President Joe Biden has issued some major economic sanctions against Russia in the midst of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. These measures have largely been supported by the public, both in America and across the world, as strong displays of condemnation, without taking the next dire step. The question arises everyday then: will such a step be taken? If we consider the trajectory of America’s recent interventionist past, I would say it’s unlikely. (Of course, such postulation may be emboldening Putin so there’s a caveat to consider there.)
Anyways, to take the first view, let’s look back at Syria in 2013. Obama was concerned that if the US didn’t intervene, it would undercut the severity of chemical weapons’ usage there. Rather than go in all-guns blazing like his predecessor had with Iraq though, he instead went to the Capitol to seek approval. It was determined America wouldn’t intervene. Years later, a divide remains over whether they should have with a Guardian piece in 2018 entitled “The Epic Failure Of Our Age: How The West Let Down Syria”. I mention this, not to weigh in on any specific view, but to show that it’s not always clear-cut when, where, and why America should intervene.
Had Syria’s crisis come ten or twenty years before, America may very well have sought a different approach. As it happened, George W. Bush had led the nation into two costly wars in 2002-3 with Afghanistan and Iraq. We know all about how those went but it’s interesting to consider that at the beginning, support for the Afghanistan War was close to unanimous (90% according to Gallup). Iraq wasn’t ever quite as popular but it got a whole lot less so in the following years. But what if it hadn’t gone so wrong? Yes, I understand and completely agree that the invasion of Iraq was wrong from the get-go but in the eyes of the American public, what if there had been less casualties and more success associated with it? Like with the Gulf War a decade before?
George H.W. Bush sent the military in to liberate Kuwait from an Iraqi invasion. It was a quick, bold, and decisive victory that skyrocketed his approval ratings to 90%. The mission was complete but a lot of his supporters felt he should have gone further (into Iraq) and removed the problem of Saddam Hussein there and then. He declined, though years later (under the auspices of the War on Terror), his son determined America could not hold its head high while Saddam continued to violate international laws (and maybe have nuclear weapons???) Perhaps, an invasion in the early 90s would have gone just as poorly, even with the senior Bush proving a formidable foreign policy strategist. Indeed, his interventions in Panama and Somalia (while contested and dubious to many) were well planned out and successful. Well…
With regards Somalia (which began just after Bush had lost election), the people were initially thankful for his swift intervention. His record would then turn out positively when Bill Clinton took over and Somalia descended into chaos (with Black Hawk Down and more). Bush didn’t have to deal with the eventualities such interventions can bring, where Clinton was faced with an uphill battle he hadn’t even sought. The rest of his presidency would be tested on the question of when American intervention should and shouldn’t occur with critics (and himself, later on) citing a late entry to Rwanda and Bosnia as unfortunate, if not shameful, chapters in history.
In 1996, Eric Carson wrote a piece for the Rand Organisation entitled “Public Support For US Military Operations” exploring the factors that restrained presidents, in this sphere. Having come out of the Cold War just a few years ago, America had entered a “more confusing world” where the objective wasn’t always clear as had been with something like World War 2 (where people acknowledged the gravity of the situation). Further to that, political divisions or disagreements were having a knock-on effect on public perception. To bring this back to the present, we can see the potential of this political divide crinkling American support for a “next step” as many Republicans weren’t long ago flaunting a “rather be Russian than Democrat” motto.
Public support is essential when a president has a paper-thin political majority or faces contentions. This is another reason why I feel a strong intervention from the US is less likely today than it was years ago. After 9/11, George W. Bush had the nation’s support, even if he would quickly squander it. Back in World War 2, Franklin D. Roosevelt was a president in his third term. Even though Truman’s reputation would for years be bashed by the Korean War, there was still general support for a policy of Communist Containment.
Vietnam, the follow-up to Korea, truly took on its perception as an abject failure when the public started seeing what was going on through the medium of television. With public marches and demonstrations, bolstered by the counter-cultural movement, a new picture of American interventionism and soldiers themselves (quite harshly) was ingrained in the public’s psyche. What if Vietnam had happened ten years before, however? Well, as already mentioned, Korea was a contentious affair, though the South remained free of Russian influence but it is reasonable to assert it wouldn’t have been as unpopular or ended in quite the fashion it had, heavily influencing an election cycle.
Is it bleak to conclude that Americans will support American intervention then only if success is assured? It seems to be the case though such luxuries are never realistically afforded them. Popular support, as a result of today’s media, rancour in politics, and recent dubious interventions, has become nigh-on impossible. The best a president can do, in this age, is justify the chances of success should an intervention occur, answer how the nation is a threat to US interest, exert all means of diplomacy, and run the usual course of air strikes. Though as much as history has taught us how any conflict resolves in the public’s imagination, it is also worth remembering how easily people forget history. In a 2019, YouGov poll, the people were vary much split on whether the Gulf War was justified, for example. So as an addendum, one must note that we can’t even assume a clear or factual basis for public perception when such crises arise.
There’s no easy way to do this. Each US President existed in a different context of the young nation’s history and had unique challenges to face; be it economical (with the Panic of 1837 or The Great Depression after 1929), wartime (World War 2), or domestic (slavery). Each had external factors preying on their ability to do the job; from congressional layout to crises (e.g. 9/11) and world-changing dynamics (inflation in the ’70s). Each had different cabinets of support and varying levels of opposition (publicly, politically, and commercially). Really, one could argue it’s not even fair to judge the likes of Washington (from a simpler but creative period for government) against say, Bill Clinton, operating under a much more complex system. However… we’re going to anyways.
How exactly? Well, by accounting for their successes in foreign policy, economics, domestic policy, agenda set, public persuasion, and so on and so forth… Yes, all that, but mainly by addressing the central question: did they live up to the challenges of their time? And don’t worry, we’ll provide justification for these rankings- some may shock you given past rankings on other sites (sorry Andrew Jackson fans) but know this- plenty of thought has been given for each choice- this wasn’t some mere cut and paste job with a few throw-arounds for controversy.
Also, we will be excluding two presidents from this list: Joe Biden and William Henry Harrison. Joe; because, well, he’s not completed a year yet- although if push came to shove, I’d rank him around 15 for a strong response to Covid 19, with partial responsibility for the disastrous end to the Afghanistan war. And William H. Harrison? He served only 30 days in office, dying from pneumonia which he likely contracted after giving a tediously long inauguration speech in the cold. A lot of lists place him around 40, which I consider harsh. So let’s do the honourable thing and just bash his grandson who later became president.
Anyways, without further ado:
43. Andrew Johnson (1865-1869)
One of three impeached presidents, Andrew Johnson assumed the job in the wake of Lincoln’s assassination and made a perpetual fool of himself by attempting to go back on much of what just been achieved in the Civil War. He opposed the 14th Amendment which granted citizenship to former slaves and acted in a cantankerous manner, causing great friction with Congress, who passed the Tenure of Office Act (restricting Johnson’s ability to fire Cabinet officials). He was only acquitted because no one saw any chance of his re-election (which they were right about).
42. Donald J. Trump (2017-2021)
The former Apprentice host sowed a great deal of division in the country, inspiring renewed racist fervour and idiocy amongst his cohorts and followers. His outlandish statements aside, he will be remembered for making the pandemic far more devastating than it needed to be by spreading misinformation; corruption and nepotism; and refusing to take election results seriously, leading to a national insurrection on the Capitol building in January of this year.
41. James Buchanan (1857-1861)
At a time when decisive leadership was needed, James Buchanan essentially sat out the slavery issue, setting the stage for the secession of the southern states upon Lincoln’s election.
40. Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)
Theodore Roosevelt wrote of him as a “servile tool of men worse than himself… ever ready to do any work the slavery leaders set him”. Pierce is best remembered for failing to secure sectional conciliation, supporting the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, and aiding the downfall of the Democratic Party for decades to come.
39. Herbert Hoover (1929-1933)
Named after something that literally sucks, Herbert Hoover failed to address one of the great calamities of the 20th Century: The Great Depression. His perceived lack of concern resulted in shanty towns being called “Hoovervilles” while his tariff act (fuelling an international trade war) only served to make things worse.
38. Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)
There was a time when this (literal) mad-man was once considered a top 15. In recent years, historians have re-addressed his legacy as that of an American Caesar whose Native Removal policy stands as one of the most heinous of policies ever committed to American soil. Sure, he was the father of the Democratic Party but that doesn’t acquit him of these horrendous charges. Sure, he was a “man of the people” and not one of the elites but his assault on the banks contributed to the Panic of 1837. So beyond these basic labels, why is he held to such lofty heights? (Also, Trump admired him.)
37. John Tyler (1841-1845)
John Tyler succeeded the month-long presidency of William H. Harrison, seeking to establish the legitimacy of his leadership. He even believed the President should set policy rather than Congress. To this end, he was referred to as “His Accidency” by the Whigs. Sick burn.
36. George W. Bush (2001-2009)
Iraq. The economic crash. Besides that, seems an affable enough fellow.
35. Warren G. Harding (1921-1923)
Harding is usually ranked in the bottom three but beyond his innate incompetence (which he at least admitted to), I don’t consider his (albeit corrupt) administration to be particularly damaging to the US. (He, at least, acknowledged that democracy was a “lie” without political equality for black citizens. He didn’t do anything about it but he acknowledged it.)
34. Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)
Another spineless leader in the vein of Buchanan, Fillmore’s support of the 1850 compromise opened up the territories of the Mexican Cession to slavery and allowed for the return of escaped slaves to those who claimed ownership. Harry Truman called him a “weak, trivial thumb-twaddler who would do nothing to offend anyone”.
33. Martin Van Buren (1837-1841)
More like Van Burden, am I right? Van Buren continued Andrew Jackson’s policy of Native Removal and denied the application of Texas to the Union. His presidency was also mired by the Panic of 1837. (Interesting bit of trivia for you: Van Buren was a member of the Old Kindergarten Club for which to gain access you had to say “okay”, thus originating the term.)
32. Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881)
Hayes’ era essentially marked an end to Reconstruction and inconsistent civil service reform. He also championed the Gold Standard and broke the Great Strike of 1877. Nothing particularly striking or memorable or interesting here.
31. Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)
A mess of contradictions: owned slaves but wanted to ban the expansion of slavery into western territories conquered from Mexico; a military triumph in that war who wasn’t particularly keen on Manifest Destiny (expanding US borders); a decisive commander in battle who avoided tough decisions as President. Given his strong commitment to the union, historians wonder (had he lived) whether the Compromise of 1850 or the Civil War would have occurred.
30. Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893)
The grandson of former President William H., he was committed to voting rights for African Americans but economically uncertain of how to handle the nation’s affairs, resulting in the 1893 crash.
29. William Howard Taft (1909-1913)
Once the promising successor to Teddy Roosevelt, committed to 80 antitrust suits against large industries, he disappointed his predecessor by reneging and falling into place among the more conservative members of the Republican Party. This led to old Teddy mounting a race against him in 1912 under the “Bull-Moose” party. Both would lose, leading to the Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s rise.
28. Grover Cleveland (1885-1889 and 1893-1897)
Two non-consecutive terms? Oh, you better believe it happened! If people expected Cleveland to have improved in his off-years, they were sorely disappointed though when he was dealt the hand of the 1893 crash which he failed to deal with adequately. This resulted in Democrats losing support everywhere but the Deep South.
27. Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929)
Harding’s successor has attained some historical reassessment on the part of classic Republicans who admired his small-government and laissez-faire economic approach. He helped restore the reputation of the White House following the corruption scandals of Harding’s cohorts but largely detached himself from the job; infamously sleeping during the day and avoiding mingling with guests. Upon his death, Dorothy Parker remarked “how can they tell?’
26. Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885)
Given some of his past associations in business dealings, people expected him to be more corrupt than he was. He fought the spoils patronage system he’d supported in New York and advocated tariff relief for businesses and tackled civil service reform. It doesn’t say much though when your reputation, at best, surmounts to: “well, I guess he wasn’t that bad”.
25. James Garfield (1881)
He only served a few months but contemporaries were impressed by his handling of Roscoe Conkling; a New York senator trying to push his agenda and men in high positions. Historians call him a “what if?”
24. Gerald Ford (1974-1977)
Ford’s rise to power was particularly incidental, taking over for Spiro Agnew as VP before taking over the main post when Nixon resigned. A generally decent and uncontroversial politician, Ford, unfortunately wasn’t a great communicator, even if his pardon of Nixon was intended to help move a damaged nation on.
23. Richard Nixon (1969-1974)
Besides that whole Watergate thing, Nixon wasn’t a terrible president. Strategically minded, he approached the Cold War in a more pragmatic way than his predecessors or successors ever did, resulting in the first SALT treaty and the opening of relations with China. He even tried his hand at a health care plan and established the Environmental Protection Agency.
22. John Quincy Adams (1825-1829)
The son of John Adams served as Secretary of State and a senator before becoming president and as a representative after. It’s fair to say he’s best remembered for his later achievements there, focusing on the anti slavery movement. As the nation’s leader, he was generally considered to be too uncompromising to achieve much in an increasingly political age.
21. Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)
Alas. My favourite president in essence and character but unfortunately not one with the most impressive record, even though he was the only post WW2 leader to not launch a missile. A true Washington “outsider”, Carter’s reign was beset by out-of-control issues like inflation and (more in control issues like) poor congressional relations. In my opinion, he was ahead of his time but legacies rest on effective, perceptible changes and not just rhetoric.
20. John Adams (1797-1801)
Being one of the OGs is a surefire way to knock yourself up the list but Adams paled in comparison to Washington and Jefferson, signing the controversial Alien and Seditions Act which included powers to deport foreigners and make it harder for new immigrants to vote; strange cause for a newly built nation but then it’s hard to find a footing in those early days. He gets marks for not expanding the naval war with France into a greater conflict, however.
19. James Polk (1845-1849)
A lot of land acquisition went on during Polk’s term; Oregon, California, and New Mexico, notably. He also settled the Texas border dispute, established the federal depository system, and lowered tariff rates. Simply put, one of the most accomplished presidents there ever was. Critics charge however that his underestimation of the Mexican War’s effects paved the way for sectional conflict and the troubles that ensued over the next decade.
18. James Madison (1809-1817)
The war of 1812 was seen as unnecessary by some and as something of a 2nd war of independence to others. The new nation, either way, cemented its foundations in this test.
17. Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)
Reagan’s often ranked in the top ten and I can see why… kind of. A great communicator, Reagan brought hope to a nation deflated by inflation, Vietnam, Watergate, and perceived ineffective leadership. He amped the Cold War back up in its last days, oversaw a more prosperous era (while setting the stage with his trickle-down economics for a latter recession) and delivered some great jokes. Let’s face it though; he stumbled when it came to talking specifics, didn’t handle the AIDS epidemic well, and of course, that whole Iran-Contra thing. Sorry Reagan fans. If it’s any consolation, I still like him! What a character.
16. Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877)
Grant’s administration was wrought by scandals involving bribes and a whiskey ring, tarnishing his image for years to come (even though he didn’t personally benefit from the crimes). If we look beyond that, he was actually a pretty effective president who worked to stabilise the post-war national economy, support reconstruction, and crush the KKK.
