“Now these days when he's not spending our money or infringing on our rights, he’s busy running for reelection. He believes that — did you hear this? He believes he ranks among the top four presidents in American history. Can you believe that? I’d find a different spot for him.”

— Mitt Romney, Feb. 28, 2012


A reader asked us about this statement in the former Massachusetts governor’s speech after his victories in the Michigan and Arizona primaries. This comment has its roots in something Obama said that caused a brief stir in the conservative blogosphere just before Christmas, so we figured it was worth exploring.

 In Romney’s telling, Obama comes off as an arrogant twit. So, did the president really say this?


The Facts

 In December, Obama sat down for an interview with Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes.” The clip in question was never aired on CBS, but the full interview was later posted on the CBS News Web site. (See below at the 55-minute mark.)

During the interview, Kroft laid the groundwork by offering the president words of praise:

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?

At the end of the interview, Obama then referred back to that exchange and said this: 

 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.

 Hmmm. Obama’s comment is puzzling on several levels. It took place at the end of the third year of his presidency, but he refers to his first two years. He talks about “modern history” but then includes Abraham Lincoln (a president 150 years ago) on the list.

Obama also refers to “foreign policy accomplishments,” though in the interview he only mentioned “restoring America’s respect in the world” and killing Osama bin Laden, though, again, the bin Laden killing took place in his third year.

 After the health-care bill was signed into law, some of Obama’s aides were quoted as saying his legislative accomplishments were the equal of Lyndon Johnson (Medicare and Medicaid) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (Social Security).

 That might be a defensible statement, depending on your perspective. In fact, Congressional Quarterly magazine said in 2010 that in his first year, Obama had the highest success rate in winning congressional votes in the more than 50 years it had calculated such scores.

But by tossing Lincoln and foreign policy into the mix, Obama raises all sorts of questions. What about Harry Truman (NATO and the Marshall Plan), Woodrow Wilson (World War I and 14 Points) and Theodore Roosevelt (Nobel Peace Prize, etc.), if you are thinking of only presidents since Lincoln?

 White House spokesman Jay Carney at the time said that Obama was talking about his first three years in office but “this was not a comparison of success to other presidencies except in the significance and substance and size of the legislative accomplishments.” He then mentioned the health-care law, the economic stimulus, the auto bailout, the fight against al Qaeda and backing of the Libyan opposition against Moammar Gaddafi.

 So, it kind of sounds like it wasn’t a comparison to other presidents — except when it was.

 The Romney campaign argues that it is a straightforward interpretation of Obama’s remarks to assume he was ranking his accomplishments among the top four presidents.

To show that others have shared this interpretation, Eric Fehrenstrom, a Romney senior adviser, provided links to a Politico article (titled: “Obama the fourth best President?”) and a Wall Street Journal editorial (titled: “The Fourth Best President: Well, maybe second or third best, if Obama can say so himself”).

 History, of course, will ultimately judge. Obama has a steady climb to get himself in the top four.

A survey of 238 presidential scholars in 2010  by the Siena College Research Institute placed Obama in 15th place. The top 10 were: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Woodrow Wilson, Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Lyndon B. Johnson ranked 16th, just behind Obama, but ranked first for his relationship with Congress.

Another recent poll, by the United States Presidency Centre of the United Kingdom, was released in 2011, based on a survey of UK specialists on American politics and history.  In this case, the top 10 were: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Harry S. Truman, Ronald Reagan, Andrew Jackson and Dwight D. Eisenhower. LBJ placed 11th.  The survey also gave Obama an “interim” ranking of eighth place.

The Pinocchio Test

 This is a puzzling one. Obama was foolish to take the bait and start comparing himself to other presidents by name. (Note to the president: Leave that task to anonymous staffers.) And while he might have had a case when talking about the narrow perspective of big laws passed in the early years of the presidency since the Great Depression (“modern history”) he leaves us flummoxed with the references to foreign policy and Lincoln.  

 As for Romney, it is debatable that Obama actually said he belonged in the top four “in American history” though some have certainly drawn that conclusion. But it is not as cut and dried as Romney suggests.

 So a Solomonic decision: A Pinocchio each.  

One Pinocchio

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