Is Barack Obama the greatest president of our lifetimes? According to an aggregate ranking by presidential scholars, the answer is yes: President Obama is ranked the 14th best president ever, tied with LBJ and just slightly behind JFK (ranked #11 by the presidential scholars). Of course, this ranking is only through 2010, so it doesn’t count an additional 12 months of job gains and economic growth in 2011, not to mention the decimation of Al Qaeda and the killing of Osama bin Laden, also in 2011. Given that 2011 was generally a good year for President Obama, it probably would be fair to ratchet up his rating by 2 or 3 points, putting him in the range of JFK (#11), John Adams (#12), James Madison (#13), and James Monroe (#14).
But wait, you say, those are a bunch of presidential scholars, what do they know? (being snarky here, but that’s probably what right wingers would try to claim, just like they believe climate scientists don’t know anything about…climate). OK, fine, so what about public opinion, if you’re one of those who believe that the people always know best? How about this 2/11 Gallup poll, which ranked Barack Obama #7, behind Ronald Reagan (uhhhhh…this is why I go with the scholars over the public; you MUST be freakin’ kidding!), Abraham Lincoln, Bill Clinton (to be bipartisan here, you MUST be freakin’ kidding me; Clinton’s a greater president than George Washington, FDR, Teddy Roosevelt, and Thomas Jefferson? Riiiight!).
Now, forget the polls and just think it out for yourself. Clearly, since JFK, we’ve had a string of less-than-Mount-Rushmore-level presidents. First, we had LBJ, who did some great things (Great Society, Voting Rights Act, Civil Rights Act) but also was basically destroyed by Vietnam and bowed out for reelection in 1968. Then we had Richard Nixon, who also did some good things (opening to China, detente with the Soviets, established the EPA, enforced desegregation of southern schools), but of course was brought down by the Watergate scandals and his own paranoia, insecurity, and other demons. I’ll skip over Gerald Ford, as he was neither elected nor reelected, and move on to Jimmy Carter, a good man who negotiated the Camp David Accords, but was brought down by stagflation, the Iran hostage crisis, and an oil crisis.
Then there’s Ronald Reagan, whose administration accomplished much, some of it good (e.g., his $165 billion expansion and bailout of Social Security; his support for expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit; his comprehensive immigration reform, including granting of “amnesty” to 3 million “illegal immigrants;” his multiple tax increases aimed at cutting the deficits he had incurred with his foolish “voodoo economics;” etc.) and some of it bad (racking up enormous structural, long-term deficits; the Iran-Contra scandal, for which Reagan probably should have been impeached; a dangerous escalation of the Cold War; the Lebanon military fiasco, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of U.S. Marines; the skewing of the tax code – aka, “class warfare” – away from the middle class and towards the wealthy; his war on unions and working people; an egregious record on the environment, AIDs, and many other issues; etc.). In my book, Reagan was certainly a consequential president, but in terms of making American a better, fairer, more just and more secure country, overall it’s very hard to see how he did that. Plus, the Iran-Contra scandal was impeachable, and it’s amazing Reagan wasn’t impeached and convicted. For all those reasons, I wouldn’t rate Reagan higher than the lower half on a list of U.S. presidents.
As for George HW Bush, in hindsight he actually wasn’t so bad, especially compared to the extremists we’ve got running the Republican asylum these days. Although Bush 41 can in no way be considered a great president, he did preside over the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ouster of Saddam Hussein’s troops from Kuwait, and a significant tax package that helped get the budget deficit under control after the reckless Reagan years. Still, I can’t see how George HW Bush accomplished nearly as much as Barack Obama has.
What about Bill Clinton? I know a lot of Democrats worship him, but I never have. To the contrary, Clinton was probably my fourth or fifth choice among Democratic candidates that year (Tsongas was my first choice, with Tom Harkin, Jerry Brown and Bob Kerrey all ahead of Clinton in my book). As for Clinton’s presidency, I’ll give him credit for trying to push health care reform through in his first two years, and most of all for the deficit reduction plan he barely got through Congress in 1993. Unfortunately, Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994, and after that, it was pretty much Dick Morris “triangulation” the rest of the way. Blech. Sure, the economy boomed during Clinton’s two terms in office, and he should get some credit for that (although how much credit ANY president should get for a good economy, and how much blame ANY president should get for a bad economy, is highly questionable). More than anything, honestly, I give Clinton credit for not screwing up a strong economy – in part due to a tech boom – and for not getting us enmeshed in any disastrous wars. Compared to many other presidents, that’s actually pretty darned good, so I’d rank Clinton fairly high in the grand scheme of things, but again, the problem is that he failed with his big initiatives – health care reform, increased spending on infrastructure, a “BTU tax,” etc. – in the first two years, then was playing defense and “triangulation” the rest of the way.
I’ll just briefly mention George W. Bush, who arguably was the worst president in U.S. history. Simply abysmal, what else is there to say, and Barack Obama was elected in 2008 to help clean up the huge mess left to him – and to all of us – by that 8-year debacle.
So, which of our presidents since JFK deserve a higher rank, in terms of accomplishments (see the graphic at the beginning of this unexpectedly lengthy article), than Barack Obama? In addition, consider that the Obama administration has been far “cleaner,” ethically speaking, than Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and Bush 43. We’ve also seen nearly two years of economic growth after recovering from the freefalling economy Obama inherited. We’ve had no new wars started, and in fact we’ve wrapped things up in Iraq and are moving to ramp down in Afghanistan and hand things over to the Afghans. We’ve had numerous, major foreign policy successes, including the decimation of Al Qaeda, much better relations with countries in Asia and Europe, a “reset” with Russia (although that relationship has always been, and will continue to be, highly problematic), continued progress on expanding trade relations, continued progress on nuclear arms reduction, etc, etc. And, of course, we finally got important, although far from perfect (I’d much prefer single payer, or expanded Medicare, or at least a robust public option). We’ve made significant progress on consumer protection, Wall Street reform, and equal rights for LGBT citizens, although clearly there’s a lot more to get done. My major problems with this administration: 1) failure to push through a comprehensive clean energy and climate change bill; 2) failure to ditch the Bush tax cuts, which cost $4 trillion a decade and really make no sense at all. On those two points, though, I’d place a great deal of blame on Senate Republicans, and much less on the Obama administration. Still, those two are frustrating and damaging.
The bottom line, though: in three years, Barack Obama has arguably accomplished more than any president in the past 50 years, and without a major scandal (it’s hard to even think of a minor one; and no, I don’t count Solyndra as a scandal), screwup, or disaster. By that accounting, I’d say that the answer to the question asked in this diary’s headline, “Is Barack Obama the Greatest President Since JFK?”, is a clear “yes.” Anyone care to argue why that isn’t the case? I’m all ears.