15. William McKinley (1897-1901)
McKinley’s presidency marked the emergence of an imperial era for the US as he declared war with Spain over Cuban independence. He was also the first president to actively engage the media by holding press conferences and he went on national tours to speak with voters. A new day had come.
14. James Monroe (1817-1825)
Monroe helped further the nationalistic cause by reaching out to all parts of the then smaller US, separating their course and interests from Europe’s with the Monroe Doctrine. Florida was also acquired during his tenure.
13. Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921)
Despite being one of America’s most well educated leaders, Wilson held regressive viewpoints for race relations (even for his time). He’s ranked lowly in that regard but otherwise highly for guiding America through World War One and establishing the League of Nations, as well as banking reform, supporting labour and collective bargaining, and more.
12. John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)
I give some props for rhetoric and inspiring people but when it comes to actual legislative achievement, there’s not much to be said for JFK. And while, yes, he resolved the Cuban Missile Crisis with dramatic flair, he played a major role in starting it. And he set the stage for Vietnam. A great deal of his mythos has been born out of his untimely assassination. Again though, that inspiring stuff does count for something and let’s face it- it’s endured.
11. George H.W. Bush (1989-1993)
The senior Bush’s reputation has improved in recent years, probably as a result of people’s nostalgic yearning for a conservative who could be flexible. His 1990 tax hike might have irked his supporters after the reticence of his “no new taxes” election pledge but it was the right and responsible thing to do. Plus, on the world stage, he was very well respected for his even tempered, strategic diplomacy- too humble for most when the Berlin Wall fell and too cautious for others who wanted the Gulf War victory to lead onto further gains in Iraq (we later learned how that would work out). A very underrated president, in my opinion; he simply couldn’t sell himself well enough.
10. Bill Clinton (1993-2001)
Clinton’s impeachment was largely based on petty partisan squabbles so I’m not factoring that in as much as others would like. On the whole, he did the job successfully, steering the economy to a surplus for the first time since Truman’s years. While he was initially slow on Bosnia and Rwanda, he later found his footing on the international stage, earning support from the likes of Mandela and helping to establish NATO.
9. Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969)
Vietnam escalated to disastrous levels under LBJ so why is he at number 9? Well, under the auspices of Communist Containment, one could argue he was merely maintaining a longstanding foreign policy of the US but really, it’s because his domestic agenda was so progressive and realised. Only a year after pushing the Civil Rights Bill, he got the Voting Rights Act passed. Then, a flurry of the most impressive legislation committed by a liberal president, including Medicare. He was an intimidating, foul-mouthed beast of a man but he knew how to play the political game better than almost any other US president.
8. Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)
One of the OGs, Jefferson promoted a western expansionist policy with the Louisiana Purchase, effectively doubling the nation’s grounds. He also put an end to the long-standing problem of Tripoli pirates from North Africa, who were disrupting American trade in the Mediterranean. His passing of the Embargo Act of 1807, which suspended all trade with Europe, unfortunately wrecked the US economy and paved the way for the War of 1812 with Britain.
7. Barack Obama (2009-2017)
While many supporters were frustrated with the gridlock of congressional relations in Obama’s years and the supposed let-down in the wake of his meteoric rise, there’s no denying the achievement that was the Affordable Care Act. Not perfect, sure, but something that had eluded America’s leaders for decades. Besides that, Obama helped restore America’s image abroad and took some tough but much needed measures to restore the US economy after the 2008 crash.
6. Harry Truman (1945-1953)
Truman was never given an easy hand to play. He had been virtually kept in the dark by FDR while VP, not even knowing about the development of the Atomic Bomb. To drop that in August of 1945 was perhaps one of the gravest decisions a US President ever had to make. Shortly thereafter, he had to take quick measures to ensure the containment of communism where he could, mostly with success, though a period of uncertainty loomed at the end of his tenure with the Korean War. Initially not popular upon leaving office, his reputation was restored by the time of Vietnam due to the accountability with which he had held himself- a sign upon his office reading “the buck stops here”.
5. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961)
A military hero who ended the Korean War. A republican who continued the legacies of the New Deal and Fair Deal. Apatriot who opposed communism but would not give the red scare-mongering likes of Joseph McCarthy any time of his day. Yes, Ike was a popular leader who came as a natural choice for many in the post-war era. Perhaps his previous lack of political ambitions paved the way for him being the kind of president who could rule with sense, partisanship aside.
4. Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)
We’re into the major leagues now. Roosevelt ushered in the Square Deal which aimed to conserve natural resources, control corporations, and protect consumers. And… he was a Republican. Yes,, of the old sort- the kind that believed in containing big government and capitalism where it got dangerous. While something of a bloodthirsty scoundrel, apparently always itching for a fight and building up the US navy, he also brokered the end of the Russo-Japanese War (earning him the Nobel Peace Prize).
3. George Washington (1789-1797)
The first president is often ranked number one or two. While I admire his dedication to the job and setting the tone for the office by stepping down after two terms (where many wanted to make him essentially a king), it must be said that he operated in a time of widespread support and creativity for the new nation. He didn’t have the binds facing other presidents. Still, can’t really fault him on much.
2. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945)
Elected a record-breaking four times (dying early into his fourth term), FDR brought America through both the Great Depression and World War 2. His legacy is closely tied to the New Deal agenda, which set the course for liberal economic ambitions since, if never fully realised. Plus, he was also inspiring- helping to raise morale with his fireside chats and proclamations such as “we have nothing to fear but fear itself”. Upon his death, the people weren’t quite sure how another leader could occupy such a space.
1. Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)
No president has ever faced a test quite like the Civil War. Upon election, several southern states seceded resulting in America’s darkest hour. Lincoln was responsible not only for winning this war and reuniting the broken nation but for passing the 13th Amendment which abolished the original sin of America’s foundation: slavery. This would mark the great turning point in the nation’s history. Managing such a hefty task required a man of great intellect and greater moral fibre.
Time has a way of changing how we see things. With an ever speculative media and lowering of the bar in our general cultural zeitgeist, it’s only natural that our hearts soften and we yearn for an escape to the past, blissfully ignorant of the fires once ignited in us. We see things differently because we forget, we forgive, we re-evaluate, and re-prioritise our claims to what holds important today. In a broad sense, this has helped out former President George W. Bush a great deal.
Once the ire of liberals and humanitarians around the world, George W. Bush has managed to shift his appeal and image to that of a happy-go-lucky, maybe he wasn’t-so-bad-after-all kooky figure. Perhaps one of the most controversial US leaders of all time has somehow become the least controversial of the former living occupants of the Oval Office.
That might sound a little extreme but when you consider the current climate of divisiveness in the US, it makes sense. Obama and soon Trump represent polar opposites and are each pinatas for the other side due to their current relevance (and in Obama’s case, race). Bill Clinton… well, we wrote a piece on him earlier this year delving into his legacy but to surmise briefly- Epstein, Clinton Global Initiative, Hillary, women, etc. And then there’s Jimmy Carter. While he’s my favourite president, he’s few others’ and has remained a punching bag for “ineptitude” in conservatives and some liberals’ minds since he left office (unfairly I might add).
The Likability Factor
George, like his father, has mostly stayed out of the limelight since leaving office and for this reason, doesn’t grate people as much. (Absence makes the heart grow fonder, etc.) When he does appear in public, it’s usually for a non-partisan cause like supporting veterans or promoting humanitarian relief. When interviewed, he will explain and reassert his opinion that what he did in Iraq was important but he also seems content that “history will judge” his efforts. In other words, he’ll defend himself without becoming too defensive, like Bill Clinton has. Plus, he’s able to joke about himself (“most people didn’t think I could read, let alone write a book”) and has shown he’s not as partisan as once believed, becoming friends (or at least friendly) with Bill and Michelle Obama. Plus, he’s taken up painting which seems a bit quirky for someone like him.
