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Posted at 12:50 PM ET, 12/21/2011

Obama and ‘the fourth-best president’ in context


If all you had to go on was the Wall Street Journal editorial page you’d think President Obama is an egomaniac who spends as much time worrying about his place among presidents as he does his NCAA bracket. The Democratic version of Newt Gingrich, if you will. I’m referring to the Journal’s slap at Obama for comments he made in his “60 Minutes” interview with Steve Kroft that didn’t make it on air but was released online. A slap that’s a cheap shot when you read the quote in its proper context.

The remark that has offended so many conservatives was this:

The issue here is not gonna be a list of accomplishments. As you said yourself, Steve, you know, I would put our legislative and foreign policy accomplishments in our first two years against any president — with the possible exceptions of Johnson, F.D.R., and Lincoln — just in terms of what we've gotten done in modern history. But, you know, but when it comes to the economy, we've got a lot more work to do. And we're gonna keep on at it.

It’s always dangerous for a sitting president, especially in the first term, to compare himself to great predecessors. He might come off as smug, too admiring of his own vision and too concerned with history rather than the here and now facing the people he was elected to lead. But notice that Obama never said he was the fourth-best president. Notice that he was calling for a side-by-side comparison of his first two years (and naturally casting himself in a positive light). To slam Obama as an arrogant schmuck for his comment is to ignore a key phrase in the above comment and the preceding discussion that served as its foundation.

Minutes earlier, Kroft and Obama had a feisty back and forth about the belief that the stimulus didn’t work and how the American people blame him and Congress for the state of the economy. Then Kroft said, “I mean, nobody, if you look at the poll numbers, nobody's particularly happy with you.” He listed the president’s then-dismal poll numbers and asked, “How do you explain it? You think this is just the economy?”

OBAMA: Absolutely, it’s just the economy. I think, you know, if you ask people, “Have we done the right moves in a difficult situation around foreign policy? Have we gone after al Qaeda? Have we ended the war in Iraq, as promised? Have we prepared for a responsible transition in Afghanistan? Have we restored respect around the world?” If you ask them how we’ve performed on things that don’t have to do with the economy and don’t have to do with Congress, they’ll give me high grades, right? So yes, it has to do with the economy. And there’s nothing wrong with the American people holding me accountable, holding Congress accountable. I want that accountability.

Saying “we are at a crossroads,” the president articulated his either-or view of the choice he says the American people will face over the next five years. And then said, “I welcome that debate. I think it’s a healthy debate for the country to have. And I think it’s a debate we can win. Because I am absolutely convinced that the vision I’m presenting is one that is true to the history of this country.” Obama added, “It’s true to the notion that we rise or fall together. And that, you know, when we are firing on all cylinders, because the guy on the factory floor and the guy on the executive suite are both doing well and they’re both focused on making great American products and providing great American services and exporting around the world... That’s the recipe for success that I think the American people are hungry for. It’s just, right now, they haven’t seen enough of it yet.”

What Kroft says next is the foundation upon which Obama built his now-criticized comment about his place among presidents.


KROFT:You definitely have some impressive accomplishments.

OBAMA: Thank you, Steve.

KROFT: No, you do. And more than a lot of presidents who manage to get reelected. My question is, is it enough? Why do you think you deserve to be reelected?

What Obama says next — a reflection on his personal story — will be the topic of another post. But the conversation moved to the Republican candidates and then to his 2004 announcement speech and whether he promised too much and underestimated how tough it would be to achieve his goals. Obama said no to both — shocking, right? — and then talked about how change takes time and put in historical context.

“The one thing I’ve prided myself on before I was president — and it turns out that continues to be true as President — I’m a persistent son of a gun,” he said. “I just stay at it. And I’m just gonna keep on staying at it, as long as I’m in this office.”

This is when Kroft asks the final question of the interview that elicited the “offending” remark.

KROFT: Tell me, what do you consider your major accomplishments? If this is your last speech. What have you accomplished?
OBAMA: Well, we’re not done yet. I’ve got five more years of stuff to do. But not only saving this country from a great depression. Not only saving the auto industry. But putting in place a system in which we’re gonna start lowering health care costs and you’re never gonna go bankrupt because you get sick or somebody in your family gets sick. Making sure that we have reformed the financial system, so we never again have taxpayer-funded bailouts, and the system is more stable and secure. Making sure that we’ve got millions of kids out here who are able to go to college because we’ve expanded student loans and made college more affordable. Ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Decimating al Qaeda, including Bin Laden being taken off the field. Restoring America’s respect around the world.
The issue here is not gonna be a list of accomplishments. As you said yourself, Steve, you know, I would put our legislative and foreign policy accomplishments in our first two years against any president — with the possible exceptions of Johnson, F.D.R., and Lincoln — just in terms of what we’ve gotten done in modern history. But, you know, but when it comes to the economy, we’ve got a lot more work to do. And we’re gonna keep on at it.

It was Kroft who earlier said Obama had “some impressive accomplishments” that were “more than a lot of presidents who manage to get reelected.” It was the president who made clear later that he was talking about his “legislative and foreign policy accomplishments in our first two years” compared to those of other presidents. If Obama is guilty of anything, it’s that he took the bait to compare himself with giants when it is history that will be the final arbiter.

By  |  12:50 PM ET, 12/21/2011

 
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