Who was the better president, Franklin Roosevelt or George W. Bush?
The question is ridiculous, of course, because by every reasonable measure, FDR has to be seen as vastly superior to GWB. We are willing to concede, however, that there are those, so partisan, and so hostile to “government,” that they would actually prefer Bush.
Which is to say, evaluating presidents is a somewhat tricky business, though it is one that I find irresistibly interesting.
Wikipedia has a handy chart with which they lay out the rankings of our 43 presidents, using as data the judgments of different organizations that have attempted to evaluate them in the past. In other words, it’s a kind of “poll of polls.”
According to this poll of polls, Barack Obama comes in at number 17 of the 43 presidents who have held office. (As you may know, Grover Cleveland complicates presidential rankings by having been voted into the presidency in 1884, then voted out of office in 1888 and then regaining the White House in the 1892 election, thus becoming both our twenty-second AND our twenty-fourth president. So Barack Obama is our forty-fourth president, even though he is only the forty-third person to serve in that office. So annoying. Thanks a lot, Grover.)
But back to Barack. Number 17 out of 43 isn’t right. That would put him just behind Ronald Reagan (15) and James Monroe (16), and just ahead of Grover Cleveland (18 and 18. Again with the dual administrations!).
Barack (as I like to call him these days) is much better than this. I mean, is it realistic to say that Harry Truman (Number 6), Dwight Eisenhower (Number 9) and Woodrow Wilson (Number 7) did so much more for the country than Obama did? In my opinion, no.
Wilson, the last leading Democrat who bought into the Confederacy mythology, is already starting to lose traction and I anticipate that he will be downgraded in future polls. Truman was a good man in many ways, but he blundered badly when he cut our alliance with Ho Chi Minh and threw American power against the anti-colonial movement Ho represented. Thirty years and 58,000 dead Americans later, it became clear just how disastrous Truman’s decision was, especially since all Ho Chi Minh wanted was to be a neutral figure, friendly to the U.S. in Asia just as Tito had been in Europe.
Eisenhower’s sins were worse than Truman’s in that he cranked up the anti-Vietnamese independence forces by backing colonial France in the 1950s. Then he completely undermined the friendly relations we had had with the Iranians by sponsoring a coup against Iran’s democratic government in 1953. We have been paying for this CIA blunder ever since. I’m not alone in my views on this being a blunder. When former CIA director, Porter Goss, was a guest speaker in my class, I asked him if he thought the CIA coup that overthrew the Iranian government was a mistake, and he said, “In hindsight, yes.”*
Eisenhower also backed the overthrow of a democratically elected government in Guatemala.
Both Truman and Eisenhower had their positive accomplishments, of course, but neither of them did as much in the face of as much resistance as Obama has done. Truman desegregated the military, for one thing, and Eisenhower established the Interstate highway system.
Obama, on the other hand, saved the economy when it was in free fall in 2008-2009. His stimulus package not only stanched the hemorrhaging of jobs that began under President Bush, but it also saved America’s auto industry with well-placed government loans. It’s worth remembering that the beginning of The Great Recession of 2008 was very similar to the beginning of The Great Depression of the 1930s. The difference in the way the Recession turned out, as opposed to the Depression, is, above all, a result of the actions taken by the Obama administration. This alone should earn him a lot of credit in the presidential rankings game.
The other big thing that Obama did was expand medical coverage to millions of Americans who had previously been too poor to afford it. Republicans hated him for doing this. Ted Cruz in particular said “Obamacare” was a bad plan because people would come to like it and then it would be impossible to get rid of it. One of Ted Cruz's very few honest statements.
But other Republicans hated it simply because Obama implemented it. Since the plan was based on Mitt Romney’s program in Massachusetts, it is hard to see it as a form of “socialism” or “government takeover,” but that is how the GOP described it. In fact, a more socialistic plan would have been better, but the Affordable Care Act was the best Obama could manage politically in 2009, so that’s what we’re going to have to live with for a while.
Another major accomplishment of his is the drawing down of our military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since the Bush administration lied about WMDs in Iraq as a device to justify the invasion, and, since the occupation authorities directed their efforts at promoting profit-making opportunities for American corporations instead of with an eye to the best possible outcome for the Iraqis, the invasion and occupation of that country turned into a colossal disaster. The ISIS leadership that now terrorizes the Middle East and beyond is made up of the very same Iraqi government and military officials that President Bush’s policies pushed into the margins as his underlings fought to make Iraq an investment paradise for American oil companies.**
Bush’s blunders and his and Cheney’s duplicity about Iraq require a book-length treatise, but let’s just say, as almost everyone now acknowledges, this, like Eisenhower’s Iranian coup, was a disaster with long-term negative consequences for the United States.
Obama has been criticized for being so anxious to extricate our forces from Iraq that he allowed a very bad situation to get even worse. There may be some truth to that, but, it is also true that the agreement that led to the withdrawal of American forces under Obama in 2011, was signed by Bush, and was held to at the insistence of the Iraqi government.
Afghanistan is also a mixed story, given that Obama has kept troops there longer than he wanted to.
But in general I would give high marks to Obama on military matters, first of all because he is careful to think issues through, and always looks for a way to accomplish the most with the smallest possible commitment of military force. His forcing of Bashar al Assad to give up his chemical weapons arsenal without firing a shot is one example of this. Getting the Iranians to drastically downgrade their nuclear program is another.
People like Bush, Cheney, McCain, Cruz and others in the GOP think that hitting a problem with a big, violent military punch is the best answer to every problem. Or, in Eisenhower’s case, when you don’t like a government, send in the CIA to overthrow it. Obama is much more inclined to use intelligence and finesse, resorting to violence in the most limited possible way and only as a last resort – as he did in the elimination of Osama bin Laden.
Obama’s approach to international relations is orders of magnitude superior to the mindless belligerence we hear from so many Republicans. And really, miles ahead of Eisenhower – who, remember, has been ranked as number 9 on our presidential poll of polls.
One result of this is that Obama is respected much more than many of his predecessors on the world stage, particularly more so than was George W. Bush. In the Republican bubble, Obama is believed to have made America weak and disrespected, but some international polls by the Pew foundation tell a different story.
So where does Obama belong? Every expert seems to agree that Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and George Washington are the top three presidents, usually in that order. Thomas Jefferson is generally regarded as number 4 (Declaration of Independence; Louisiana Purchase), and Theodore Roosevelt number 5 (national park system, anti-corporate trust busting). I am inclined to put Obama at number 6, ahead of both Truman and Eisenhower as well as Woodrow Wilson, Andrew Jackson (Number 8, but a brutal slave-owning, spoils-system-promoting, Indian abuser) and James Polk (Number 10, but a slave-owning, Mexican-War promoter).
Obama, of course, is not without his flaws. My main criticism of him is that he let Wall Street and the other financial finaglers who wrecked the economy in 2008 get away scot free. Maybe President Bernie Sanders will take care of that problem later on.
And what does the American public think of Barack Obama? Today his approval rating is at an unimpressive 45% or so. But this is not too significant, given that presidents are typically rated low at the end of their administrations, except when they are victims of assassination. When Truman left office, his rating was much lower than Obama’s is now. So, I expect that within a decade, Obama’s rating will rise and he will wind up being placed in the top 10. He may not get to Number 6, where I would put him, but I bet that by 2026 he will be rated as Number 10 or better. If there is any justice in this world, he certainly will be.
*For a thorough account of the CIA coup that destroyed Iran's democracy in 1953, read Stephen Kinzer's All the Shah's Men.
**For a good readable account of the politically-motivated actions of the Iraq occupation administrators, read Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Imperial Life in the Emerald City.