So, in that sense, he’s re-established his likability factor which was probably his strongest asset against the rather dry Al Gore in 2000. This successful rehabilitation rendered a 61% approval rating in a CNN poll in 2018, compared to 33% upon leaving office. And he’s even been able to appear on Jimmy Kimmel and Ellen. I can only imagine Trump being invited to some wretched right-wing podcast in the coming years.
Likability is just one thing, however. Have his actual acts as commander-in-chief been vindicated? The answer is basically no, although the emphasis has shifted away from what was important in the 2000s. Where the war on terror once occupied the headspace of many Americans there is now a miasma of issues relating to what side you are on. While partisanship has developed bitterly over the last three decades, it’s so much more intrinsic to the nature of politics than even then. Basically, concerns for warfare abroad have been replaced with grisly notions of civil war at home.
That doesn’t mean Iraq is forgiven. In the 2016 Republican primaries, no candidate (except poor Jeb) backed their former leader’s venture into democracy. Four years before that, George wasn’t even present at their convention. So, the Republicans have basically tried to make their supporters forget he was ever a thing. The Democrats meanwhile, have pushed against their own for supporting the war effort back in 2002-3, using it as bait against the likes of Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. All in all, it would be fair to say, Iraq probably wasn’t a great idea.
On the other hand, some of Obama’s critics have argued he withdrew from Iraq too soon and that helped facilitate the rise of ISIS. His defence would counter some sort of pushback was inevitable and he was merely fulfilling the obligation of the American people but ultimately, enough room has been left for some blame there.
Afghanistan was a less controversial affair so that’s not been as much of an issue for George, besides relaying the popular assertion that he was a warmonger. And to many, he is seen as a war criminal who should have been trialed or impeached for what he did, particularly with regards interrogative measures in Guantanamo. He and his team have always asserted that they took any necessary precautions to avoid another attack on America, which they point out, didn’t happen. Critics remember the one time it did, of course, and argue that his administration took advantage of the patriotic frenzy following September 11th to pursue goals that were long in place, particularly with Saddam Hussein.
Ten years before, the Gulf War had been a triumphant effort. George H.W. Bush’s approval ratings had skyrocketed for the way he handled foreign affairs but he had played his cards with more caution, not moving beyond a liberation of Kuwait (to the dismay of many). Sanctions and warnings were placed against the Iraqi dictator and a resolution passed with bi-partisan support later on in the 90s which suggested there was actual cause for war should they put a toe in the wrong place (which Saddam did). Of course, principles and ambitions don’t mean much without proper strategy and when your intelligence amounts to nothing. In this regard, even George W. Bush admits things could’ve gone better. No WMDs were found and in 2007, he decided to send a surge of troops in order to relieve the chaos that developed in the aftermath of the liberation effort.
Establishing democracies is not easily done and the absence of a dictatorship does not immediately resolve all problems. Iraq developed into a mess, whatever the president’s intentions, and for this, it’s highly unlikely he will be forgiven.
With that said, it wouldn’t be fair to omit some of the accomplishments of George W. Bush. For one, his PEPFAR (AIDS’ relief) program in Africa was one of the greatest relief efforts America ever heralded, making him especially popular there. His Medicare expansion proved a fruitful endeavour. So too did his No Child Left Behind program, which aimed to hold schools with sluggish standards to account (though criticised for making teachers teach for the exam).
Anyways that’s that. So… there was also his slow response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 which brought his approval ratings to an all-time low and led to accusations of racism on his part. Gay marriage also became a red-hot subject for the 2004 elections under his tutelage, but not in a positive sense. And yes, the 2008 financial crash. Now, of course it’s not fair to place the blame solely on his administration. That bubble had been expanding since the 90s. However… only a year into his presidency, after successive years of a surplus, America was in recession. And he provided, as Republicans always dream of, a massive tax cut, going against much of the work Clinton had built on. Some of this comes down to political perspective but surrounding yourself with controversy and chaos rarely bodes well for one’s resume.
Historians, in their presidential rankings, generally place George W. Bush close to the bottom 10, if not among them. As briefly touched on, this was not an easy or steady presidency. In his defence, it never was going to be with the attacks of September 11th. He was dealt, undoubtedly, a tougher card than his predecessor and had to make some tough decisions, that could’ve gone either way. In this respect, I’m more sympathetic than most. If we think of these world leaders as playing on a chess board, partially obscured with fog, then it can be pretty difficult to navigate your next move.
With that said, it hasn’t gotten any worse since 2009 for George. His party may have severed ties with him (on an official capacity) but the majority seem to have taken a shine to this man. Maybe it’s because they forget easily. Maybe they think he was a good guy, waylaid in his efforts. Maybe they suspect Cheney was really in power. Maybe it’s because he seems so amiable compared to the current occupant. Maybe his candour, since leaving office, appreciated by the likes of Obama, has become symptomatic of something lost in US politics today. There’s all sorts of possibilities.
It’s not necessarily a good or bad thing that this legacy is changing so quickly. Commonality and closing the political divide is certainly important; in that respect, when he teams up with Bill Clinton, it’s understandable why people are happy to see him. On the other hand, he who forgets history is likely to repeat it and in some measure, it feels a bit insulting to trivialise this man’s legacy given the death toll and destruction afflicted under his watch. Popularity, in other words, is no replacement for competency.
Maybe, to toe the line, it’s as simple as one of us thinking what we would have done in his shoes since unlike so many other world leaders, he seemed like one of us.
George H.W. Bush one said in an interview that the “L” word was banned from his household in regards to defining his legacy and part played in history. His humility, today, seems all the more gratifying and admirable for the Sasquatch who now occupies the White House and the incessant stranglehold of political tribalism gripping America. Bush was, in many respects, a classic conservative but like McCain (who passed earlier this year), he tempered the extremists of his party. (He could also take a joke- inviting Dana Carvey, who impersonated him on SNL, to perform at the White House upon re-election defeat in 1992.) He raised taxes at great political cost. He formed a lasting friendship with the man who beat him in his re-election bid. He even voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. This man, to many, seems like the last of a dying kind.
In 1989, the world transformed with the fall of the Berlin Wall. What seemed an unlikely reality mere years ago quickly materialized and a steady hand was needed to oversee the end of the Cold War. Bush was the perfect man for this. His mother had instilled in him from an early age the idea to never brag and take any successes as a team’s, not his own. To be fair, Bush wasn’t responsible for what transpired across Eastern Europe or in Russia, credit or fault (depending on who you ask) belongs to a great many but for a US president to not drag this out as a triumphal moment took remarkable tact and restraint. “I’m just not an emotional kind of guy” he remarked, almost disinterested, when pressured by the press. Gorbachev certainly appreciated this. Relations between the US and Russia had never before (or since) been so cordial. This respectful line of diplomacy would prove instrumental in German reunification in the succeeding couple of years.
While he may have averted the world’s gaze from his own mantle however, he wasn’t ready to let America slip by the wayside in its foreign policy. The New World Order, as defined by the end of the Cold War, would see America stand up for sovereign nations being aggrieved across the world. To the World War 2 Generation, this may have seemed admirable, especially with despots like Noriega (in Panama) and Saddam Hussein pushing their luck. To many others however, this marked the beginning of a sinister role for their nation; world police.
The Gulf War of 1991 however was no Vietnam. It was a quick and altogether successful operation, as set out by the Bush administration, which resulted in the liberation of Kuwait. Critics on the left may have questioned the legitimacy of this war (albeit to a lesser extent than his son’s) and pointed to instances of civilian casualties as war crimes. Critics on the right may have argued that the US should have gone into Iraq and overthrown Saddam. Both voices of dissent were largely drowned though by the majority when Bush’s approval ratings shot to an unprecedented 91%.
