How to Achieve Greatness? Obama and the One-Term Promise

Is Obama the worst president in the post-World War II era?

Not quite.  That distinction, according to a Harris Poll taken this past January, goes to Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush.  (The poll includes FDR, who died during World War II, but never mind.)   Obama, however, is running second to Bush as the worst modern president, largely because of the judgments of Republicans and independents.  Here’s a chart summarizing the results of Harris poll:

WORST PRESIDENT SINCE WORLD WAR II

“Looking at the list of presidents since World War II, which one do you think was the worst president?”

PRESIDENT % SAYING WORST % OF REPUBLICAN % OF DEMOCRAT % OF INDEPENDENT
George W. Bush

31

9

53

28

Obama

15

31

3

17

Carter

10

19

2

13

Nixon

10

8

11

8

Clinton

6

10

6

7

Reagan

3

4

5

4

George H. W. Bush

3

3

5

2

Kennedy

3

1

3

4

Johnson

2

4

2

2

Roosevelt

1

2

*

1

Eisenhower

1

1

*

1

Ford

1

2

1

1

Truman

1

1

*

1

Not Sure

10

6

8

11

Note: Totals may not add to 100% because of rounding.

Note: * indicates less than 0.5%

What are we to make of these results?  First, note that this is an online interactive poll of  2,576 adults.  Although Harris claims to have weighted the sample to match most major demographic variables of the population at large (age, gender, race, partisan i.d.) it remains the case that this is not truly a random sample of the adult population.  So, we need to keep the imprecise nature of these results in mind. As further evidence that these results may not be reliable, note that the poll also asked respondents to name the greatest president of all time.  Here it appears that the online respondents weren’t provided a list of names, so they had to come up with a president on their own.  Among those rated the greatest president,  Obama finished 7th – just behind Bill Clinton’s 6th place finish, but four spots ahead of Bush the Younger who came in as the 11th greatest president. (The top four greatest presidents were Lincoln, Reagan, FDR and Washington.)  One suspects that when asked to name presidents on their own, the online population’s collective knowledge of the pre-Reagan presidents drops off precipitously once they get beyond the big three of Lincoln, Washington and FDR.  So those in recent memory received the most votes.

But even if we somehow take these results at face value – that we believe Obama is the 7th greatest president but also the second worst in the modern era – it’s not clear what they signify. As I have said repeatedly – most recently on my VPR gig – it’s far too early to assess Obama’s historical ranking.  Indeed, I think it’s too early to evaluate Bush’s presidency – where he ends up in the historical rankings will depend heavily on the outcome of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and assessments of the war on terror more generally. (To provoke my more liberal friends, I often lay out a not entirely implausible scenario in which Iraq becomes a stable, oil producing democracy amid a growing appreciation for Bush’s anti-terrorism campaign, with the result that Bush goes down as one of the five greatest presidents of all time.  It is fun to watch their heads explode.)  My point is that any effort to “rank” Obama this early is an interesting parlor game, but not much more.

Then why cite these results?  For two reasons.  To begin, this is the first effort I have seen in which the population is asked to compare Obama with other presidents, as opposed to simply asking whether one approves of Obama’s job as president.  Second, unlike most previous efforts to rank presidents, these results are based on the public’s evaluations, as opposed to rankings made by presidential historians and other “experts”.  Why does this matter?  Because Obama made an interesting statement in an interview with Diane Sawyer two days before his State of the Union address (as reported in the NY Times):  “I’d rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president …I don’t want to look back on my time here and say to myself all I was interested in was nurturing my own popularity.” His made this point in response to Sawyer’s question about his falling poll numbers.

One is tempted, at first glance, to applaud Obama’s evident willingness to stand on principle – to make the hard decisions – even if it costs him popularity and, eventually, a second term in office.  We can argue, of course, whether in fact Obama has exercised this kind of leadership, or whether he has been all too sensitive to public opinion and unwilling to make unpopular decisions.  We might also remember that this “polls be damned” leadership style was precisely what his predecessor, George W. Bush, was criticized for exercising when he escalated the U.S. military presence in Iraq despite falling polling numbers and growing popular opposition to that war.  Of course, Bush embraced the surge after winning reelection.

But should Obama be applauded for his apparent willingness to risk reelection in order to do what’s “right”? I want to suggest here that Obama’s statement (assuming we take him at his word) betrays a fundamental misreading of what it means to exercise presidential leadership in the American political system. He seems to suggest that presidents face a choice: they can do what’s “right”, or they can pander to popular opinion in order to win reelection.  But upon closer inspection, that statement seems to suggest that the public is not capable of rewarding a president for making the “hard choices.”  For better or for worse, we operate under a political system in which ultimate authority is exercised by the people through regular elections.  This is the means by which they signal support for, or opposition to, a president and his policies.  It is not foolproof – the public can make mistakes – but that is the price we pay for embracing a republican form of government.  Under this system, the ultimate test of presidential effectiveness is whether they win reelection.  If one looks online at the Harris Poll cited above, the top 12 presidents on the list of  “greatest presidents” all won reelection.  But one need not agree with the Harris Poll  to know that there are almost no one-term presidents who are considered “great” or even near great.  This is not, I would argue, because greatness is bestowed on those who win reelection – it is because presidents who are great, or at least effective in the eyes of the public, are almost always rewarded with a second term in office.

