as governor, Wilson was an undeclared candidate for the Democratic nomination in 1912. Wilson took office in March 1913, with just two years of government experience under his belt. In comparison, Obama’s decade as a state legislator and four years in the Senate make him seem like a veteran. Unlike Obama, Wilson had executive experience, but Princeton was a more modest institution in those days.

How did Wilson rise so far, so fast? Wilson already well-known when he took the helm at Princeton in the late 1890s. In that office, he became nationally prominent. Running for governor of New Jersey was unusual, but hardly audacious. Then as now, any big-state governor with rhetorical gifts became the subject of speculation about the presidency.

What made Wilson stand out were his determination to stand up to the machine bosses in his own party and the raft of reforms he guided through the New Jersey legislature in his first months as governor. Although the Democratic machine was responsible for recruiting Wilson to run for governor, the future president sensed that he had much to gain from biting the hand that fed him.

The battle for the nomination in 1912 was long and hard fought. WIlson’s opponent was Speaker of the House “Champ” Clark. As in 2008, the nomination was coveted because a Democratic victory seemed imminent. Teddy Roosevelt was poised to bolt the GOP, all but insuring both his own defeat and that of the Republican incumbent, President Taft. (Trivia: Taft was the last American president with facial hair.)

Like Obama, Wilson took office with his party in control of both houses of Congress. His margin in the House was solid, but Obama had a greater edge in the Senate. So, was this brilliant, rhetorically gifted candidate able to translate his skills into a successful presidency?

I’ll let you know when I finish the book. I’ve got a long way to go….