So how, just over a year later, did such a popular president lose re-election? There were a wide variety of reasons, chief among them; a recession caused by Reaganomics, the entry of a third-party candidate into the race- Ross Perot, and the perceived image of Bush as a man out of touch. Particularly in the case of the latter factor, the Bush Administration’s take on the AIDS crisis and the War on Drugs are remembered unfavorably but he was also seen as a president far more interested in foreign policy than domestic. This is understandable given the Gulf War, Panama, and Somalian interventions, as well as all the changes occurring across Eastern Europe but Bush deserves a little more credit here, in my opinion. There was for one instance, a Clean Air Act, which seems out of place in a Republican’s administration. There was the tax compromise, aforementioned, which eschewed politics in favor of national interest (earning him years later, a Profile in Courage award from the Kennedy Center.) Then there was also the American with Disabilities Act of 1990 which gave legal protections to people with disabilities, previously unaccounted for. This doesn’t often get mentioned but is a key piece of Civil Rights legislation.
Despite all this, Slick Willy Clinton really was able to capture the spirit of the country at the time with his “I feel your pain” moments, saxophone solos, and direct intern management. The 1992 election got fierce and Bush felt the blow personally for years after but he always refrained from criticizing his successor, wishing him the best of luck from day one with a now viral letter (below). He spent the rest of his life, mostly out of the spotlight, save a couple humanitarian relief efforts with Bill and parachute jumps on his birthdays (the last one on his 90th in 2014).
Historians, he once noted, “will point out what we did wrong” and “perhaps, some of the things we got right.” Has a former president ever put it so simply yet brilliantly? One can certainly argue the proportions of these wrongs and rights and yes, one certainly should not do it, merely by comparison to Trump (a benchmark set so low it goes without bothering with) or his son (their approach to Iraq was fundamentally different). It’s definitely a mixed bag, as is the case with most presidents. The impression, I always got of this man however, was that he truly wasn’t obsessed with his legacy or bragging rights. He served 58 air missions in World War 2 (when with his rich connections, he probably could’ve avoided service), took some thankless tasks (chairing the RNC under Nixon, fathering “weak-sauce” Jeb), and acted as a public servant, rather than a typical calculative politician. Even putting aside today’s dark climate, this is the kind of leader we’re unlikely to ever see again.
Impeachment… the one sweet word caught in a perpetual echo these days; the prospect which denotes hope and security for the majority; and which entails many ramifications, of which, we cannot be certain. As it seems likely that President Trump will spontaneously combust any day soon, we decided it was finally time to take a look at a man less charismatic than beige wallpaper- he, who would be king, should impeachment or this combustion occur. Yes, you guessed it- this article is about the guy who looks like he’s from Thunderbirds- Mike Pence. (The title was also a clue.)
Who is he? It’s an important question to ask as he’s never exactly stolen one subset of a headline. Fret not, we’re here to dispel the mystery surrounding him. Born into an iron-clad Catholic family in 1959, the would be-law student went on to shock his community by becoming a born-again Evangelical. He then adopted an array of hypocritical conservative-Christian stances, before his first defeat for the Indiana 2nd Congressional District. Unfortunately however, he persevered (ignoring God’s will after a second defeat), succeeded in 2000, and thereafter every two years up until 2012. Then, he became the Governor of Indiana and something of a national joke among liberals for his refusal to attend any alcohol-serving events without his wife and for his draconian beliefs regarding gays. (Basically, they’re sick and need to be cured.) In many respects, just another right-wing righter.
At the 2016 Republican National Convention, he called himself a ‘Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.’ Indeed, his religious convictions seem to shape his persona even more so than the average Republican. Brian Hovey, a political columnist from Indiana once wrote that ‘[he] doesn’t simply wear his faith on his sleeve, he wears the entire Jesus jersey.’ Given the fact that he’s been one of Trump’s more steadfast supporters, it’s fair to posit that these principles are flexible (basing these on the Bible). Of course, one could then argue that like any other politician, he merely employs these convictions for electoral purposes while bending them to his own end. Plus, he’s the VP! It hardly makes sense to speak rashly about a man who fires people as frequently as he used to on The Apprentice. That POTUS handle could be a mere tweet away!
The conventional thought is that while Pence isn’t ideal, he’s a great deal more amenable that the Donald. It’s certainly hard to imagine him doing something so obviously stupid as flaring tensions with North Korea or insulting a war hero or widow the way Trump has. He is, however, dangerous in that he’s more closely associated with the traditional GOP base. He will work with Paul Ryan and others to establish solid conservative pieces of legislation and he will do it under the cover of less scrutiny because a) he’s no Trump, b) this kind of news will become relatively boring, and c) the people are ready to turn off.
Historically speaking, he has campaigned against abortion- placing restrictions on providers as recently as least year. He’s also supported most international trade acts, including NAFTA (which Trump’s consistently called a failure). He once stated ‘societal collapse was always brought about following an advent of the deterioration of marriage and family’ just in case he betrayed any image of outright homophobia. He supported Iraq (which apparently Trump always thought was a mistake) and he praised the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. A bit of a mix bag, in some respects, considering the administration he’s a part of but also an ‘unfortunate necessity’ in the words of Steve Bannon.
So, do you feel prepped? Or is there no point in such speculation? After all, there’s a new wild, crazt twist every month (if not, week) from the Trump administration and Pence could very well become nothing more than a footnote in the Age of Fantastic Ratings (if even for just wearing the same tie as Trump one day). He could also, however, be the man who brings America back from the pit of madness to the edge. Will he inspire? Will he be an improvement? Could he make America great again. No, probably, and no.
We here at the Washington Walrus feel passionately about US presidents in a way that can only be described as ‘slightly obsessive.’ And while the Oval Office has been hijacked by a demented Sasquatch, we still felt it was worthwhile taking a look back at better times. Unlike C-SPAN however, we will only be ranking the leaders of the post-war years. Besides a list of 45 being exhaustive and frankly tedious to most (have you even heard of Rutherford B. Hayes? oh… you have?), the position as we know it today really began to take shape in the wake of the New Deal and with the Cold War.
