Over the past weeks, the rightist blogs have erupted with posts declaring Barack Obama as the worst President ever. No one deserves intellectual dismissal more than many of these authors. But it poses an interesting question. A few months into a second term, especially after the turmoil of past weeks it is time to ask how Obama will be remembered as a president. Thanks to polls of academics and other observers out; we are getting an idea of the potential historical verdict.
The great statistician Nate Silver has given us some very interesting metrics to peruse that help us to look both at the incumbent’s achievement and the consequences of any shortcomings real and imagined. It does matter that there is much time left in the second term, but whether you think Obamacare is horrible and that the consequences of the legacy even worse, or the polar opposite, it’s interesting to look at what these results say.
A starting point is to look at the most consequential Presidency of the recent past, known by the term “the Reagan Revolution.” It was broadly defined by lower taxes on the upper-income brackets, increased expenditures for Defense, a less shrill cultural conservatism, and the promotion of business, private initiative, and America’s exceptional place in the world. The two Presidents Bush and Clinton operated within the broad outlines in how a policy was framed, but in terms of tax and fiscal policy, Reagan’s paradigm has still remained the dominant theme.
Though Obama wrote critically of Reagan in his first book, he developed an understanding of his success. By the 2008 campaign, it was obvious that #44 understood #40 then more than his immediate successors may have, but pointed in a direction that sought to restore aspects of the consensus that prevailed in Washington prior to January 1981.
The long-time keeper of the Democratic flame was Edward Moore Kennedy. Ted’s endorsement of Obama over Hillary Clinton in 2008 provided his candidate credibility amongst the traditional party base. Though overshadowed by the memory of his brothers, it is clear that by the length of years, and in terms of his legislative record he was by far the most consequential of the three. From the 1965 immigration reform to the vastly expanded federal role in education, "Teddy" was the most prominent advocate for the creation of a universal entitlement to health insurance and, though he did not live to see the Affordable Care Act enacted, he would have fought fiercely for his top policy priority. Kennedy worked with Republicans frequently, even while fighting movement conservatism. An interesting counterfactual debate would be what would have happened with the ACA if he had lived.
The rest of the story is familiar. In the midst of two unpopular wars and a brutal recession, the voter’s association of these events with Republicans elected Obama and produced large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. In the infamous words of Rahm Emanuel, it was a crisis Obama could not waste. The new majority went to work, passing a trillion-dollar stimulus, a universal health care bill, and major financial reforms. They built on Kennedy’s work on education policy, and immigration. They reduced the defense spending while increasing expenditures on health care.
The fragile economy, inevitable reaction to the bailouts of the financial system and the automobile sector (started under Bush), and the health care law contributed to a Republican majority in the House of Representatives after the 2010 midterms. Newly elected “Tea Party” Conservatives interpreted this victory as an expression of popular support for their neo-libertarian views on limited government and social policy.
What the events of October 2013 demonstrated is that functional control of the House Republican Conference does not equate to divided government, where one party controls the presidency and the other controls the entire Congress. The brand of divided government that existed from 1995 to 2001, helped re-elect Clinton’s as it enabled him to run as a centrist on the basis of welfare reform. The divided government in 2007 through 2009 closed the book on the tragic second term of George W. Bush. The aftermath of 2010 as a consequence has been today’s rather schizophrenic government.
The 2012 election result begged the question of which party would prevail. A historic distaste of the electorate for Congress, coupled with the tepid approval ratings of Obama, raised hopes that voters would make a clear choice. Instead, the people returned the failed arrangement of power that had made the Congress of 2011 to 2013 a nightmare.
The result of the 2008 election was not shocking to Conservative Republicans. In 2012 they believed the election would be a victory for Mitt Romney. Their stunned reaction when the called the election for Obama, was epitomized by the viral video of denial seen on Fox News.
