This isn’t exactly what I was asked, but in essence, I’ve been asked to justify my persistent argument that Barack Obama is one of the worst Presidents in American history. I think it’s a fair thing to be asked, and it deserves some real thought, and some self-challenging.
To that end, what I’m offering here is basically a comparison between Obama and every U.S. president of the 20th and 21st centuries, where my evaluation will be that Obama is a better president, an equal president, or a worse president than his predecessors. I need to preface all this with some basic notes about how I’m approaching this and where some of my up front biases are.
Before I do that though… some of the pieces of this were written kind of fast, in a hotel in Cleveland or something, or maybe on an airplane. I could say a lot more about a great many things but haven’t. One thing I notice is that my explanations for my final judgments get a lot better the closer to the present day I get. It’s just a lot harder to compare eras than it might seem.
I’m choosing to start at McKinley (POTUS 25) for a couple of useful reasons. First, starting at the very beginning would make this too arduous for all but about four of you to read. Choosing McKinley means evaluating a total of 20 people, which is a nice round number. Second, I think 1898 is what we can really point to as the time that the United States became a recognized world power; and I think that there were so many lifeless presidencies in the years between Lincoln and McKinley that this is just a good fit generally.
In evaluating a President, I want to stress a couple of things. I do think it is relevant to compare someone against his peers (and, since we’re talking U.S. Presidents, we’re only talking men, which I’m going to note here and then move on from.) If I think anyone else in a person’s shoes would have made the same (bad) decision, I don’t knock that person so much. It’s when I think a President made decisions that someone else would not have made that my ire is particularly raised. Some of you will have a hunch where this is going.
I also, in evaluating the long haul, am simply not going to be that harsh on some war-related decisions. It’s a gross oversimplification, but World War II was contextually unavoidable, whereas Vietnam was utterly avoidable. Some of the judgments I make here may not please some hardcore peace activists, but, contrary to what some might think, I am a relativist and a pragmatist in a lot of ways, and that’s one of the reasons why I think this exercise is useful.
And just to kind of wrap up these disclaimers and such, for me, the biggest presidential crime of all is selling the general public out to the corporations and the warhawks, and in particular doing so in a way that profoundly moved the country toward a corporate state. If it was a weak executive and this stuff just sort of happened around him, then that’s not as bad as if he took major steps toward making such things happen himself. This probably also gives you a hunch where this is going.
Finally, as ever, I reserve the right to change my mind on a lot of this, but I’m not all that likely to.
POTUS 25 – William McKinley (1897-1901) – McKinley was largely a hack. He was deeply in the pocket of moneyed interests of his time. Unlike certain later Presidents, though, I don’t feel McKinley was very instrumental in moving the discourse one way or another. He was a soft puppet. The Spanish-American War would have happened with just about anyone in power, and the subsequent Filipino-American War was something I perceive McKinley to have rolled with more so than instigating. Judgment: Better president than Obama, but barely.
POTUS 26 – Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) – Men aren’t saints, and Presidents certainly aren’t saints. There are a lot of negative things that could be said about TR. But he was the first President to intervene on behalf of organized labor, he founded the National Park Service, he pushed the Pure Food and Drug Act through, and in my mind, he’s probably one of the five greatest Presidents. Judgment: Definitely better than Obama.
POTUS 27 – William Howard Taft (1909-1913) – Taft’s presidency was mostly a flop, but it’s hard to say that a lot went wrong. Taft should have pursued the TR agenda with vigor, but he didn’t. And yet I don’t think he was anti-progressive either. I just think he was a poor fit for the office. Not a lot to be said here. Judgment: Better president than Obama.
POTUS 28 – Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) – Wilson is one of the more contradictory men here, and one of the hardest to evaluate. He was an extreme racist, and his handling of international affairs in non-white parts of the world was especially awful. But his championing of the League of Nations was correct. He didn’t do a damn thing to help women gain the suffrage, and yet the 19th Amendment passed during his administration… as did the 16th Amendment (Income Tax) for which he deserves some credit, the 17th Amendment (Direct Election of Senators) for which he deserves some credit, and the 18th Amendment (Prohibition) for which he deserves a great deal of scorn. In so many respects he is the opposite of Taft, who did nothing and therefore you can’t say much about him. We got the Fed under Wilson. But we also got the income tax. How do you evaluate this? Judgment: Better president than Obama, but barely.