How did we decide? Well, we evaluated each president against the others on an extensive range of factors including: economics; foreign policy; domestic policy; leadership qualities; the tone they set for their times; the context in which they led; bi-partisanship; lasting legacy within these factors; chat show appearances; and more. Some of our choices may raise eyebrows but we didn’t choose frivolously, there was a very definite consensus reached. So, without further ado, to celebrate Presidents’ Day- the United States Presidents from worst to best as ranked by Andrew Carolan (AC) and Matthew O’Brien (MOB):
13. Donald J. Trump (2017-hopefully 2017)
It hardly seems right to rank a president of one month but then nothing he’s done has been fair. Even if the current president (shudder) was ranked on the hilarity of memes alone, he would still lose to Obama and Biden. Also, his policies are over-rated. Sad. AC & MOB
12. George W. Bush (2001-2009)
The affable younger Bush never ranks highly in these lists and… well, do we need to justify this one? The invasion of Iraq, notwithstanding, he had already turned a surplus into a defecit by the time of 9/11 and his slow, baffled response to Hurricane Katrina proved he was anything but fit for the job. America lost its stature of respect across the world where most people could not have imagined this man getting re-elected, much less, surviving another four years without impeachment. And yet, he hung on, leaving the US in the ‘mess’ Trump thinks Obama brought about. It’s easy to criticize Bush though, so for the sake of some balance, we should note that his Medicaid package has proved very popular and PEPFAR has made him nothing short of a hero to Africans, even if it was at the cost of the American taxpayer. AC
11. Gerald Ford (1974-1977)
The ghosts of John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, and Chester Arthur welcomed a new member to their exclusive club on August 9, 1974, the equally unexceptional, equally un-elected, Gerald Ford. It’s hard to postulate as to whether Ford would have ever considered running for president but there is no doubt that he inherited a poisoned chalice. Perhaps his biggest claim to fame came at the beginning of his presidency as he granted Richard Nixon a presidential pardon for the trials and tribulations of Watergate. This would set the tone for the next three years. Yet, many historians have credited Ford with strengthening the frayed fibers of the country through projecting a positive outlook for the American future. His foreign policy was marked by the signing of the Helsinki Accords, which aimed to strengthen the relations between Europe and the Soviet Union. Domestically, Ford struggled to work bilaterally with Democratic majorities in Congress, which tested his parliamentarian ability. Ford, unlike so many of his predecessors, was never destined for the White House. MOB
10. Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)
It pains me to put Jimmy Carter so far down the list. He’s my own personal favorite because I wrote my MA dissertation on him and he has the most moral fibre of any of these fellas (no shots fired during his time). He set a tone of restraint and fiscal conservatism for America, for energy conservation, and for the promotion of human rights internationally. While this may have seemed amicable on the surface; combined with his unfruitful relations with the Democratic base, it only served to corroborate the popular image of him as a weak leader. This, along with the Hostage Crisis, paved the way for a resurgence of the Right in 1980 and his eventual defeat. Carter’s batting average with Congress, on the otherhand, was not bad but many of his measures and examples for the country (including solar panels on the White House) were promptly abandoned in the following administration. Thankfully though, he has gone on to boast perhaps the finest post-presidency. AC
9. John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)
The iconography will never be dispelled but I’m sorry, the ‘what if he had survived…’ postulation is not enough to have him deemed a great president. Man landed on the moon by the close of that decade and yes, the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved but Kennedy merely made an epic speech in the former’s case and with the latter, helped spark the fuse in the first place with the Bay of Pigs operation. I like him and the image of his presidency remains a great inspiration for many politicians today but I’m sorry, he’s over-rated. There’s no two ways about it. AC
9. Richard M. Nixon (1969-1974)
For Richard Nixon, it was nearly a case of “always the bridesmaid, never the bride.” He had served as Eisenhower’s VP for eight years, and lost out to JFK in the Presidential election of 1960. Yet, he emerged as perhaps one of the most misunderstood presidents in U.S. history. There is no doubt that if you remove Watergate from the equation, Nixon would rank higher. Tricky Dicky assumed control of a country that was deeply bifurcated. Nixon’s domestic record is chequered, yet while he is credited with the progressive initiatives of ‘New Federalism,’ such as Affirmative Action, he is criticized for his economic policy in which inflation drastically increased during his time in office. Unequivocally, his greatest achievement lay in his foreign diplomacy as he opened a previously moribund diplomatic channel with China, and simultaneously eased tensions with the Soviet Union through Détente. Nixon also had to deal with the national dilemma of Vietnam, exercising a policy of Vietnamization. While this was an admirable move, the Christmas bombing campaign in 1972 would set a morose tone for the remainder of his presidency. MOB
7. Harry Truman (1945-1953)
When Truman took over from FDR, he had only been vice-president for three months and had no prior knowledge of the Manhattan Project. He had big shoes to fill and daunting decisions to make; perhaps the toughest of any US president. He’s often ranked highly in these lists for that reason as well as setting the tone for US morale and policy in the Cold War, with the Berlin Airlift, Marshall Plan, and Domino Theory. From an outside perspective, these measures can be interpreted as a signs of an increasing American aggression however. The Atomic Bomb and Korean War too, while necessary to many, are hotly contended by others as sinful acts. In my opinion, the former may never have been needed to defeat Japan (they were on the verge of surrender) but Truman saw no need for further American loss (and a sneaky chance to show Russia what’s what). For that reason, he is a patriot but his values of leadership elsewhere are (let’s say) controversial. AC
6. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961)
Dwight Eisenhower can be cast in the old American romanticism of a military hero turned Commander in Chief. A denizen of European battlefields, Eisenhower was a progressive Republican that continued the legacies of both the New Deal and the Fair Deal, which placated Congress. His domestic policy advanced the Social Security Program and increased the minimum wage while creating the Interstate Highway System. He brought an end to the Korean War and strengthened the mandate of NATO. Ike fostered a staunch anti-communist policy both at home and overseas with various counter-communist CIA operations. Through the ‘Red Scare’ anti-communist sentiment reached fever pitch, aided by the unchecked actions of Senator Joseph McCarthy who was only silenced when he targeted a sacred U.S. institution, the Army. Eisenhower also loses face for the apathetic national implementation of Brown Vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, which found that segregated schools were unconstitutional. MOB
5. William Jefferson Clinton (1993-2001)
Clinton’s sexual forays remain much of what he is remembered for, unfortunately. The context in which his impeachment arose, however,sheds light on the environment of Washington at the time. Much like Obama, his was a presidency mired by what Hillary referred to as a ‘vast right-wing conspiracy.’ Unlike Obama however, he managed to eventually hammer out a relationship with New Gingrich and the Republican-run Congress, leading to a productive if unintersting string of bills tackling issues like crime. In terms of foreign policy, he is remembered for early blunders in Somalia and failing to act more decisively in Bosnia and Rwanda, but he even found his footing there, leading a substantive effort in the late ’90s in Kosovo. Plus, the country was left with its first surplus since Truman and the North American Free Trade Agreement. It was a time of steady progress which brought America into the Globalized Information Age. AC
4. Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)
“You know there’s a ten-year delay in the Soviet Union on the delivery of an automobile…,” so went the intro to one of Ronald Reagan’s Soviet jokes. Known as the ‘Great Communicator,’ Reagan’s rhetoric resonated with the average American. Inheriting a rotten economy, Reagan went about his policy of supply-side fiscal reform, appeasing many while neglecting minorities. The detriment of ‘Reagenomics’ later manifest in swollen national debt that was bequeathed to H.W. Bush. Foreign policy under Reagan rapidly evolved to establish America as the only dominant global force. Military spending was increased in tandem with the Reagan Doctrine. The faux-pas of the Iran Contras damaged the reputation of the president and exposed the ugly, insidious actions of political back-channeling. However, through escalated efforts to tackle the de-escalation of tensions, Reagan and Gorbachev signed the ground-breaking INF Treaty, eliminating short and intermediate range missiles. A man who, even by his own admissions, was not the brightest, shone like a beacon for many Americans who believed that he had instilled a sense of pride and reignited the flames of patriotism. Just as with JFK, image was important to the successes of Reagan. His unique eloquence restored a nations confidence in an office that had lost all credibility. MOB
3. George H.W. Bush (1989-1993)
By 1992, the elder Bush’s image was one of a jaded veteran fazed by the economic troubles of the MTV generation. Perceptions change however. Historians now, have come to recognize the importance of a steady hand like his in a time of great international upheaval. When the Berlin Wall fell, he acted cautiously, mindful of the consequences this left for Gorbachev. When the more militant hearts called for an invasion of Iraq after the liberation of Kuwait, he thoughtfully withdrew, claiming the mission had been accomplished. When a recession encroached, he put the country ahead of his own political credit, abandoning his pledge to not raise taxes while working with Democrats. And while it may be hard to envisage such a policy with a Republican today, he actually passed a Clean Air Act. In a word- underrated. AC
