Should a presidents’ predecessor be a factor in judging his performance?
We have all heard President Obama’s refrain, “it took us a long time to get into this mess and it’s going to take us a long time to get out of it.” This is his explanation for why, now in his fourth and final year of his first term as president the Great Recession persists. But is it a legitimate excuse? And if we applied this principle to other presidencies how would the landscape of American history change?
Of course, there is some justification to President Obama’s explanation. He did indeed inherit a wrecked economy. The problem is that if we embrace this standard for Obama we must use it for all and then the process breaks down.
For example, one could say that Bill Clinton deserves no credit for his prosperous years of balancing the budget. Rather, Clinton should say, “Aw shucks folks, thanks, but actually, it took us a long time to get here. Ronald Reagan did it.”
One could make the case that only because Reagan ended the Cold War did we earn the great peace dividend and balance the budget. Because of Reagan we could discontinue the wasteful expense of researching and developing and deploying weapons that were never used and ultimately destroyed. At one time, before Reagan, 49% of the national budget was spent on the military.
But can the Carter years be blamed on Gerald Ford?
Should Richard Nixon be excused for only doing what Lyndon Johnson did and worse?
Should the Great Depression be blamed on Calvin Coolidge instead of Herbert Hoover?
The greatest president in American history? Hmmm, that would not be Abraham Lincoln but James Buchanan.
Presidential historians who dump on John Tyler would have to credit him, not James K. Polk, for bringing Texas into the union. Much of the ground work was done in the Tyler administration before Polk was even elected.
The problem with this “George did it” interpretation of history is that in the end, no one is responsible for anything. Obama can blame it on George, after all he inherited the problem, but if a president is not responsible for what happens on his own watch, and those events are only a chain reaction of what his predecessor did, then why shouldn’t George Bush blame his mess on Clinton? After all, as Obama says, “it took us a long time to get here.” Who is to say “how long?”
And blaming it on George does not explain why Obama’s own policies did not accomplish what he publicly said they would do such as the stimulus money creating jobs. In fact, most economists believe the economy under George W. Bush was wrecked by a housing crisis, created by an unchecked banking industry and excessive spending, including a $1 trillion – off the books – war in Iraq.
Obama’s solution was to ignore the housing crisis and increase spending many fold, with giveaways to favored political constituencies. According to a 2009, USA Today report, counties that supported Obama for president “reaped twice as much money per person from the administration’s $787 billion economic stimulus package as those that voted for his Republican rival.” Most studies say it did not create a single net job.
While presidential historians consider context, they must ultimately judge a president on how he plays the cards that are dealt him. They will admit that Richard Nixon was no more abusive than Johnson or Kennedy and that he showed sparks of genius but they will never likely rate him as a great president because he lost the presidency. Kennedy and Johnson, for all of their faults, did not. Nixon could not blame his fall on Johnson. Circumstances change and a president must adapt to meet the new rules of the game.
Clinton knows this full well. It is why his ambition is unsated and why he persists so diligently in public life. Nothing can change the fact that he was impeached. He is now trying to bracket that event with favorable context and ultimately have history declare it only and solely a political act. The best way to do this is to accomplish as much as possible as an ex-president and have his wife win the presidency too. Any future ten year old, forced to memorize the presidents would reach those names “Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Clinton” and would intuitively know that the impeachment had to be political persecution or the public would never have voted them back.
If one were to judge this election based solely on numbers and data and the economy and presidential history, Mitt Romney should win in a landslide. If he loses, it will reflect more on him as a failed candidate, than on Obama as a president.
By almost any standard Barack Obama, our beloved first African American president, is a likable leader, but he has presided over the longest war in American history, he has not stopped the spending that got us into trouble, and after four years he has still failed to even touch the housing crisis. Presidents are not only compared to other presidents, they are compared to their own promises, their own words.
The Sienna Institute proudly claims that Barack Obama is the 15th greatest president in American history. Not a chance. His election is indeed historic, monumental, but his presidency, like most recent presidencies, has been a dismal performance.