Five years into the Obama presidency is certainly not too early to take a preliminary sighting by political sextant, understanding that three more years can be a long time, for better or worse, for a president’s historical reputation.
Where should we place President Obama within the continuum of the title’s terms? Great presidents successfully face nation-defining circumstances — guiding a new country into its cultural, economic and political existence (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson), fighting major wars (Franklin D. Roosevelt), overcoming economic depressions (Roosevelt) and keeping the Union intact (Abraham Lincoln). Their mistakes and excesses (Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus; Roosevelt’s internment of the Japanese) are weighed against the problems they faced, and represent an exception to an otherwise exceptional record.
Good presidents successfully face major, but not catastrophic, problems such as managing the Cold War (Dwight D. Eisenhower), rekindling public confidence with a leadership and governing paradigm that works (Ronald Reagan), as well as dealing with ordinary presidential problems (economic downturns, non-catastrophic foreign policy crises).
Average presidents do their jobs adequately if not well. Like every other president, they sign numerous bills into law, initiate some of their policies (Bill Clinton and welfare reform; George H.W. Bush’s managing the demise of the Soviet Union). Sometimes, as in Lyndon B. Johnson’s case, their signature accomplishments (a major civil rights law) are balanced out by unpopular and unsuccessful wars (Vietnam) or landmark legislation (Great Society) that over time goes awry.
Mediocre presidents do not lack accomplishments so much as being historically haunted by gross errors of judgment or leadership (Nixon, Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter). Some poor presidents serve, period, to no particular distinction, one way or another (Warren G. Harding).
For Obama, we can rule out placing him in the best or the worst categories. He said he wanted to be a great, transforming president, but has fallen far short. Nor can we say that he has been a poor president — although if his signature heath-care law ultimately fails, he will be in danger of a legacy of mediocrity.
Nor can we accurately say that Obama has been a good president. His quest for greatness and for transforming the country led him to govern from his left-center convictions in a still centrist country. This, in turn, has helped to further stimulate domestic division and growing opposition to his plans, and left him facing diminished opportunities for accomplishments in his last three years.
It’s true that the president has reached out to his opposition, but with his definition of bipartisanship. In a 2006 interview, he said: “You can have the best agenda in the world, but if you don’t control the gavel, you cannot move an agenda forward. And, when you do control the gavel . . . you have to be the one who’s dictating how the compromises work.”
Early in his presidency, Obama told Rep. Eric Cantor, then the House Republican whip, during an early negotiating session over the size of the 2009 economic stimulus package, “I won,” effectively ending the discussion about any balance of tax breaks and public spending. His outreach during the health-care debate was described by The Washington Post as follows: “As Democrats on Capitol Hill prepared a risky effort to muscle sweeping health-care legislation to final passage, President Obama . . . made a last gambit to split Republicans on the issue, proposing to incorporate a handful of GOP ideas into his signature domestic initiative.”
Nor will the president’s historical reputation be burnished by his misleading promises made to gain public acceptance of his one signature legislative accomplishment. Decades-long relationships between people and their doctors, critically important and very personal, have been disrupted for millions. Rules governing the new health-care system have been repeatedly modified, sometimes for one group, sometimes for another. It remains unclear whether the legislation will lower medical costs and provide insurance to most of those who didn’t have it. Any failures to achieve these goals must be weighed against the social, political and cultural costs of this complex legislation. The president’s legislation may, on historical reflection, come to resemble Johnson’s Great Society initiatives — permeated by unrealistic intentions that frequently failed in their stated purposes, even as they resulted in damaging unintended consequences.
It could be that events in the next three years will change the pattern of this president’s trajectory. He might be able to work with Republicans on big economic issues such as reforming the tax code, assuming Republicans will work with him. However, greatness fervently sought but denied is not a psychological recipe for compromise.
Or, an improvement to his stature might materialize from abroad. But this is doubtful. Winding down even an unpopular war in circumstances that risk the original investment is an equivocal accomplishment. Betting on a nuclear status quo with Iran, without a significant dismantling of their capabilities, is a major risk. What if Iran simply announced a year before the end of Obama’s term that they had indeed become a member of the nuclear club? Would the president then start of war by ordering a military strike on the basis of an announcement that might or might not be true?
The president is, on balance, average. He has signed into law the usual number of administration-favored bills. His major important legislative accomplishment may never prove its worth.
Obama seems tempted to buttress his historical standing with a series of executive actions in the area of global warming and perhaps elsewhere. The danger here is that ordinary Americans will see the president as pursuing his own ambitions for greatness at the expense of addressing their more down-to-earth economic concerns.
Should that happen, he will have begun the transition from an average president to a mediocre one.