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The Test of a Presidency

When should a sitting president be re-elected? Gone is the audacity of hope.

When should a sitting president be re-elected? Gone is the audacity of hope. A sitting president must live up to the monotony of administration. Candidates can ask to be evaluated based on their words, and candidate Obama offered us great words in 2008. For a sitting president, however, words aren’t enough. For a sitting president, re-election should be based on performance in office.
The performance of the president isn’t the same thing as the success of the country or its citizens. It is plain wrong to ask “are you better off than you were four years ago?” and expect the president to deliver. Presidents are not omnipotent. They do not control the world economy, foreign countries, or the planet Earth.

Not is it reasonable to demand that presidents live up to our ambitions for them, fulfill all their campaign promises, or leave the country better than they found it. It would be nice if they did. But then there’s Congress. There’s the Supreme Court. There are powerful counter-forces, unforeseen obstacles, and tricks of fate.

It is difficult for any of us to know for certain what challenges the President has had to face these past four years or how well he faced them. But all presidents have faced challenges, and some have faced them better than others. It’s fair to compare presidents’ actions to those of other presidents. Compared to past presidents, how does President Obama measure up?

Looking back over our presidents of the past fifty years, Barack Obama seems to have done quite well. America has had nine presidents since the tragic death of John F. Kennedy in 1963. President Obama has discharged his duties and maintained the dignity of his office at least as well as the best of them, and far better than the worst.
Forty-nine years ago this month, Lyndon Johnson took over from the assassinated JFK. In many ways Johnson was one of our great presidents. We can thank him for a successful war on poverty, a dramatic expansion in civil rights and many Great Society programs we still rely on today. On the other hand, Johnson led us into a terrible war in Vietnam that tore the country apart. As Martin Luther King Jr. foretold, the Great Society became a casualty of the war in Vietnam.

Richard Nixon was … Richard Nixon. It need hardly be recounted how Nixon resigned in disgrace. Whatever merits he may have had, Richard Nixon can hardly be held up as a model for other presidents. His appointed vice president, Gerald Ford, was never elected president himself, and served in the office for only a little over two years. It is difficult to evaluate his performance in office, though most historians consider it undistinguished. In many ways his presidency was stillborn.

Jimmy Carter was a moral leader, but a victim of his times. He was blamed for inflation, but had little control over world oil prices. He was blamed for not rescuing the hostages in Iran, but had little control over the maintenance of the helicopters that crashed in the rescue attempt he ordered. Had Jimmy Carter commanded Barack Obama’s armed forces, the hostages would have been rescued in a glorious commando raid. We can demand that our presidents be sensible, efficient, even decisive; we can’t demand that they be lucky.

Ronald Reagan, since sainted by the Republican Party, was nothing if not lucky. Not content to let the economy call the shots on him, he intentionally plunged us into the deep recession of 1982-1983. He slashed taxes on the wealthy; he gutted environmental protections; he led us into multiple reckless military adventures. Where Carter was pilloried for the safekeeping of 66 hostages in Iran, Reagan somehow redeemed the deaths of 241 Americans in Beirut by invading Grenada two days later. Reagan can’t even reasonably be credited with the collapse of the Soviet Union; it’s a miracle he didn’t bomb it.

On the other hand his vice president, George H.W. Bush, was much more sensible. It was he, not Clinton, who reversed the most irresponsible of Reagan’s tax cuts. Bush invaded Iraq, but with limited objectives that were reasonably well-justified. It’s easy to fault George H.W. Bush for not being a great president, but hard to fault him for being a bad, reckless, or incompetent president. He administered the country reasonably well – and was voted out of office for his troubles.

For many Democrats, Bill Clinton is still a hero, but winning office is not the same thing as being successful in office. It is impossible to defend his private morality except to say that it shouldn’t matter; it is impossible to defend his public morality except to ignore it. He rode a wave of prosperity, but nonetheless gutted America’s welfare safety net. Not surprisingly, the president who came up with “don’t ask, don’t tell” waited until his last day in office to pardon 140 criminals. Bill Clinton may not have been a bad president, but he was certainly an embarrassing president.

George W. Bush was – in very different ways – equally embarrassing. His time in office was recent enough to require no recounting. Suffice it to say that even the Republicans kept a safe distance from him in their 2008 and 2012 national conventions.

No one can say how great a president candidate Obama might have been, or might still be. But he has led us through a difficult four years if not to the Promised Land then at least to Purgatory. He has not started any wars, not caused any recessions, and not embarrassed the country with his behavior in office. If not a transformative president, he has at least been a competent president.

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