The stunned silence was accompanied by the growing realization that the country was no longer a place where capture of 60 percent of white voters was enough to win elections. As the Democrats learned in 1980, years of power brought both a misunderstanding of the culture, new media, and demographics. They had viewed the 2006 midterm and 2008 elections as an aberration, much as Democrats had viewed those of 1968 and 1972. Obviously, 2012 proved the pundits incorrect. They lost sight of the real country that voted in elections.
Like the Democrats of 1979, Republicans failed to read the results correctly. They have lost the popular vote in five of six straight presidential elections. Despite the desultory leadership of Congressional Democrats, they have had control of Congress for 10 years since 1992, a result due more to success crafting safe districts in decennial redistricting. More problematical was the perceived bankruptcy of what seemed to be new ideas in 1980 and 1994. Conservatives failed to limit government and growth in entitlements and reductions in the tax burden for the upper brackets, made deficits far worse in the George W. Bush era. Americans continued to look to Washington for economic justice and civil rights and guard those entitlements once given.
More crucially, the battles of the conservative backbenchers against immigration reform and other issues seemed to have an undertone of racism. The veiled code words that motivated the base since 1968 produced the desired result in driving Anglos to the voting booths in 2012. Sadly for the Republicans, the images of Willie Horton and the continued emphasis of social issues did not work in a demographically changed country that ironically embraced one aspect of the libertarian agenda. They had adopted a laissez-faire attitude towards same-sex marriage and other matters that meshed poorly with the Christian Right social agenda while nominating a Mormon candidate that did not excite that dwindling base. In the aftermath of the shutdown of 2013, the Republicans meanwhile have fallen into the infighting and ideological purges that remind one more of the San Francisco Democrats of 1984 than the heady days of the Reagan revolution of 1980 and the Gingrich revolution of 1994.
OBAMA IN HISTORY
Second terms are often toxic to a Presidency. Since the disaster of FDR’s second term attempt to “pack” the Supreme Court, we have seen two impeachments in 1974 and 1998, the tragedies of Vietnam and Korea in the days of two elected Vice Presidential successors, and of course the disintegration of the second term of George W. Bush, when unexpected events overran the ability of his and an inevitably less talented second-term team to react. So the following is subject to change.
The 2012 Gallup poll taken February 2–5, 2012, asked 1029 adults in the US, "How do you think each of the following presidents will go down in history—as an outstanding president, above average, average, below average, or poor?" By adding Outstanding and Above Average rankings, Obama is third with 38%, with Reagan at 60% and Clinton at 50%. This is included, as it omits the Kennedy Presidency which is widely at variance with other similarly tenured Presidencies in public polling.
The Gallup poll about presidential greatness, taken February 2–5, 2011, asked 1015 adults in the US, "Who do you regard as the greatest United States president?"
Ronald Reagan (19%)
Abraham Lincoln (14%)
Bill Clinton (13%)
John F. Kennedy (11%)
George Washington (10%)
Franklin Roosevelt (8%)
Barack Obama (5%)
Theodore Roosevelt (3%)
Harry Truman (3%)
George W. Bush (2%)
Thomas Jefferson (2%)
Jimmy Carter (1%)
Dwight Eisenhower (1%)
George H. W. Bush (1%)
Andrew Jackson (<1%)
Lyndon B. Johnson (<1%)
Richard Nixon (<1%)
Nate Silver looks at matters from the same place as the inventors of “Money Ball” I will link his analysis for greater clarity, but looking at this one chart is fascinating as it looks only at those elected to second terms and the correlation of their re-election totals to ultimate rankings.
Silver's analysis is as follows:
"Overall, there is a positive relationship between a president’s performance in the Electoral College when seeking a second term, and how the historians have ranked him. (The regression line in the chart below predicts that Mr. Obama will eventually come to be regarded as about the 17th-best president, somewhere on the boundary between good and average.) But it is an extremely rough guide — especially for the presidents who are successful in winning a second term, and who have an opportunity to enhance or undermine their reputations. Voters may judge a president’s first term, but history will judge his second."