As the Obama White House struggles with yet another overseas crisis, many of the president’s strongest critics are claiming he is incompetent. The case for that charge would appear to be the corner the president put himself and his country in when he announced that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad would constitute a “red line” that would require a military response by the United States.
Of course, when he made that statement and issued the threat that implicitly accompanied it, he probably assumed (or hoped) that just making the statement would keep Assad from taking that step. Or, it may have been Obama’s way to keep the hawks in Washington from demanding immediate military strikes in the early days of the rebellion that has now become a Syrian civil war. Whatever his thinking at the time, he has struggled with defining a course of action since it has become apparent that Assad has, indeed, gassed his own people.
Obama has had better moments in his presidency, and it’s always easy to look negatively on job performance when the latest evidence is of less than great work. In baseball, for example, if you look at the record of the L.A. Dodgers since the beginning of September, they appear to be a pretty poor team (notwithstanding their win to clinch the Western Division crown on Thursday). But such a view ignores that they were the best team in either major league for the two months preceding their current slump.
Professional historians will tell you that no president should be judged until about a generation after he has left office. Fans of George W. Bush certainly support that view, while most Democrats ignore it when talking about Bill Clinton’s presidency.
But I think every president, including Obama, can be judged relative to the work of the others who have held the office. And on that score, I submit that none of them over the last 65 years have been particularly great and, while some have been more dismally bad than others, all of them have had significant flaws.
And so, without intending to gild the lily one way or the other for the current incumbent, let’s see how he shapes up in comparison to his most recent predecessors (dating back to the end of World War II).
Harry S. Truman has been treated kindly by most historians, presumably for his sure-handed and decisive handling of the office when his predecessor (Franklin D. Roosevelt) died before the end of the war. But a modern view of Truman’s decision to use atomic bombs against the populated Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is less charitable, even to the point of suggesting that Truman thereby qualified himself as a war criminal. Domestically, Truman busted the steel industry, but then got his come-uppance from the Supreme Court, which declared his act of attempting to nationalize the industry unconstitutional.
Truman was probably a good chief executive for the most part, but he was hardly perfect, and, it should be noted, no one clamored for him to seek re-election in 1952, even though he was eligible for another term under the newly enacted Twenty-Second Amendment.
Dwight Eisenhower is probably most famous not for what he did as president but for what he said as he was preparing to give up the office at the end of his second term. Prior to the time he delivered his “military-industrial-complex” warning, Ike was taciturn in both his rhetoric and his actions as the country’s chief executive. He was akin to a modern-day Calvin Coolidge in letting the country pretty much run itself, thereby turning a blind eye to racial discrimination and to recurring recessions (there were three during his administration). Eisenhower was said to have a good golf game, and he spent a lot of time on the links.
John F. Kennedy represented everything Eisenhower was not, but in terms of accomplishments, it’s hard to point to anything of great significance that emerged from his nearly three years in office. (He was, of course, assassinated before he could push his plans for a civil rights bill and before his views on Viet Nam were fully revealed.)
His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, either carried through on his plans on both fronts or forged his own way. But as much as Johnson became a champion for civil rights (and is properly lauded for the passage during his administration of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act), he is also damned by the decisions he made on Viet Nam, which became the most disruptive and controversial war the country ever fought and ended up being the first war the country clearly lost.
Of course, that defeat could well be the legacy of Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, whose plan to withdraw from Viet Nam led to the end of the separate states of North and South Viet Nam, as the communist North ultimately defeated the pro-American South. Nixon’s biggest legacy, however, wasn’t the war (or the breakthroughs he achieved in foreign policy with the Soviet Union and China). Rather, it was Watergate, the scandal that forced him to resign, rather than being thrown out of office by the Senate after he would have been impeached by the House.
Gerald Ford, who succeeded Nixon, wasn’t in office long enough to learn that Eastern Europe was under Soviet domination, a gaffe that caused him the election in 1976, when he lost to Jimmy Carter, who only served one term, primarily because he fell prey to the Iranian revolution that led to the taking of hostages from the U.S. embassy in Iran. Little else is remembered about Carter’s presidency, other than that he thought the country was suffering from a period of “malaise.”
Ronald Reagan championed conservative economics and hated communism. He also presided over the closest thing the country has ever had to a shadow government in the Iran-Contra scandal. To say that he was asleep at the switch is charitable.
His successor, George Bush, took the country to war and then didn’t know how to win that war. He was judged out of touch and was denied a second term.
Bill Clinton was a rogue who benefitted from an economic boom that lasted just about the entirety of his presidency. He also couldn’t keep his pants on, thereby giving his opponents the ammunition to have him impeached by the House of Representatives. (The Senate acquitted him of the charges.)
And that brings us to George W. Bush, on whose watch the 9/11 attacks occurred, in response to which he took the country to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that seemed endless and fruitless and have certainly left the country no more secure or economically or militarily.
And so, how does Barack Obama stack up against all of those predecessors. If we’re grading all of them, do any get even a B? There are probably a few F’s or at least D minuses in the group, but is Obama really deserving of so low a grade (relatively speaking)? I’d suggest he gets an incomplete for now and that, depending on how the next three years go, he could end up looking fairly good, pretty mediocre, or just in over his head.
If it’s the last of those options, he won’t be alone with that characterization.