Presidential criticism knows no single season. Every year produces a plethora of commentary on which leader has done the best, on which has been the least consequential. Those lists are fairly consistent. Names like Lincoln, Washington, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and John F. Kennedy take the top spots, while Warren G. Harding, James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce, and Herbert Hoover appear consistently among the most ignominious American presidents. And while these lists serve to both mythologize past leaders and sift through history, obsessive list-making and ranking does more than just make sense of history. Almost more importantly, this practice helps give some balance, perspective, and tough comparisons to the analyses of our current leaders. This style of list-making requires the author, at least to some degree, to create a methodology for judging possible entrants, and methodology produces important questions for criticizing and commenting on the current administration. There are always accomplishments to tally and failures to tabulate, but that method leaves aside context. So here’s a look at other considerations that can be used to judge Obama’s presidency other than how many people hate the Affordable Care Act or wish his administration had brought the bipartisanship it promised.
Did Americans expect too much of Obama?
The first question to consider is whether President Barack Obama began his presidency with too high expectations. He entered the White House in January 2009 after a decisive victory against Arizona Senator John McCain. Bear in mind that public opinion is an imperfect measure, especially now that polls no longer reach a representative swatch of the American public and far fewer high-quality surveys exist. But, nonetheless, President Obama’s drastic drop in favorability tells an important story.
The day after the November 2008 election, Politico’s Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin contemplated the “grand symbolism of Obama’s victory,” a win that “reflected the accuracy of his vision of a reshaped country.” Throughout the campaign, his message of “hope and change,” a slogan that became the most enduring image of the 2008 elections, appealed to a nation facing skyrocketing unemployment and stagnant wages. His desire to build a better America by drawing the diverse nation together, ending acrimonious partisanship and government opacity, decreasing the country’s global footprint, and creating economic security of the average citizen was a welcome change for voters after the Bush Administration. Obama drew his strength from an array of “racially mixed, growing areas around cities such as Orlando, Fla., Washington, Indianapolis and Columbus, Ohio,” noted Smith and Martin. In his acceptance speech that night, Obama neatly encapsulated the idea that made his campaign so much more resonant to voters than that of John McCain. “This victory alone is not the change we seek — it is only the chance to make that change,” he said. And that was the expectation when he entered office, at least according to his more fervent supporters.
That glow had not yet subsisted completely by his second term in office, when Gallup’s February 2011 poll found that 5% of Americans viewed Obama to be the country’s best president. That may be a small percentage, yet it was surprising that a president barely halfway through his first term was included on the list at all. A year later, the results of a second Gallup poll showed the narrative had begun to change; with the battle over the health care reform begun and the lingering economic malaise, just 10% of Americans viewed him as an outstanding president, while 60% believed he would go down in history as average, below average, or poor. By 2013, the share who called him an outstanding president had shrunk to 6%, and the number of those expecting him to be seen by history as average or worse jumped to 71%. Then in June of 2014, a Quinnipiac University survey of over 1,400 Americans found that Obama was seen as the best modern president by 8% of respondents, and the worst president since World War II by 33%.
Are public opinion polls too limiting a measure of presidential greatness?
Another point to consider when looking at public opinion polls such as Gallup’s tally of the greatest U.S. president, is that the survey question is open-ended, meaning respondents are not given choices. The style of the poll tends to increase the mention of recent presidents. Also, participants “clearly evaluate presidents through partisans lens — with Democrats and Republicans each most likely to choose a greatest president within their own party,” noted the Gallup report. Democrats are more likely to name Bill Clinton, the last Democratic president not currently in office, and Republicans tend to choose Ronald Reagan.
A survey of several hundred members of the American Political Science Association on the question of presidential greatness and Obama’s place in history, administered by Brandon Rottinghaus of the University of Houston and Justin S. Vaughn of Boise State University from May to November of last year, showed a more moderate assessment of his abilities, and, obviously, no real growth in disillusionment. “Scholarly perspectives have showed less variance, partly a function of being less subject to the over-exuberance of regular citizens in the early days of the Obama presidency and, so far, less disappointment by his performance in the years since,” noted Brookings’ analysis of the data.
