In Search of Greatness
Will history declare Barack Obama a great, good, adequate, or poor president? Obama has three years left in office, and we can’t know what those years will bring. But the five years he’s already served in the White House offer ample material for assessing his presidency in the larger context of history. In fact, considering a president’s legacy while he is still in office is an essential means of preparing the foundation for historical judgment—the first draft of the first draft, so to speak. Time adds perspective but also haze, and examining Obama’s presidency in real time provides the sharpest focus on his basic choices and their effects.
A president’s historical reputation is a function of the promises he kept and abandoned, the domestic and international conditions he faced, and the decisions he made in response. Barack Obama’s pattern of leadership and the foundations of his legacy are to be found in these choices and their impact on the life of the country.
One distinction that places great, good, and adequate presidents on one side and poor ones on the other is that the first group addresses and effectively deals with the major problems they face on entering office. What were these major domestic problems for President Obama? Two stand out. First, he inherited an economy that had barely survived a liquidity crisis at the end of the Bush presidency. George W. Bush’s resolute and controversial economic decision to initiate a massive federal intervention (TARP) stabilized, but did not heal, the post-crisis economy. The healing was President Obama’s responsibility.
The second major problem that Obama faced was the relentless and precipitous decline of the American public’s trust in political leaders and political institutions, especially at the federal level. In 1958, a Gallup poll found that 73 percent of the public believed you could trust the federal government to do what’s right “most” or “all of the time”; by 2006, that figure had fallen to 28 percent. This decline in public trust has been accompanied by an increasing degree of partisan sorting that has widened the political and policy differences between Democrats and Republicans and raised the level of rancor in public discourse.
How did President Obama respond to the strong and repeated public plea to focus on the economy? Chiefly with rhetoric. Aside from countless declared pivots back to the issue, the president focused on his larger personal ambitions. These included monumental and legacy-building legislative efforts such as overhauling health care, passing cap-and-trade legislation, and signing an $800-billion-plus stimulus bill whose major purpose was to expand federal programs and lock in their new levels of funding for the future. As a result, what economic recovery we’ve seen since 2008 has been the slowest in America’s history. What’s more, in April the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that a record 92,594,000 Americans were not in the workforce. This matched a 36-year labor-participation-rate low of 62.8 percent.
As for public distrust of Washington, did the president govern as the pragmatic centrist he claimed to be and thus restore faith in American governance? In a word, no. At nearly every critical point that Obama could have made a choice to turn toward the center—after his initial election, just before and after the 2010 off-year election in which Republicans took control of the House, and after his reelection in 2012—he failed to do so. Obama’s version of bipartisanship can be glimpsed in a comment he made in a 2006 interview: “You can have the best agenda in the world, but if you don’t control the gavel, you cannot move an agenda forward.” He continued: “And, when you do control the gavel…you have to be the one who’s dictating how the compromises work.”
As president, he acted on that view. Obama told Representative Eric Cantor, then the House Republican Whip, during a negotiating session over the size of the 2009 stimulus package, “I won,” effectively ending the discussion over any balance of tax breaks and public spending. When Republican Senator John McCain raised objections to the secretive and exclusionary way Democrats were developing the president’s health-care legislation, the president bluntly replied: “We’re not campaigning anymore. The election’s over.” In “dictating how the compromises work” and thus stymieing progress, Obama contributed to still greater decline in the public’s trust of Washington. Add to this a string of unresolved scandals including the IRS’s political targeting and the broad and secret surveillance of private data, and it’s no wonder that a 2013 Gallup poll shows that Americans who trusted the government to do what’s right “most” or “all of the time” had fallen to 19 percent.
In Obama’s failure to meet the two great challenges he faced upon taking office lies the “basic fault” of his presidency and the reason that he has received anemic grades and is likely to do so after he leaves office. The term “basic fault” comes from the Hungarian psychoanalyst Michael Balint. His insight was that the real roots of peoples’ troubles lay in a primary mismatch between their desires and their circumstances. A poor economy and widespread public distrust constitute the circumstances in which President Obama was placed. An examination of his desires will illuminate the gulf between man and moment.