POTUS 29 – Warren Harding (1921-1923) – Well, this one’s easy. Harding is widely considered one of the worst chief executives. He let his cronies get away with all kinds of shit, and it was under his administration that a lot of the seeds of the Great Depression were planted. Judgment: Worse president than Obama.
POTUS 30 – Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) – A surprisingly difficult call. Look: Coolidge was fucking terrible. He was Reagan’s favorite President! But there’s a critical distinction here between Coolidge and Reagan, and this distinction will better help some people understand where my inherent biases are and what I value and don’t value. Reagan was an extremely active President, who brought in people who did some really awful things. Coolidge was a do-nothing President, but unlike some do-nothing predecessors, he very much saw his role as doing nothing. He’s the inspiration for what Tea Party people claim their movement is about, but Coolidge was actually quite sincere about simply getting the hell out of the way. Regulations weren’t particularly enforced and the bubble grew under Coolidge, but Coolidge was a man of intentional inaction. Contrast this with later Presidents who made the problems much worse because of the extent of the regulation they scaled back. We also have to evaluate whether someone else in Coolidge’s shoes would have made much of a difference, and I think the answer is No. It wouldn’t make a lot of sense to simply pin the Depression on Coolidge because the Depression was global and involved factors well beyond what anyone in Washington was prepared to control. In all of these respects Coolidge is perhaps the hardest President to compare with Obama because the circumstances are maybe the most fundamentally different available. Judgment: Just as bad a president as Obama, but for very different reasons.
POTUS 31 – Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) – Hoover was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. The stock market crashed six months into Hoover’s term. Many of the policies that FDR subsequently enacted were developed during Hoover’s administration but inadequately implemented because, let’s be realistic, American government had never done so much, and had never been expected to do so much. I think this is an example of a situation where you have to compare the man within the prevailing context, and I think pretty much anyone would have been doomed. Judgment: Better president than Obama.
POTUS 32 – Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1993-1945) – Not a lot of need to dwell on this one. The stuff about men not being saints definitely applies here. But FDR was the greatest politician of the last 150 years, and if you’re going to give anybody positive marks on the whole, of course it would be FDR. Judgment: Much better president than Obama.
POTUS 33 – Harry Truman (1945-1953) – The Nagasaki bomb was absolutely inexcusable, a decision Truman should long be rightly condemned for… except that I sincerely believe that anyone else in his shoes likely would have made the same horrific decision. We might say the same thing about Korea, which was an extremely stupid situation to have gotten into, but if you look at the Red Scare of the time, who short of Henry Wallace would have kept us out? Truman vetoed Taft-Hartley, desegregated the military, and in general, I think mostly positive things about him. Judgment: Better president than Obama.
POTUS 34 – Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961) – Eisenhower had similarities to Coolidge, but sending troops into Little Rock in 1957 demonstrated the limit of those similarities, and Eisenhower’s farewell address on the military-industrial complex demonstrated the intellect of a man who understood that limited government pointedly meant limited government interference with people’s daily lives. The Vietnam mess did start under him, but it was so limited at that point, and containment theory was so dominant, I’m not sure how harshly he can be judged for that. Guatemala is another story, but I think Guatemala really brings into sharp focus how fucked up American foreign policy and economic might had gotten by 1953, and I question whether anyone would have made much of a difference there. In the end, I like Ike. Judgment: Better president than Obama.
POTUS 35 – John F. Kennedy (1961-1963) – Bay of Pigs, no real motion on civil rights, significant expansion of involvement in Vietnam with no coherent plan. The Cuban Missile Crisis was handled well, but it should never have happened in the first place. But would Nixon have been better in 1961? Johnson? I don’t know. The counterfactuals are difficult here. In the end my assessment is pretty harsh though. Judgment: Better president than Obama… maybe.
POTUS 36 – Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969) – The ultimate dichotomy, part one. This is the man who bears the lion’s share of responsibility for Vietnam. This is also the man who rolled out The Great Society, and who got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed. Medicare came into being under Johnson. On domestic policy he could potentially have been our greatest President! And in the end, that matters, a lot. When you stack LBJ up against his peers, his share of the debt for Vietnam is immense, but the good he did amounted to more good than almost all of the rest. Judgment: Better president than Obama.
