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Premature Evaluation

An admittedly foolhardy (but no more than the rest) attempt to assess the legacy of Barack Obama.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

The Washington Post‘s Chris Cillizza’s decision the other day to designate President Barack Obama as having the worst year in Washington, started me thinking  about his legacy. With three years to go on his time card, it’s a bit premature to make hard and fast judgments now. A lot of really smart presidential historians will tell you that’s not even possible until years after any president leaves office. Indeed, Bill Moyers, who worked for Lyndon Baines Johnson, believes there are no final reports on presidents — just interim ones.

But I’ll take my chances. One thing already seems pretty clear: Any thought that Obama will be viewed the day — or a decade — after he leaves office as one of our greatest or most fondly-remembered presidents seems highly implausible.

That’s certainly not the way his acolytes or the president himself for that matter sees his future standing. Way back in 2011, when there were more believers than now, Obama all but admitted himself into the presidential hall of fame: In a comment to CBS’s 60 Minutes host Steve Kroft, Obama boldly asserted: "I would put our legislative and foreign policy accomplishments in our first two years against any president — with the possible exceptions of Johnson, FDR, and Lincoln — just in terms of what we’ve gotten done in modern history."

Whoa, Nellie. Historian Merrill Peterson’s notion that Americans venerate Washington, love Lincoln, and remember Jefferson sets an intriguing baseline for great presidents.

In the first two categories, there’s not much room at the inn for Obama. As for the third, he will surely be remembered as a historic president, but perhaps only for who he was — the first black man to occupy the White House. The question that remains, of course, is will he be remembered as a truly consequential president for what he accomplished.

So where will Obama fit in the presidential pantheon in relation to his 42 different predecessors? (There are actually 43, but Grover Cleveland was president twice in non-consecutive terms.) There are a number of things that will provide a more definitive answer: the passage of time; whether a Democrat succeeds him thus ensuring party control, often a sign of real consequence; whether his successors turn out to be better or worse; and of course, what becomes of some of his policies, particularly the Affordable Care Act.

So instead of trying to figure out exactly where Obama may fit in the presidential pantheon, let’s try to rule out where he likely won’t be placed.

Undeniably great?

I don’t think so. We’ve only had three undeniably great presidents — one a century: Washington, Lincoln, and FDR. And their greatness was driven by one common thread: their presidencies coincided with the three greatest crises the nation confronted. Each leader not only shepherded the country through monumental crisis but used it to transform the country in some profound way that transcended party affiliation and gained historic and popular legitimacy. Obama’s supporters viewed him as a crisis president who took the reins during a near total economic collapse and see his transformative abilities in the passage of the health care initiative. But Obama’s challenge was not nearly as severe, his successes not half as dramatic, nor his persona and political skills as extraordinary. I knew Abe Lincoln. And Barack Obama is no Abe Lincoln.

One of our worst? Fortunately for Obama, he’ll escape this category too. For the Obama haters, of course, he will always be Satan’s finger on Earth. And I suppose there’s still time for some ghastly transgression. But our worst presidents seem to fall into a couple different categories. By and large, they fail to anticipate or respond to severe crises that threaten the nation either by fiddling, being out of touch, or not doing enough to deal with the disaster. The James Buchanan and Herbert Hoover presidencies fit this model. The really bad presidents we’ve had also seem to be mired in scandal, (see: Warren Harding, Richard Nixon), particularly when the transgression involves stepping on the Constitution — the very source of authority for the system that our leaders are pledged to protect. Whatever else his detractors may say about him, this president has neither fiddled nor transgressed that badly.

Not a great president but great at being president?

I thought at one point, given his rhetorical skills and presence, that Obama would be one of those politicians who really loved the presidency, and whose policies — however ineffective or controversial — would be trumped to an extent by his capacity to lead the nation through the office itself. Kennedy comes to mind; Reagan and Clinton, too (before Monica Lewinsky). Obama has had his moments. But he just seems too detached and too removed for too much of the time to shine at this aspect of the job. And it’s not because he’s a bumbler, unattractive, or lacking in charisma and style. It’s just that his aversion to politics — his reluctance to glad hand and bond — shows. He just doesn’t seem to enjoy the presidency. There are times when I think Obama actually hates politics; that it’s just not in his blood.Indeed, there are times when I think the president actually hates politics; that it’s just not in his blood.