2. Barrack Obama (2009-2017)
A popular sentiment that emerged in the aftermath of Obama’s historic election in November 2008, was that America had transitioned to post-racial era. This, of course, has not been the case. Elected on a wave of optimism and hope, Obama would face vicious partisanship with a Republican controlled Capitol. Obama initially took the pragmatic approach, but later was forced to use executive powers as he tried to implement his agenda. A historic stimulus package was signed within his first two months of his presidency, much to the chagrin of his friends in the emerging Tea Party. There can be no doubting that his Magnum Opus, the Affordable Health Care Act, is now deeply in jeopardy, and with it, a large portion of his presidential legacy. Obama has been criticized as being weak on foreign policy issues; Benghazi, Russia, Syria, and yet he excelled in restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, and reaching agreements with China to substantially reduce carbon emissions. We at the Walrus are admirers of Obama, not quite in the same category as the doughy-eyed former VP, Joe Biden, though. Through his presidency, he exemplified integrity speaking to Americans as if they were adults rather than children – perhaps an error, retrospectively. MOB
1. Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969)
There was almost immediate consensus in establishing LBJ as the number one on this list– particularly when we decided that FDR wouldn’t feature because it just simply wouldn’t be fair. In recent years, there has been a rekindling of LBJ’s presidency in television series, and films, namely relating to his landmark racial domestic policies. First the Civil Rights Act of 1964, followed by the commensurate Voting Rights Act in 1965. While some historians are critical of Johnson’s motives, I believe that he was a moral man (at least in regards to civil rights), who had seen the perniciousness of segregation first hand as a school teacher in Texas. Johnson was a spectacular bully, who, unlike Ford when he inherited the White House in freak circumstances, could assert his dominance over just about anybody. The legacy of his domestic agenda was the herculean vision of the Great Society. This encompassed many socially progressive streams such as the War on Poverty, and a plethora of Welfare programs. Johnson’s vision was to provide Americans in need with a hand up, not a handout. The Vietnam War dominated Johnson’s foreign policy and rapidly escalated through his presidency. It remains the major black mark on his presidential record, and discouraged him from seeking re-election in 1968. MOB
When I was in fifth year, our History teacher asked us to write an essay on the importance of Obama’s election. This was puzzling to me as this was not history. This was the present. Still, I managed to churn out some vague ramblings on the hope he inspired with the rhetoric of his speeches. You have to remember that back in 2008, Obama was like a celestial being sent from the heavens to save us from eight years of horror. Even if you knew nothing about the man, his days as a Community Organiser on the Southside of Chicago, or his political accomplishments in the Senate, you still held the innate sense that this was a good man who really was capable of enacting change and ushering in a new period of American prosperity. Eight years later, he has done just that, though perhaps not in the ways many of us would have imagined. His ascension to the highest office in the land, despite any beliefs you may hold of what came after, remains an historic moment. So, without further ado, let’s foolhardily tackle a legacy that will take years (if not decades) to fully understand, and appreciate.
The Audacity of Hope
“Yes, we can” was always a banal and slightly cringe-inducing soundbite but its utterance at the Democratic National Convention last year and during Obama’s farewell address nevertheless made our hearts leap. I used to think that Obama’s great speeches weren’t that important- that what mattered were his actions. Looking back in history however, how can one simply dismiss the power of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the comfort FDR brought with his radio addresses, or the tone Kennedy set for the Space Race as mere populist fluff? The truth of the matter is that a president leads not only with bills and the military, but with their words. From the get-go, Obama was a breath of fresh air because he spoke and acted with optimism, ebullience, caution, and consideration, not with bravado, brashness, and all guns blazing. As Stephen Walt put it in an early New York Times’ assessment two years ago; “[Even} when one disagreed with his choices, one knew that his acts were never impulsive or cavalier.” This helped restore not only peoples’ faith in America across the world; it helped restore general morale in an era dominated by economic hardship and political division. Particularly in light of what is to come, this will matter.
New World Terrors
The US was engaged in two wars when Obama took office. Many would argue that his decision to withdraw the US from Iraq was premature and facilitated the rise of ISIS. His policy on Afghanistan was somewhat wistful, quixotic, and naïve, which resulted in the stark realisation that nation building was not a feasible option. Many would contend that his condonation of drone warfare was abject and distant. Many would also assert that Obama’s foreign policy was, for the better part, a mere extension of the Bush administration’s. It’s a difficult area to assess because any of the repercussions from his actions will take years to manifest. However, it is pudent to remember the context in which his decisions were made:
There was the Arab Spring in his first term; which sparked the fervent outcry for democracy violently across the Middle East, resulting in a cascade of falling governments along with the end of the Gaddafi reign. There was the capture and assassination of Osama Bin Laden, which closed the chapter on an event that was a cathartic moment for all Americans. There was Benghazi, which undermined the credibility of his Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, and set a stage for scathing Republican backlash. There was the Iran Nuclear Deal, which to most reasonable people, was a step forward but which nevertheless further divided the nation writ large. There was Syria – an avenue Obama wanted to pursue but was discouraged from doing so by Congress (his seeking authority to enter may yet be seen as an aberration in the attitude of previous presidential administrations). There was Cuba, a country shunned for 50 years, a status that Obama felt deserved to be reevaluated. There was Putin; a man emboldened by the supposed appearance of weakness on Obama’s part, who entered Crimea, alighting fears of a Second Cold War. Then there has been the proliferation of terrorist threats across the world from Paris, Berlin, and Istanbul, which have consolidated the last decade and a half as the “Age of Terror.”
Republicans consistently go too far with their half-formed criticisms of the President. What they have failed to grasp time and time again is that “diplomacy” is not a dirty word. Obama understood that. He tread these waters, possibly a little too carefully, but next to Bush and Trump, are we not glad that there was a president who was willing to consider compromise before warfare? Just what will happen when Trump, the capricious braggadocio, gets his tiny hands on the most powerful military in the world? Obama’s heuristic leadership will surely seem a distant and sought after memory.
A Nation Divided
Abraham Lincoln was a model of hope in an era of bitter division, preceded and succeeded by terrible leaders. Obama’s time draws similar parallels.
Political, economic, and social division have evidently dogged these past eight years however. To take the former case of division; we have seen from day one, the GOP’s effort to dismantle the President’s domestic efforts and undermine his legitimacy on a scale of determination even more reprehensible than during the Clinton years. The Affordable Health Care Act (arguably Obama’s magnum opus), may be a source of contention for many Americans, some see it as hyper-liberalism aiding a modern welfare state. The Republicans’ alternative however (still outstanding), simply cannot be taken seriously in this discussion; their opposition is based on nothing more than political gratification. Of course, the bill is not perfect but with 50 years’ efforts of trying to get some sort of coverage passed and 20 million more people insured, there’s something undeniably historic about this act.
In terms of economic division then, the wealth gap has only continued to grow. Dodd-Frank was an amiable step towards reform but Wall Street was never properly disciplined and for this, Obama should be criticised. The Occupy movement was propelled by such injustice in this climate and so was Bernie Sanders, whose message, resonated with the youth, far more than Obama’s or Clinton’s. This problem, which Obama has on some level recognised, will no doubt continue to fester over the course of the next four years (if Trump’s tax plans are to be taken seriously) and it will dominate the 2020 election. To his credit, as an aside, he has made a substantive effort to promote the minimum wage and saved the country from another Great Depression (this particularly shouldn’t be forgotten).
The rise of Social Media has meanwhile projected unto millions more the reality of racial, sexual, and gendered inequality. Despite having their first Black president, many members of the Black community felt disheartened by his seeming disinterest in tackling police brutality and discriminatory laws. Events like Ferguson have been a brutal reminder of the privilege afforded to White people over Blacks. With sexual equality then, Obama was not initially a champion of Gay Marriage but its passage into law in 2015 became a victory for his administration, as the culture wars took a massive swing to the left. Women’s rights, were seemingly thrown aside with the election of Trump, but Obama’s been a proponent of greater equity, particularly in the workforce.