An ambition for “greatness” establishes the psychological foundation for this president’s “basic fault.” In his single-minded quest for greatness through big transformative legislation, Obama ignored the ailing American economy and sacrificed the bipartisan opportunities he might have had or created, had he opted simply to be a good president. Of course, almost every modern president reaches that office on the wings of his ambitions, but even at this level, presidents differ. President Obama wanted to be, in his own frequently repeated formulations, “great” and “transformational.” Announcing his 2008 candidacy in Springfield, Illinois, he said, “let us transform this nation.” Campaigning in Iowa, he said directly, “I want to transform this country.” In his first inaugural address, he called on his fellow citizens to help “remake America”—not change it, mind you, but remake it. Asked on Meet the Press about his wanting to be a great president, Obama replied, “When I think about great presidents, I think about those who transform how we think about ourselves as a country in fundamental ways so that, that, at the end of their tenure, we have looked and said to ours—that’s who we are.” He went on: “They transformed the culture and not simply promoted one or two particular issues.”
The president sees himself as a philosopher-king whose greatness and transformational leadership reflect the importance of his political ideas and his status as a national moral compass and avatar. Others would be tasked with developing and putting his vision into effect as they did with the administration’s stimulus proposals, Dodd-Frank financial reform, the Senate’s version of immigration reform, and his health-care legislation.
That same iconic self-image is at the root of the president’s disinterest in his own administration and the governing responsibilities that come with being president—the botched health-care rollout and its random implementation, the ignored warnings about Benghazi, the IRS’s targeting of conservative organizations, and now the Veteran’s Administration sad fiasco.
It’s not that the president doesn’t care; he’s just had his attention focused on what really matters: his legacy.
Obama’s transformational ambitions for greatness were aided and abetted by a senior staff that reinforced his enormous self-confidence and his view of himself as a historic figure. One of the president’s senior aides told a reporter for the Washington Post, “He’s playing chess in a town full of checkers players.” Another, Valerie Jarrett, said, “He knows exactly how smart he is…He knows how perceptive he is,” and what’s more, “I think that he has never really been challenged intellectually.” During Obama’s first campaign some of his aides referred to him as the “Black Jesus.”
Once Obama was elected, this idealization extended into the very highest levels of his senior staff. His chief political adviser David Axelrod said of working with Obama: “It’s like you are carrying this priceless porcelain vase through a crowd of people and you don’t want to be the guy who drops it and breaks it.” Having advisers think of you in terms that parallel God’s son or as a rare and priceless piece of porcelain has its problems, especially if you’re charged with making momentous decisions. After all, who would dare to tell even a symbolic reincarnation of Jesus that he shouldn’t do something?
Obama’s ability to get honest advice has been made harder still by his own self-regard. It is not hyperbole to say that he considers himself his own best, most knowledgeable adviser. At one point during his first presidential campaign, Obama asserted that in picking a vice-presidential nominee, he didn’t have to worry about foreign-policy experience because “foreign policy is the area where I am probably most confident that I know more and understand the world better than Senator Clinton or Senator McCain.” Asked after the presidential campaign about the best advice he had received while running, he replied, “Well, I have to say it was the advice that I gave to myself.” In July of 2007, he told a group of fundraisers, “I’m the best retail politician in America.” In early 2007, when Obama interviewed his campaign’s future political director, Patrick Gaspard, he told him: “I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors.” Obama’s presidential ambition for greatness, coupled with his view that he alone has the skills to achieve it, is a recipe for political self-sabotage, and it has cost him dearly in terms of achievement.
Before placing Barack Obama on the poor-to-great continuum, we must come to a clear understanding of the terms of assessment. Great presidents successfully face nation-defining circumstances. This can mean guiding a new country into existence (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson), fighting a major world war after overcoming an economic depression (Franklin Roosevelt), or keeping the Union intact (Abraham Lincoln). Their mistakes and excesses (Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, Roosevelt’s internment of the Japanese) are weighed against the enormity of the problems they successfully faced, and the balance still tilts toward an exceptional record.