POTUS 37 – Richard Nixon (1969-1974) – The ultimate dichotomy, part two. Here we first need to take pains to separate Nixon the man from Nixon the President, and by this I mean two things. Nixon was a total asshole, okay? I think we can all be clear on this. And Nixon was a total asshole as a President too. Nixon was responsible for things like HUAC… but that was before he became President. His administration needs to be regarded straight up. On foreign policy, he and Henry Kissinger were responsible for the “incursion” into Cambodia, and for the overthrow of Allende in Chile and all of the ramifications thereof. But he was also responsible for detente, and for finally actually acknowledging that the world’s largest country actually existed. So even on foreign policy, Nixon was a mixed bag. On domestic policy… well, Nixon is the man who signed the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. The EPA came into being under Nixon. Nixon actually spoke in favor of what he called a “guaranteed minimum income”. Was he a racist shithead? It’s a little hard to say, because he was a shithead so generally. I actually believe that Nixon cared greatly about America, and not just his conceptualization of it. He was, ultimately, a lot like Johnson. He also brought great shame to the office, which I do think matters (and this is going to come up again – twice. Guess where?) Ultimately it’s a difficult argument to say that Nixon was one of our better Presidents. But he wasn’t one of the worst either. Judgment: Better president than Obama.
POTUS 38 – Gerald Ford (1974-1977) – Look: Ford inherited an impossible situation, one where he had little power. He was saddled with Kissinger and the legacy of Watergate. He was more or less an honorable man, I suppose, whose presidency was essentially impossible. As such he wasn’t a particularly negative force, and by now I think it should be clear how much that matters in my evaluations. Judgment: Better president than Obama.
POTUS 39 – Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) – Carter was the best President of my lifetime, for whatever that’s worth. He had his missteps, including jacking around in Nicaragua, but his foreign policy was predicated on the primacy of human rights, and shit, what other President can we say that about? The economy didn’t go so well but was that really Jimmy Carter’s fault? He was a good man, in a position ill-suited for him, and he did what he could, and it wasn’t a great time, and Iran took all those hostages, and… sigh. Judgment: Better president than Obama.
POTUS 40 – Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) – Let’s begin with an anecdote. I took a class in college on recent U.S. history – basically 1945 to the then-present – and so unlike a lot of history classes, we actually got all the way up to the original Iraq war (which, then, was only about six years in the past.) As a class exercise there was going to be a debate, four people pro and four people con on whether Reagan was a good president, more or less. Keep in mind that I went to a college with kind of a heavy frat / business conservative slant. The pro side was well prepared. The con side… the best argument they had was The War on Drugs. That was their BEST argument. Rampant unemployment? Unprecedented peacetime deficits? A foreign policy based on maximum supply of arms to what were essentially terrorist states? Dismantling of the regulatory state? Trickle-down economics? In terms of a break from what came before, and in terms of fundamentally altering the political direction of the country for the worse, it’s hard to find anyone who can compare. Even the people who were the worst at being President didn’t have this track record to show for it. Franklin Pierce? Andrew Johnson? We’re so far in the dregs here it’s hard to make sense of any of it. While I try not to evaluate Presidents based on prevailing circumstances which they were simply part of, if the prevailing circumstances are your cabinet and your government and you’re simply checked out of what they’re doing but it’s all happening in your name, well, that’s still on you. These were my formative years, and I surely didn’t see it or understand it then, but in retrospect, it’s not just that Reagan was the worst President of my lifetime. He was arguably the worst President of all time. Judgment: Worse president than Obama.
POTUS 41 – George H. W. Bush (1989-1993) – Now dig this big crux: The expansion of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act came under Bush 41. Some of the more extreme foolishness of the Reagan years were quietly shown the door. Yes, some of the more extreme foolishness was elevated in rank. But remember that for me, a major thing I look at is, did a President dramatically move the country increasingly into being a corporate state? GHWB is in a series of corporatists, but he was far from the biggest, and arguably did the least to actually move the country in that direction. He was definitely more moderate than Reagan on most of these measures. Ultimately, and sadly, for the majority of you actually reading this, this man was the best President of your lifetime. Judgment: Better president than Obama.