The fight over the Second Amendment cannot solely be hallmarked as an issue of the Obama years but it has been spread increasingly across social media lately. In a recent interview, Obama said his meeting with the families of the Sandy Hook victims in 2012 was the most difficult moment he endured in all his eight years and he meant that genuinely. Who could forget last year’s emotional speech when through tears, he told us, “every time I think about [them] it gets me mad”? Although nothing significant has been accomplished in all this time, Obama’s empathy will be remembered poignantly.
Obama’s own popularity rose throughout 2015 and 2016 despite an all-time low at the start of those years. He has since acknowledged however that this popularity did not transfer over to the Democratic base. Was the party, in some ways, damaged during his Presidency? November’s results would attest to just that but the election was of course anything but logical. Still, it may be argued in years to come that Obama’s greatest failure as President was to mobilise his party effectively and prevent the election of the Donald. Bill Clinton hasn’t exactly borne the grudge of Bush’s election. Carter’s leadership, on the other hand, certainly caused friction with the more liberal sides of his party and helped propel Reagan to power.
A Frustrated Presidency?
There are many areas this article hasn’t covered, including Climate Change, Obama’s generational image, the Auto-Industry, Immigration, and Citizens United. The overriding image these issues convey however is that of a “frustrated” presidency. The promises were many and the hopes were high; too high to ever formally be realized. Set against the schism of a society at odds culturally and politically, there were in many respects, very few avenues for this President to pursue without controversy. At first, he seemed a tad hesitant, especially given the Democrats’ initial majority. He was building the blocks of his legacy however, as a man of the people, not the politicians. Obamacare, I would argue, needed to be sold to the public. Politically, it would always be burdened. Indeed, many of his programs needed popular support. (Perhaps this is why he made so many chat show appearances!) And while his approval ratings have ended on a relative high, in many ways, this man and his team must be heartbroken; for just as so many greater heights could have been reached, so too could the measures he’s taken be torn apart in years to come.
In the final reflection, one has to wonder if Obama had ceded to Clinton in 2008 and ran, in perhaps 2020, would he had been better positioned to enact his powerful rhetoric of real change and unbridled hope for America? We’ll never know. When the dust has settled on his presidency, and equipped with the glorious retrospective vehicle of historical analysis, I think the 44th President of the United States will stand out as a coruscating example of a man, who in the face of constant adversity, lead the nation with progressive, principled, resolve.
With the assessment of many analysts and key figures, including Obama, that fake news’ stories shared on social media played a role in the outcome of this election, it must be recognized that there has been a significant lapse in critical thinking in America. Think about it- when you scan your Facebook feed, do you stop to read each and every article shared or do you just scoop the headlines into the back of your mind. I’m guessing, like me, you do the latter because there’s only so much time in the day and most of these stories seem trite and annoying. What you don’t realize however, read or not, is that a general impression is formed in your subconscious, resulting in a predisposition that can’t often be accounted for personally. For example, in the election cycle, we heard from a lot of people that Hillary was “crooked,” but we rarely heard from most of them exactly why (at least, in detail.) This resulted in the mass insemination of a wild notion that while Trump was none too desirable, Hillary was “just as bad.” If only, we had questioned these people as well as ourselves…
The media landscape has changed dramatically in recent years. Whereas Fox was always an anomaly in rationale prognosis, the other major networks such as CNN and MSNBC could be relied on, for the most part, to provide us with important news (if a bit left-leaning). Now, with the social media age, there’s so much flotsam out there that it’s become difficult to distinguish the bullshit from the professional and even then, the professionals get it wrong. (Thanks for those national polls, guys!) Many people are quick to out the amateurs in the comments’ section but even there, the gulf between credibility and crazy is wide. Is Obama the hero so many have painted him to be or is he an Islamic fundamentalist determined to take America’s guns away and flush them down the toilet? At this point, the level 1 critical thinker might surmise that the answer always lies somewhere in the middle. It’s all about balance, right? Sadly, it’s not that easy either. Critical thinking does not mean delving a line in the center of a Republican and Democratic thought; it means examining the very fabrics and grounds on which arguments are created.
Let’s take a case in point to illustrate the importance of this evaluative method: the Iraq War. In 2003, America launched one of its most dodgy exploits to date with the invasion of the Kuwaitan neighbor. Most people will tell you it was a disastrous campaign that has brewed trouble for the world since and only a few less will further that the grounds on which it was built were dismally unfounded. To sharply dispel any immediate backlash, I am going to formally state first that I do not think this war was a good idea. What I am going to attempt to do however is add a wrinkle to the clear picture many people have of it.
It all started in 1991 when George Bush Sr. declared war on Iraq after the invasion of Kuwait, believing such acts of aggression could not be tolerated. The mission was simple; to restore Kuwait’s territory and drive Saddam’s forces out. After an extensive air campaign, the battle was short and sweet for America. The casualties were relatively low for them, victory was swift, and the president’s approval rating rose to 89%. For many however, Bush Sr. made a critical blunder in failing to follow on through to Baghdad and dispose the despot. He felt, in this scenario, there were no grounds for this course of action. And so order was restored seemingly though Saddam remained in power, violating UN sanctions placed over the course of the 1990s, with repeated reports of chemical weapons being used against his own citizens.
In 2001, the World Trade Centers fell and the Age of Terror took hold of America. Many argued at this point that Bush II set his sights on Saddam before Afghanistan (the Bin Laden problem) was even on the books. This is a leap for others. Here, I believe, the truth may actually lie in the middle as the Bush administration’s policy was clearly set after a ridiculously named “war on terror.” Iraq, W. argued, had to be seen in a different light in this new world context. Did it? Or had it merely become convenient for the Republicans to enact the invasion they had been plotting for years? It became very difficult for moderate thinkers to thread the line between a revived and fervent patriotism in the wake of 9/11 and the dissent of liberal caretakers, who opposed the idea of an American New World Order. Finally, of course, the date was set when W’s intel (a gut-wrenching use of the word) declared their belief that Saddam held weapons of mass destruction (or later, the “capacity” for such weapons). The rest of the story played out then quite clearly. The war began. The statue fell. Saddam was taken. The casualties mounted. They didn’t get out. A surge took place. An economy fell. Another man took office. They began to withdraw. Insurgencies rose. A new terror formed.
Iraq was no prime example of interventionist success but its significance was different to many people. Some believed it was the most unnecessary and immoral act America had committed its sights to since Vietnam. Some believed it was a necessary precaution to take in an era of heightened international tensions. It wasn’t right to let a man like Saddam lead a nation, in many people’s opinions. His absence created a void from which organisations such as ISIS would arise however. Hindsight is 20/20 as well. Great critical thinkers such as the late Christopher Hitchens, who often rejected well-revered establishment figures such as Henry Kissinger and their philosophies, felt that America’s commitment to the sanctions placed in the 1990s meant they should have taken action much earlier. Others then, will always contend, that it is not America’s right to dictate the rights of another nation.
I chose Iraq as an example, not because I believe, it will mystify many who had blankly accepted it as a falsely premised war, but because it exemplifies the simplicity with which so many people view these matters. It’s important to question those who you have agreed with 99% of the time. It’s important to think on the other side once in awhile because while I reject the notion that sanity lies squarely in the center of the political aisle, I do believe that neither side has proven itself to always be on the right side of history. So with the dawn of a new dark era in America, let’s hope that people will begin to base their opinions on facts again and not just conjecture. 2016 marked a great lapse in logical and critical thinking for America, among other nations, because fear and anger fueled the fire. In 2017, let’s restore the approach (Nixon once noted) Eisenhower took to solving problems; through cold eyes.