Simultaneously one of the best and worst?

Nor is Obama likely to be  a high and low president — that is to say, producing a truly great accomplishment in one category, but falling to the depths of disaster in another. Woodrow Wilson might belong in this box — he emerged as one of the greatest legislative presidents, but dropped the ball in his management of the post-war peace and his party was repudiated decisively by voters in 1920. Clearly, LBJ belongs here for the extraordinary contrast between passing two civil rights bills, creating Medicare/Medicaid, and the tragedy of escalating the U.S. role in Vietnam. You could slot Nixon in here, as well — a brilliant foreign policy president and yet a man undone by Watergate.

Obama is unlikely to be seen this way, in part because his greatest potential accomplishment and legacy may well be his biggest problem, too. Indeed, much will depend on how Obamacare plays out over time. Should the president’s foreign policy efforts lead to a defanged, de-nuclearized Iran and a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace (though odds are against it), the fortunes of his presidency will improve too.

Symbol of an age?

Obama came into office promising a post-partisan Washington; he was a change agent determined to fix what was broken and to inject civility and hope back into Washington. He never had a chance. Neither the macro trends lines nor the city’s granular politics would allow it. The Republicans wanted him out, immediately. And his own transformative pretensions meant that rather than a unifying figure he became a polarizing one, exploited by his opponents — man of the left, Muslim, socialist, and black (sadly, a delegitimizing force that most would never admit).

Obama simply became too black and white a figure to represent a consensus of any kind or to embody in a positive sense the spirit of an age. This wasn’t a man who was likely to represent the whirlwind muscular activism of a Teddy Roosevelt
, the new frontier spirit of a John F. Kennedy, or even the partly manufactured "Morning in America" ethos of a Ronald Reagan. Part of it was Obama’s own personal detachment and professor-like limitations.

But much more had to do with the reality that the country was fundamentally still divided and polarized — with a media seemingly determined to keep it that way. But America is also suffering from a loss of national cohesion, and a decline in faith and confidence in government institutions and the political class. Sometimes I wonder whether it will ever be possible for us to have a politician who’s genuinely popular and respected across party lines and admired by a majority of the public too.

* * *

The presidency isn’t often a story of great men doing great deeds. The presidency isn’t often a story of great men doing great deeds. Counting the three undeniable great men who’ve excelled when handed the nation’s top office, you can add in a half-dozen more to the truly consequential and outstanding category. And there you have it. The balance of the presidency has been much more a record of good, decent men — some more talented than others — trying to accomplish things under very difficult circumstances.

Barack Obama inherited the presidency during some very tough times: the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression and bogged down in the two longest wars of its history. He sought transformation with his health care initiative at a time when the country was deeply polarized and may well have wanted only an end to the economic roller-coaster ride and a transactional effort to fix the economy.

That Obama was reelected to a second term (one of only 17 presidents) clearly meant that enough Americans approved of where he was taking the country.

But even though I voted for him twice, I can’t help thinking sometimes that Peggy Noonan was right. Recalling Claire Booth Luce’s advice to JFK that a great man can be summed up in one sentence, Noonan crafted one for Obama. "He brought America back from economic collapse and kept us strong and secure in the age of terror."

It wasn’t transformational. But frankly given the odds Barack Obama faced, it should have been good enough to have made him a pretty damn good president. Maybe it still will be. But Obama has taken a risk with the Affordable Care Act and reached for far more than that. In doing so, he’s risked his own credibility, weakened his presidency, and perhaps undermined the perception that government in fact can deliver something this comprehensive to the American people.

Whether or not it pans out remains to be seen. Let’s see what the next three years brings and what the presidential gods (and historians) eventually have to say on the matter.

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President. @aarondmiller2
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