POTUS 42 – Bill Clinton (1993-2001) – These were the last true American boom years and I think that it could be argued that Clinton was a very good manager of the good times. But there’s a difference between managing the good times and being responsible for the good times, and I’ve never seen any real evidence that Clinton deserved much credit for that. So let’s give the credit where the credit is due: The repeal of Glass-Steagall. NAFTA and WTO. So-called welfare reform. The littering of depleted uranium in Serbia. The Telecommunications Act of 1996, a repulsive piece of legislation which remains very poorly known but which basically opened the door for extreme consolidation and corporatization of media, which in turn has been like a deth knell for democracy. And lest any of you forget, his Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, said that the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children were “worth it” – those are children who died under Clinton-era sanctions. The inimitable Carroll Cox once described Bill Clinton as “a fucking mass murderer” and that pretty much sums it up. Judgment: Worse president than Obama.
POTUS 43 – George W. Bush (2001-2009) – I don’t think much needs to be said about these pathetic years, but I will say this: Many of the most extreme and stupid things that happened under GWB were linear continuations of things which started before him. He’s too much of a lightning rod, because in the process, it lets some of his predecessors off the hook. Without Reagan and Clinton, the disasters of this presidency wouldn’t have been possible. Unfortunately, too many of those disasters are still with us, especially when it comes to foreign policy and the erosion of civil liberties. If you’re going to dump on Bush, then you’ve got to ask questions like… When Obama had Democratic majorities in both houses, why wasn’t Glass-Steagall reinstated? Why wasn’t Taft-Hartley repealed? Why wasn’t the Patriot Act repealed? The answer is that the Democrats were complicit in all of these travesties. While I can’t really argue that most things have gotten worse in the last four years, I do have to ask, when the Republicans eventually win back the White House – after all, the longest the Democrats have gone in power is 20 years, and that was with FDR winning four terms – isn’t Obama having failed to full back on so many of the excesses of the administrations before him just going to lead to worse things happening down the line? Isn’t Obama equally complicit at this point? Or at least, wouldn’t he be, if his second administration does nothing to arrest these things? Still… Judgment: Worse president than Obama.
Just as bad: Coolidge
Worse: Harding, Reagan, Clinton
This means that of the last 20 chief executives, I’m putting Obama at a tie for #17. Maybe after having a rambling conversation about McKinley and Wilson and Coolidge at some point I might make some reassessments, but I don’t really see it. For the most part, we’re talking about men who had some redeeming qualities but almost all of whom I feel like I have more bad to say about than good. If that doesn’t show here, it’s because with many of them, I’ve felt like I’ve needed to put more time into explaining what those redeeming qualities are, because the shit qualities tend to be better known.
I think Obama, so far, has been a terrible President as regards foreign policy, financial policy, energy policy, civil liberties, and health care… to name a few. Because I believe different Presidents need to be evaluated in terms of different eras, I think that the moderate social gains so far need to be put in context, so Obama saying he supports gay marriage, while clearly an overall positive, still has to be regarded in the context of his having instructed the Justice Department to fight to maintain the Defense of Marriage Act and his couching his support for gay marriage in bullshit states rights language. He’s mostly following on this, and yet this is the only thing where it feels like he’s been a leader at all. I hear the argument that Obamacare brings us closer to where we should be, but I’m damned if I can see that. The good aspects of it – and there are indeed good aspects of it – are countermanded by the manner in which it is a complete sell out to health insurance companies, and by how it’s doing so little to throw any checks up against the actual cost of health care. At best, it’s a gamble on a future where the Republicans never again regain power, which is historically absurd. And the National Defense Authorization Act – I mean, he’s gone above and beyond the Patriot Act in terms of curtailing civil liberties. Why are people okay with this? The only other Presidents who have been behind anything as blatantly unconstitutional along the lines of NDAA were GWB, Wilson (First Red Scare, Sedition Act, etc.), Lincoln (under very, very different circumstances which I’m not going to debate here), and… well, we get back to what, the Alien and Sedition Acts? On top of all this, Obama is the one who is truly leading the way with massive attempts to privatize basic social services, notably public education. He installed Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education and Race to the Top is largely about excessive standardized testing and establishing charter schools, which means rerouting of public dollars to less accountable private hands. Again, why is this defensible? And who before him, besides Bush, was doing stuff like this?
So. I’ve written a lot and I’m going to piss some people off with it, but at least here I’m laying it all out. I know some people will be beside themselves with some of the Presidents I identified as better than Obama (I can imagine the complaints about the likes of Hoover and Nixon) but if you’re going to argue with a lot of what I’m saying, you’ve really got to take on my core reasoning, which is that Presidents who are directly responsible for moving the country to being more of a corporatist and/or militarist state are the ones who have done the most wrong to the country.
Let the arguments begin.