Next year is the 100th anniversary of the First World War, and we are beginning to see new Woodrow Wilson biographies and other books about that crucial time in history. When reading about Wilson, who was president during the war, you learn that there are many ironic similarities between him and Barack Obama, starting with this: They are our only two true professor-presidents, and both Wilson and Obama were elected largely due to their oratory skills.
There are other similarities: Woodrow Wilson pursued an ambitious progressive agenda, and like Obama, he was unable to compromise—“God save us from compromise” was Wilson’s fervent hope. No wonder they became two of the most polarizing presidents in our history.
Ultimately, there is an important object lesson in this comparison: A great mind does not necessarily make a strong leader. In fact, how Woodrow Wilson tried to shape the world in the First World War’s aftermath—and failed—mirrors just what is wrong now. Barack Obama’s recent hamhanded attempts to reach out to Congress help demonstrate how isolated his decision-making has become.
Wilson was a complicated man; initially, he was very good at pressuring Congress and getting things done. During his eight years in office, Wilson called 25 joint sessions of Congress, and he would push his agenda in person, literally grabbing senators on their way off the floor if he needed to convince them of his side. Early in his first term, Wilson also demanded that Congress stay in session for virtually 18 months straight, and the results were astounding: That body reformed banking, enacted an antitrust law, pushed through an inheritance tax and a graduated income tax, signed child labor acts, and created the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Reserve.
But Wilson, a Democrat, reverted to a different form when it came to the greatest challenge and hope for his presidency. He decided to lead the U.S. delegation to the Paris Peace Conference at the end of World War I. He also neglected to take any Republican senators with him. When he returned home in July 1919, Wilson delivered the Treaty of Versailles to the Senate, declaring, “Dare we reject it and break the heart of the world?” The treaty included the formation of the League of Nations, a precursor to the United Nations, but Wilson’s assumption that he had the Senate in his pocket would prove disastrous.
Wilson the politician had morphed into Wilson the imperial president, one who believed that his brilliant staking-out of the high moral ground would carry the day. The treaty fell short of ratification by seven votes in the Senate.
Conservatives now hold Wilson up as an example of an overreaching president who chases high principle instead of solving problems. Which brings us to the current crises in Syria and other parts of the world.
“The President thinks he can do foreign policy all by his lonesome,” Time magazine’s Joe Klein recently wrote. “This has been the most closely held American foreign-policy-making process since Nixon and Kissinger, only there’s no Kissinger. There is no éminence grise—think of someone like Brent Scowcroft—who can say to Obama with real power and credibility, ‘Mr. President, you’re doing the wrong thing here.’”
Not when our president, like fellow academic Woodrow Wilson a century ago, is so certain that he alone knows best.