What now? The greatest American president since Roosevelt

If you want to contemplate a real potential surprise from Barack Obama, then consider for a second the possibility that he lives up to the hype. While it is axiom of life that things are almost never as good or as bad as you might imagine or fear them to be, it is not out ...

589355_090120_Obama_next_great_pres_1.20_resized2.jpg
589355_090120_Obama_next_great_pres_1.20_resized2.jpg

If you want to contemplate a real potential surprise from Barack Obama, then consider for a second the possibility that he lives up to the hype.

While it is axiom of life that things are almost never as good or as bad as you might imagine or fear them to be, it is not out of the question that Barack Obama actually lives up to or exceeds expectations. He certainly has a number of things going for him that could position him well to receive a favorable verdict from history. First, he is coming to office at a time of grave national crisis. This is almost a pre-requisite for being seen as a great president, whether it is Washington inheriting a fragile new state, Lincoln seeking to preserve the Union or Roosevelt confronting first a depression and then a global war. (It helps also to follow former commerce secretary and Blackstone Chairman's Pete Peterson's maxim that the secret to success in any job is to pick the right predecessor. Washington had King George and the failed leadership of the Confederation, Lincoln had Buchanan, Roosevelt had Hoover and Obama...well, how lucky can you get?)

If you want to contemplate a real potential surprise from Barack Obama, then consider for a second the possibility that he lives up to the hype.

While it is axiom of life that things are almost never as good or as bad as you might imagine or fear them to be, it is not out of the question that Barack Obama actually lives up to or exceeds expectations. He certainly has a number of things going for him that could position him well to receive a favorable verdict from history. First, he is coming to office at a time of grave national crisis. This is almost a pre-requisite for being seen as a great president, whether it is Washington inheriting a fragile new state, Lincoln seeking to preserve the Union or Roosevelt confronting first a depression and then a global war. (It helps also to follow former commerce secretary and Blackstone Chairman’s Pete Peterson’s maxim that the secret to success in any job is to pick the right predecessor. Washington had King George and the failed leadership of the Confederation, Lincoln had Buchanan, Roosevelt had Hoover and Obama…well, how lucky can you get?)

To be great, you must rise to great challenges. It is also not a small thing that is a great public speaker, a master politician, telegenic, a man of great charm. Often public perceptions of the success of a president have more to do with his relationship with the press and the public than his achievements. Kennedy is the prime example here. A mid-range president at best, one who arguably repeatedly fumbled and put the nation at great risk at the Bay of Pigs, opposite Khrushchev in Vienna, during the Cuban Missile Crisis or in the early phases of Vietnam, Kennedy is revered both due to the tragic circumstances of his loss but also due to the deep bond of affection he established both with the American people and with those who would ultimately write about and thus enshrine his legacy. Reagan is another example of a president whose modest successes were magnified through his mastery of camera lenses of every type. But beyond circumstances and perceptions, Obama has a number of things going for him that suggest he could warrant the hoopla that has greeted his arrival. First, he has proven during the campaign that he can run a tight ship, that he has an exceptional political gift and that he can take a punch. He has the kind of apparent equanimity and balance that breed loyalty in those close to him and are character traits found in many of our best leaders. Next, he has surrounded himself with a great team of professionals. This is likely to reduce his learning curve, minimize the mistakes that are made and provide the organizational strength that is needed in the era of the corporate presidency when no one man can ever possibly do the job. Further, while his predecessor also came in with a good team, Obama’s is less ideological, more from the solid center where most American foreign and domestic policy successes have been crafted, and he is significantly better informed and more intellectually up to the task of sorting through the options given to him.

In addition, a number of factors play to his advantage. First, one of his greatest achievements will take place the moment he utters the oath of office. He assumes a historical role from the beginning. Next, in so doing, he not only restores America’s standing to a world that for the most part seeks and counts on a strong America, but he also sends a message that this is a country that still is capable of extraordinary things, of advancing democratic ideals to levels even many of our closest allies could not hope to achieve. George Bush talked about American values and debased them. Barack Obama need not ever mention them because he himself will embody their realization. And when he does mention them, he will have a credibility many of his predecessors could only hope for. Further, it is almost certainly true that no matter what Obama does on the economy we will ultimately recover during his presidency and it is also almost certainly true that no matter what he does on foreign policy our problems in hot spots like the Middle East, South Asia, with radical extremists and rogue nations seeking their place in the sun will almost certainly outlast him, even were he to serve two terms. The secret in both respects is setting expectations. He must push back on hopes of a speedy recovery even as he takes swift, constant and substantial action to bring it on. Further, his current strategy of building the stimulus around a vision of a new American economy that lays the groundwork for a green revolution, for rejuvenated infrastructure, and for an education system that will make American workers more competitive in the global marketplace of tomorrow is sound and gives his actions lift. His early focus on restoring transparency and security through wiser regulation of the financial system and on restoring American competitiveness and laying the groundwork for our ultimate return to fiscal health through renovating our health care system will also be critical factors…and if movement toward them occurs in year one, it is hard to imagine that he does not continue to ride a wave of enthusiastic public opinion and deserved high regard well into his term.

On the foreign policy front, again, expectations are key. His only sine qua non is drawing down our presence in Iraq, his central campaign promise. Beyond that, he must do everything he can to keep the country safe from attack. He will have to early on demonstrate that his foreign policy consists of more than a willingness to talk…but global circumstances and his predisposition and that of his cabinet suggest a welcome return to multilateralism that will help restore and strengthen ties. This could be seen as a key triumph of his and is a likely one. Further, given the massive changes that may be required in a host of international mechanisms-from new ones pertaining to financial regulation and the environment to existing ones pertaining to policy coordination (the move from the G7 to the G20) and security-it could well be that Obama presides over the greatest reinvention of the international system since Truman. (More on this later this week.) Further with the national security team he has in place, it is hard to imagine he will not confront early tests with appropriate and unflinching force where necessary.

Naturally, much of Obama’s legacy will be shaped by events unimaginable to us now. Every president has one or more such crises in which ultimately promises and canned policy papers fall aside and character is revealed. This is what really separates great presidents from all the others. This president, son of an immigrant and a mother who raised him alone, a mixed-raced child in a society that throughout his life has been torn by racial tensions, who has managed to triumph in the ivy towers of academy and in their polar opposite, Chicago politics, and who then defeated great entrenched powers to become president of the United States, certainly has given every indication such character is there.

Could he falter? Of course. Most presidents are not great. (Remember, Buchanan also inherited great challenges, a nation that soon faced the Panic of 1857, a divided nation like the one his successor Lincoln inherited. He also may have been a trailblazer as rumors abound that he may have been our first gay president. But he did not rise to the challenges of the time and today is regarded as the worst American president.) Fortunately for us, even failed presidents do not do us in (though Buchanan’s errors nearly did and it is too early to say how badly Bush has weakened us in the long term.) But the surprise of fulfilled hopes is by no means the most far-fetched prognosis for the Obama Administration and it is certainly one that should remain as a goal and a guide for him and for us throughout the next four to eight years.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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