-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan
A friend recently told me that she intends to convince me that Barack Obama "is the best president of our lifetime." Regular readers of this blog know that this would seem to be a steep hill to climb, because I have been highly critical of Obama since even before he was inaugurated. (Among many examples of my often-fierce criticism of our President, see here.) I was never a big believer in Obama in the first place, but I did strongly support him over Hillary Clinton in the primaries. Over the course of his first three years in office, however, I have become ever more convinced that he is simply a right-of-center old-fashioned moderate Republican, rather than (as his defenders suggest) a true progressive who has been forced by political realities to agree to pragmatic compromises.
Of course, I knew all along that, when push came to shove, we would all fall in line behind Obama in 2012. There was simply no way to picture any of his potential rivals pursuing a moderate (or even a non-horrific) agenda, especially given that any putative Republican moderate would feel an unrelenting need to prove his fealty to the conservative base's extreme agenda. There was simply never any plausible scenario in which I could have found myself in 2012 not supporting the re-election of Barack Obama. And now that the Republican presidential primaries are in full swing, exposing the craziness on the other side of the aisle, liberals like me are predictably ramping down our criticisms of the President.
That, however, is a far cry from saying that Barack Obama is the best President to have served in my lifetime. I might tolerate him, given the bleak alternatives, but anyone familiar with my arguments would find it difficult to imagine that I would praise him in such seemingly glowing terms. Yet such praise could actually be seen as hardly praise at all, because the competition is so weak. Even this strong endorsement of Obama could be, I thus admit, a matter of damning with faint praise. As I argue below, however, he deserves significantly more than the bare minimum of credit.
My friend and I were born in 1959. The Presidents who began their terms during our lifetimes are: Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush pere, Clinton, Bush fils, and Obama. No matter how one might define "best President," it is obvious that Ford, Carter, and both Bushes are not in the running. (The younger Bush is, in fact, easily on the short list to be remembered as the worst President in the country's history.) That is not to say that there are no positives on their records (with both Carter and the elder Bush being center-right pragmatists, operating in different political eras), but there is almost nothing that would make them the best.
That leaves Obama contending against Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton. Rather than trying to nail down a single definition of what makes a President the best, perhaps it is better simply to describe a few pro's and con's for each man.
Kennedy -- The strongest argument for JFK is symbolic, which is (in his case) anything but faint praise. No matter what else one might think of his presidency, this is a man who was truly transformative, inspiring his and succeeding generations to strive for high ideals in government and society. (This is what many of us thought we might also be getting in Obama, but his post-election persona became surprisingly passive and flat.) The Kennedy record, however, was rather thin (even accounting for the tragic brevity of his presidency), with only a stimulative tax cut plan springing to mind as a major piece of legislation. He handled the Cuban Missile Crisis well, and the Peace Corps was extremely important, too, in its limited way. Still, Kennedy's errors regarding Vietnam tend to dominate my assessment of his Presidency, much to his detriment. (I was only four-and-a-half years old when he died, so this is all obviously based on subsequent study.)
Johnson -- We can simply put Vietnam up front here, and declare LBJ no longer in the running. This, as many have argued, is a tragedy, because so many good things happened under Johnson's guidance. The Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the creation of Medicare, and the Great Society in general, were all profoundly important breakthroughs in American history. Not everything worked out well, of course, but America is substantially better for everything that Johnson achieved. Although it is arguable that some of his achievements were initially Kennedy's proposals, I see no reason to believe that Kennedy would have been able to pass the bills that Johnson did, and certainly not in the strong form in which they were passed.
Nixon -- Can anything overcome Nixon's handling of the Vietnam war, much less Watergate (and the paranoid imperial presidency that spawned it)? No, but the other side of the ledger is surprisingly strong. Nixon's presidency saw us go off the gold standard, which was an important modernization of our economic policy. The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts continue to this day to prevent and mitigate damage to the environment, despite decades of subsequent chipping away at their effectiveness. He had important successes in warming relations during the Cold War, including possibly the most important nuclear arms treaty in history. Like LBJ's presidency, Nixon's remains a tragedy, for the extreme contrast between its unsung successes and its horrible errors.