Good presidents successfully face major problems of a slightly smaller magnitude. This covers managing the Cold War (Dwight D. Eisenhower), or rekindling public confidence in a leadership and governing paradigm that works (Ronald Reagan), as well as successfully dealing with ordinary presidential problems such as economic downturns and non-catastrophic foreign-policy crises. Good presidents lead by forging common ground, and they govern by trying to build on it.
Even so-called adequate presidents often do their jobs well. Like every other president, they sign numerous bills into law, respond to the ordinary issues that arise during their time in office, and sometimes successfully initiate or manage important policy issues. This was done regarding welfare reform (Bill Clinton) and handling the demise of the Soviet Union (George H.W. Bush).
Poor presidents do not lack accomplishments so much as they are historically haunted by gross errors of judgment or leadership (Jimmy Carter, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon). Yet even these “failed” presidents can have truly significant accomplishments on their record. Carter engineered a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel that has stood the test of time. Johnson’s failed Great Society efforts must be balanced against a truly important Civil Rights Act. And while Nixon resigned his office rather than be legally removed from it, his “Nixon goes to China moment” was a strategic tour de force.
Using these criteria, what can we say about the prospects of Obama’s place in history? First, we can rule him out as a great president. He did not face nation-defining circumstances, let alone rise to them.
Nor can we accurately say that Obama has been a good president. His quest for greatness and for transforming the country led him to govern from his left-of-center convictions in a nation desperately in need of common ground. This in turn has further stimulated political divisions and opposition to his plans. He now faces diminished opportunities for accomplishments in his last two and a half years in office.
The top two tiers are out. This leaves the question of whether Obama will be seen as an adequate president or a poor one. On this, it is still too soon to make a call with confidence. As things stand, there is an unresolved domestic-policy consideration and an unresolved foreign-policy consideration, each with the potential to define Obama’s place in history. If the president’s signature heath-care plan ultimately fails to accomplish its stated purpose of substantially lowering costs and reducing the number of uninsured, Obama will be judged a poor president. The same fate awaits him if his diplomatic approach to Iran’s nuclear aspirations results in an Iranian bomb.
Presidents, especially controversial ones, look to “history” for vindication, and Obama is no exception. He, like other presidents, can count on time to grant him at least a small measure of forgiveness. Historical perspective tends to flatten out the leadership and policy complexities of most presidencies, and to extract one or a few essentials. Today we remember Harry Truman for his “buck stops here” decisiveness, for example. We don’t hear much about the phase “to err is Truman” or his failed seizure of the nation’s steel mills during the Korean War.
Obama can also count on a legion of admirers in academia and elsewhere to argue in favor of his transcendent qualities. These cheerleaders were there before he was president, and they will continue to promote their investment after he has left the White House. And posterity will rightfully note Obama’s historic stature as America’s first African-American president. But it’s unlikely that these considerations will push the Obama presidency from one historical category to another. And Barack Obama seems to know this. If he believed that fawning supporters and historic firsts were enough to ensure his legacy, he wouldn’t be straining so hard through executive actions to recapture some of his lost opportunities.
It is theoretically possible that Obama will choose to change his governing pattern. He might, for example, prove willing to work with Republicans on big economic issues like reforming the tax code, assuming Republicans trust him enough to work with him. But this seems highly unlikely. Greatness fervently sought but denied is not a psychological recipe for compromise, and besides, we know how he understands that word.
Before the president’s most recent State of the Union speech, one report noted that with only two such addresses to go, the president’s target “is increasingly history.” This misses the point. Obama has always been running for history. The irony of his presidency is that it could have been rated very good if the president had not tried so hard to be “great.” Had Obama really attempted to work with Republicans and find common ground, he might have found achieving sound health-care legislation, tax and entitlement reform, immigration reform, and the expansion of preschool education entirely possible, maybe even likely. That would have been quite a record.
It is likely that after the midterm elections, the driving force of Obama’s presidency—his search for greatness—will have reached its poignant conclusion in the checkmate of his ambitions. Ironically, the checkmate will have been set in motion by his ambition to escape the confines of the governing realities of the country he wished to transform.