As we celebrate President’s Day, it would do well for Obama to remember that the greatest presidents – Washington, Lincoln, FDR and Reagan (at least based on the Harris Poll!) were all fundamentally great politicians who never lost sight of the fact that their ability to lead depended on maintaining the support of The People.  That support came not because of presidents’ artifice or pandering, but because they pursued policies that were consistent with American ideals and that attracted broad popular support.

Obama may yet end up a one-term president.  But if he does, he likely won’t also be considered “great”.  Instead, it is far more likely that he will be viewed as mediocre – or worse.

4 comments

  1. Ha ha! Where’d you get this thing, Matt?

    Ok, +1 for novelty, Harris. But I’d expect to be reading this on the back page of People Magazine. An ostensible comparison, really, they’re getting into the realm of geography quizzes. “Can you show me Hawai’i here on this map of the world?” “Can you name the countries in North America?” I’m with you, Matt. It’ll be a good measure of free association and maybe of whatever the pollee had eaten for breakfast. Down the road a decade, an extra digit of popular sentiment will get us a few interesting scholarly articles, but the *immediate* advantage of this methodology is … what exactly, Harris?

    Gwen Ifill’s panel had a very interesting discussion on this week’s Washington Week, chock full of interesting data points that I’m going to be hard pressed to conjure up right at the moment. The majority of Americans still hold the Republican Party primarily responsible for the logjam — and more than that, hold Congress responsible, rather than this President. Also, Sarah Palin is riding high in her own mind, but the great majority of Americans polled are calling B.S. on her, and presumably the Tea Party’s recipe for success.

    Michael Beschloss was interviewed recently and came immediately to the defense of one-term Presidential greatness, but averred that it would take more than a soundbyte to elaborate. Coming straight from the mouth of another scholar who goes out of his way to be nonpartisan, it made me curious to hear the opposing interpretation fleshed out more.

    The Republican leadership has seen those numbers, even while they are careful to keep up the brave face in the spin. I suppose that has much to do with why the hyperpartisan logjam has become creaky of late. But I think if you were going to go through the rigamaroll of discourse analysis, I think you’d see that the President managed for the time being to neutralize the effect of Massachusetts with a very meaningful summit in Maryland at the Republican legislative retreat.

    You know my take already, Matt. Here’s what qualifies as good leadership: President Obama is tangibly unsticking the logjam, despite the opposition’s attempts to hold him responsible. Part of this came from tacking with the post-Massachusetts Senate realities on the job bill in the State of the Union address, but Maryland was even more significant. His summit with the opposition in Maryland was not merely cunning strategery. It was undertaken in the most sincere and even plain-speaking tone of any President since Harry Truman — a President historians revere. This is good Presidential style, not self-conscious posturing. Whether Obama has fully internalized the Truman experience is unclear — he’s been more comfortable speaking in terms of JFK, LBJ and FDR, and on bipartisanship, he gets his cues from Goodman’s interpretation of Lincoln. But Truman faced down his own Do-Nothings in Congress, and in a climate in which HE was repeatedly ranked the “worst President in American history.”

    Maybe by next month we’ll see the President carrying around a fresh copy of McCulloch.

    Cheers, Matt. Fun post, as always!

    Martin

  2. It’s difficult to know how the public would react to a President who gave them hard choices, because it has been so long since any President did so. Perhaps Clinton’s first year budget?

    Bob

  3. People tend to value consequences greatly. When assessing any president, the general public often focus on the accomplishments of those presidents. Presidents who accomplished great things in their terms will be forever remembered as “great”. However, one often has to make big moves to accomplish big things. The problem with evaluating presidents by their accomplishments is that people cannot predict the consequences before actions are taken. I don’t know US history well enough, but I am guessing that Lincoln or FDR couldn’t really ENSURE that they would win the wars when they fought them. Take Bush. He is widely unpopular because the current consequences of the Iraq War are unfavorable. But consequences change with time. What if after a decade or two the unfavorable consequences of the war today will somehow benefit the future society? Then probably the public opinions of Bush will change accordingly. Or, what if future US presidents become considerably worse than Bush, and the US economy gets worse too? Then maybe people will look back and think: yeah, the Bush era wasn’t that bad actually.
    Another thing is memory. The NBA recently conducted a poll asking the fans who they think is the Player of the Decade. Over 50% chose Kobe. Lebron got 17% I think. But when the decade started, Kobe was not the leader of the team he belonged to and Lebron wasn’t even in the NBA!
    The fact that Obama is ranked both as the second worst president after WWII and the 7th best proves my point. People have amazingly short memories. When they are comparing Obama with all the other presidents post WWII, they somehow cannot really remember (or they did not experience) the good and bad things the previous presidents did. The freshest memory they have about Obama is the large government spending and the still-not-so-good economy right now. For most people, they probably can’t remember as clearly and strongly the bad weather or the poor decisions made by the presidents in the old days – unless they were notorious for some reasons. When people are assessing the best or the worst, they are not going to choose someone whom they don’t have strong feelings for. So the mediocre presidents are less likely to become either the greatest or the worst. Obama, as someone fresh in people’s memory, would thus be voted as both one of the best and one of the worst presidents.

  4. Wenbo – A very astute analysis, particularly regarding the difficulty people have in evaluating “mediocre” presidents and presidents that they know only through the history books.

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