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Obama’s quest for greatness

by Robert J. Samuelson

The Washington Post

The “legacy thing” may be harder than Barack Obama imagines.

Beginning his second term, Obama has a focused, though unstated, agenda: to achieve presidential greatness in the eyes of historians and Americans. In this, he will almost certainly fail. He is already a historic president as the first African-American to be elected, but there is a chasm between being historic and being great.

Presidents are ultimately judged not by their total record, or by their ability to enact their agendas, or by their popularity. They are judged by whether they get a few very big decisions right or wrong.

Lyndon Johnson is mostly remembered for failure in Vietnam; it overshadows the passage of two landmark civil rights bills and approval of Medicare and Medicaid.

Richard Nixon is not celebrated for creating the Environmental Protection Agency, expanding food stamps or opening talks with China; Watergate dwarfs all.

These appraisals are made while a president is in office and, more definitively, after he’s left. Does a president’s performance stand the test of time based on what happens later? Did his policies advance or retard the nation’s well-being? Were they wise or simply expedient?

Depending on the answers, much else can be forgiven or forgotten, as Robert Merry shows in his engaging book “Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.”

Consider Harry Truman. For his last year in office, he was deeply unpopular. His approval rating hit a low of 22 percent. The Korean war frustrated Americans; the White House was accused of cronyism.

Yet, historians rank him in the top 10 presidents. Merry relates Truman’s reaction to the Soviets’ 1948 overland blockade of Berlin “to starve out the city [and] bring it under the Soviet yoke.” His top advisers had concluded that U.S. withdrawal was inevitable. To which Truman responded: “We stay in Berlin. Period.” The Berlin Airlift followed.

“That decision helps explain why Truman is ranked so high by historians,” writes Merry. With hindsight, many momentous choices seemed correct: ending World War II with atomic bombs (“saving perhaps a million American lives,” argues Merry); adopting the Marshall Plan and the policy of “containment” against the Soviets; desegregating the military.

Every school child knows the three “great” presidents: Washington, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. They topped the first presidential ranking by historians in Life magazine in 1948. They’ve topped six subsequent rankings elsewhere.

Through no fault of his own, Obama will not be joining them. The first requirement of presidential greatness is that the country faces a mortal peril: something that puts the America experiment — its embrace of freedom and equality, its trust in democratic institutions, and its belief in itself — at risk. The great presidents have all defused that risk.

In 1789, no one knew whether the constitution would survive; Washington’s stature inspired loyalty that gave the system permanence.

Lincoln’s single-minded pursuit of total victory over the Confederacy — when many in the North, discouraged by the endless bloodshed and inconclusive combat, wanted a truce — saved the Union and ended slavery.

Roosevelt preserved the nation’s democratic political values and institutions in the face of an economic collapse that gave rise, from left and right, to calls for radical change; and, of course, he presided over victory in World War II.

Obama will be denied a similar opportunity because, for all the nation’s serious problems, none yet rises to the level of mortal peril. Obama’s reputation will necessarily be less exalted.

He is probably fooling himself if he thinks Obamacare, by itself, ensures him a spot close to the top in the presidential rankings. Medicare and Medicaid (far larger insurance expansions) didn’t do that for Johnson, so why should a lesser achievement do it for Obama?

Indeed, if the implementation goes badly (coverage overestimated, costs underestimated), Obamacare could backfire.

Still, Obama’s enthusiasm for it is telling. Even without the 2008-09 financial crisis, he would have arrived in office just when the retirement of baby boomers was slowing the economy and raising — through Social Security and Medicare — government spending. The cost of government was increasing; the capacity to pay was decreasing. In these circumstances, Obama chose to expand government. His frame of reference was backward-looking: the fulfillment of a liberal agenda conceived from the 1930s to the 1960s.

But history’s verdict will be present-oriented and forward-looking. How have his fateful decisions played in the real world?

Obama’s reputation will ultimately depend on a handful of these, including (probably) his handling of the economy in the dark months of early 2009, Iran’s nuclear program, the federal budget and, perhaps, something now unimagined.

“Crises demand leadership,” writes Merry, “and in the American system that leadership can come only from the president.” Not just leadership, but leadership in the right direction.

© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group

  • bogwart

    Obama will go down in history for two reasons. He extended and spread the wars of Bush and the neocons – and refused to hold them to account for their war crimes. And more importantly for americans he destroyed their Constitution, giving himself the power to arrest anyone anywhere without due process, and killing those considered guilty in the fevered fantasies of the administration.
    The country is well on the way to becoming a police state, with surveillance from all sides, from travel (whether by car, bus, train or plane), and the acquisition and retention of every piece of personal data. That capability is used for all North Americans, and when you consider that the requirements for disclosure apply to any company with a base in the US it means that, for instance, Europeans who travel by air or even use Amazon and Facebook’s cloud storage are subject to the same interference as americans.
    He came to power on a wave of popular support and hope; when he goes he will leave behind a completely changed world. He had so much opportunity, and sold it all for power and influence.

    • Edohiguma

      No, he will be barely a footnote in history. He had no opportunity. He is a politician. Power and influence are the number one driving force. But if you think that the US are on the way to becoming a police state, you’ve never seen a police state. The EU is significantly farther down that road.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004421197233 Tatsushige Shigure

        Have to agree the UK is a prime example of a police state, The worlds number one with CCTV watching the public, and the govt disarmed the public so they cannot fight back.

  • Anthony C. Bash

    I think that Barack Obama will stand out in history, or at least in the history of the U.S. presidents, because of his extraordinary ability to touch the hearts and minds of so many people across so many lines with his great oratorical skills and his aura of moral integrity.
    Perhaps as the author, Mr. Samuelson, has stated, America was not in as grave a danger as the Great Depression or either of the two world wars presented when Obama came to office but there was certainly a sense throughout the world at that time “that things had not been this bad for a long, long time.” The American economy was in a perilous condition, America was fighting two wars that seemed to have no ending in sight, and the American image abroad was as about as badly damaged and as low as it ever has been throughout it’s history. Add to this a general feeling of hopelessness by people all over the world at the state of affairs of the world and you have a lot of reason to believe that Barrack Obama’s powerful words of hope inspired a great many hearts and minds at a time when such hope was most needed. I think his “Yes, We Can!” message will echo longer than many other former presidents’ words for the simple reason that those words were on the lips of so many people from Atlanta to Athens, from Toledo to Tokyo, from Washington to Wellington and neither George, Abraham, nor Franklin can boast such popularity or famousness.

  • Guest

    I think that, generally, people will remember President Obama with fondness. Americans tend to that with their retired Presidents, anyway. They beat them up pretty hard while they are in office but reward them with increased respect and popularity after they leave office. Barak Obama became the first US black President and was, in my opinion, presented with uncommonly extraordinary challenges that none of his predecessors had ever been faced with. He followed the course of action that he thought was best, which is what a Leader does. For sure, not everyone approved. Or should I say “approves” (after all he just started his second term). There are some people out there who are really mad by his policies and cannot wait to get rid of him. Well, every President goes through that. But, I think that there are some who definitely are better off now than they were before. And Thank you, President Obama, for getting rid of Osama Ben Laden. The World needed that…One thing that makes President Obama so popular is his incredible oratory skills. Very academic, very accurate, very precise and, yet, so simple that even the common man can understand him. His “Yes, we can!” has been and continues to be a motto in many parts of the World. And President Obama has used modern media technology to spread his message and boost his popularity world-wide better than any Presidents in any country. But, I think that what makes him popular, more than anything else, is the sense of hope that he has instilled. Here’s a man who has elevated himself to the highest public office in the World, through sheer determination and hard-work. Now, that demands respect and admiration, regardless of what your beliefs are, political or otherwise. He is very popular with people in countries that have been ruled by the same political families for generations to the point that they believe that it is impossible to ever change anything. He has shown that “Yes, we can!” change. And, one after another, dictators in the Middle-East start falling, toppled by people who wanted change and decided to do something about it. Giving President Obama credit for the “Arab Spring” is far-fetched but I do believe that his election gave the boost of confidence the people there needed. I think, all in all, President Obama will have a good place in History. Not just that of the United States of America but, indeed, of the entire World.