Reagan -- As Rossalyn Carter once said (and I'm recalling this from memory, not from a written source), "Reagan made people feel comfortable with their prejudices." The Reagan presidency was spawned from his baseless attacks on "welfare queens," and he was a master of racially coded language and policies. What of his supposed successes? Inflation came down significantly during his presidency, but that was the result of policies enacted by the Fed under Paul Volcker, a Carter appointee. (Ironically, the recession that Volcker engineered to reduce inflation effectively guaranteed that Carter would be a one-term President.) Reagan supposedly "won the Cold War," but even contemporaneously that was a preposterous claim, given that the Soviet Union had crumbled under the weight of its own contradictions and corruption. After a severe recession in his first term, Reagan did preside over decent economic growth and improvements in the unemployment picture, to his credit. And he was willing to raise taxes. His foreign policy was a disaster, especially in Central America, and his second term was essentially a holding pattern.
The most important negative about Reagan's presidency (even more than his undermining of civil rights gains), however, was that his policies clearly precipitated the thirty-year decline in the middle class that we have experienced since then. Reagan is the father of the 1% and the 99%. Union busting, safety-net shredding, and everything else that present-day Republicans have raised to the nth degree, all began under Reagan. Whatever "optimism" some people might have felt from seeing his friendly smile can hardly overcome what Reagan's persona and policies have inflicted on the country and the world.
Clinton -- Finally, what of Bill Clinton? A record-setting economic expansion, including budget surpluses in the later years, form the central argument in the brief for Clinton. As I have pointed out here before, however, Clinton spent most of his presidency undermining his party's legacy and betraying its ideals: welfare "reform," AEDPA, IIRIRA, DOMA, and NAFTA were either bad ideas in their entirety, or needlessly flawed legislation that left the weak and vulnerable to suffer. Clinton also endorsed budget balancing, setting the stage for the current budget insanity.
Perhaps Clinton's most important failure, however, can be seen in the Democrats' loss of the House of Representative in 1994, after forty years in the majority. Clinton's candidacy and presidency traded heavily on Triangulation, the idea that Old Democrats were bad, just as Republicans were bad. This left voters in 1994 seeing one party attacking Democrats, while the leader of the Democratic party made it clear that he did not like his own party, either. Why would anyone vote for them? This self-defeating approach has infected the Democrats ever since.
In sum, the Presidents who have served during my lifetime have either been unremarkable (Ford, Carter, Bush I), terrible (Reagan, Bush II), or a combination of huge positives canceled out by bigger negatives (LBJ, Nixon, Clinton). Only JFK seems plausible as a "best President" nominee, and only because of the lasting impact of his aura, rather than for anything achieved under his presidency.
Obama, therefore, need not have done much to take the top spot. Although he has many negatives marks on his record (especially his adoption of Bush's aggressive militarism, and his poor handling of terrorist detention policies), even when I am being most relentlessly critical of Obama, my complaint has generally been that he has done too little (without apparently trying very hard), such as his poor handling of the budget fights in 2011. The stimulus was too small, and it was certainly a missed opportunity, but it still did a lot of good. The health care law is deeply flawed, but it was still historic.
Most importantly, as I argued almost two years ago in "The Economic Catastrophe That We Avoided," Obama (and the Bernanke Fed) successfully prevented the financial crisis from exploding into a second Great Depression. Bailouts (of banks and auto companies), stimulus, and aggressive economic intervention were all hurriedly undertaken at a time when economists seriously wondered whether we were about to see the global economic system completely collapse. Obama made serious mistakes, both in substance and politics, but we avoided the worst.
I do continue to believe that Obama is a center-right Republican, because the policies that he pursued to prevent a new depression were anything but leftist. In many cases, he simply carried out policies that were either begun in a bipartisan fashion before he took office, or that would have been enacted in weaker form under a conservative Republican President. (McCain, in 2009, surely would also have acceded to calls for stimulus and bailouts.) Obama is no FDR, but at least he prevented us from needing another FDR to get us out of an even bigger economic catastrophe.
As I noted above, saying Obama is the best President of my lifetime could be nothing more than consummate faint praise. Saying that he is the best by a large degree, while less faint, in no way suggests that he could not have done much, much better. Given the alternatives, it is impossible not to hope that he will be in office for five more years, during which he can prove that he really understands what Democrats should be fighting for.