The survey generally confirmed long-standing assumptions, although some rankings were surprising. “The very top of the rankings are consistent with what similar studies have shown for years — America’s greatest presidents are Lincoln, Washington and Franklin Roosevelt …What is new and noteworthy, though, is the rise of Bill Clinton as one of the greatest modern presidents and the slow sinking of Barack Obama to the bottom quartile of modern presidents,” noted Vaughn.
“If another Mount Rushmore could be carved, it would feature Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and Andrew Jackson,” added Rottinghaus. “Other recent presidential favorites didn’t make the list, including Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy.”
Do Americans blame the president too much?
A final counterpoint to consider is whether American presidents are overrated, unfairly credited as the sole mover of American politics. In an opinion piece published by CNN, Julian Zelizer argued that “school textbooks and media accounts all suggest that everything that is good and bad can be understood as the result of a president’s skill, personal foibles and decision-making ability.” As examples, Zelizer cites the common criticism that Bill Clinton had been too willing to sell out traditional Democratic principles; Geroge W. Bush had failed to understand the complexity of foreign affairs, and that Barack Obama should have been more willing to negotiate on Capitol Hill. Lyndon Johnson has been both lionized for his creation of the Great Society, and bashed for almost “single-handedly” pushing the United States further into the Vietnam War.
There is a simple reason for the oversized focus American put on the president. The president is powerful, and “through his story, we can tell a clear narrative about the complicated processes of politics,” wrote Zelizer. “There is a dramatic arc that can be used to describe the career of a president that serves as a crutch for many journalists and historians, lending itself to more exciting accounts of what happens in Washington than someone who digs deeper into the trenches of the messy political process.” But Congress is equally important. Great legislative breakthroughs, such as the New Deal and the Great Society, were brought about through negotiations with Congress, although both Franklin Roosevelt and Johnson faced strong obstruction after the 1938 elections and 1966 elections, respectively. And the political process must be examined. From the 1930s through the 1960s, the congressional chairman wielded immense power over legislating. Now, the influence of private money, donors, and lobbyists impacts lawmaking just as much as Obama does, stated Zelizer. Case in point, the financial regulations passed during the financial crisis provided loopholes for Wall Street.
The American electorate also plays a role, stated Zelizer. Even though, the public has grown more cynical over the power their vote has, he claimed landslide victories can create critical mass that is capable of pushing a particular agenda. Elections can effectively strengthen a president’s opponents as the past congressional midterms did. And grassroots activism can significantly shift public opinion, and therefore, the outcome of a presidency. The intense mobilization of activists in the 1960s pushed Johnson to craft civil rights legislation. Finally, presidents are limited by the foreign policy they inherit: Johnson was handed Vietnam, and Obama had the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the Bush-era counterterrorism programs.
Vaughn and Jennifer Mercieca, an associate professor and associate head of communication at Texas A&M University, argued in the recently published, The Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations: Establishing the Obama Presidency, a similar concept: Presidents face huge expectations for heroism and greatness, while the political reality of the American system of government provides but fleeting opportunities to fill that role. They argue that a president must face three burdens during this challenge: “institutional burdens (the ‘glorious burdens’ specific to the presidency itself); contextual burdens (burdens to the historic moment within which the president assumes and holds office); and personal burdens (burdens specific to the individual president).”
Plus, Vaughn and Mercieca wrote that Obama also faced addition contextual factors like ongoing partisanship, the tough economic recovery, ongoing wars in the Middle East, and the reality of being the first African American president. “No other American president has had to worry about expressions of emotion being interpreted as evidence of an ‘angry black man,’ they commented. “Moreover, as Obama has had to reckon with both the unique problems of the current political moment and the personal challenges he alone faces, he must also wrestle with the burdens that come with the office itself and that all presidents confront.”
More from Politics Cheat Sheet:
- Obama: A Lame Duck or President Reborn?
- Obama Won’t Say, but the Real State of the Union Is a Political Mess
- Here’s How the President’s Use of the Media Has Evolved
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