Mark L. Hopkins: Ranking the Obama administration
A friend asked me last week how I would rank the Obama administration in comparison to the other presidencies of U.S. history. He finished his query by adding, “Would he be last?” I will ignore his follow-up comment and focus on some comparisons, even though it is more customary to wait for about 20 years before one attempts to rank the contributions of a U.S. president.
Historians rank presidents by a criteria that relates to issues such as the economy, war, major legislative accomplishments, international relations and a variety of other challenges a particular administration must face.
Some of our more popular presidents have not fared well in presidential rankings due to lack of accomplishments, time in office, etc. James Garfield and John F. Kennedy are good examples. Others, such as Harry Truman, left office amid a major wave of unpopularity though because of his accomplishments following WWII, historians now judge President Truman to be one of our top 10 presidents.
Richard Nixon received positive points for his “Kitchen Diplomacy” confrontation with Russia’s Khrushchev (1959) and his diplomatic effort to open China to international trade (1971), but negative points for Watergate and having to resign the presidency. Ronald Reagan received positive points for his confrontation with Russia, which caused the downfall of the Soviet Union, but he gets negative points for his handling of the budget (we became a debtor nation under Reagan) and the Iran-Contra scandal.
So, using historical criteria for ranking presidents, how would President Obama rank today after six years in the White House? What are his positive points and his negatives?
The economy: He was handed a mess when he came into office in 2008. Unemployment was 10.6 percent, several major employers including General Motors were nearing bankruptcy, and banks and lending institutions were in serious trouble. Today, unemployment is 5.6 percent, most major employers are back on their feet, and the recession is behind us. (Actually, presidents should never be given credit or blame for the state of the economy, though we tend to point fingers at the top man when things go bad. Congress and the Federal Reserve have far more impact on the economy than the chief executive, who has no constitutional authority or responsibility for the economy.)
Social welfare programs: The introduction of major social welfare programs tend to get high marks by those who rank presidents. Franklin Roosevelt gets credit for Social Security and Lyndon Johnson gets credit for Medicare and Medicaid. If the Affordable Care Act program survives, as it most likely will, President Obama will benefit greatly in positive points by having pioneered it.
War: When President Obama came into office, we were fighting two wars in the Mideast. Both of those wars appear to be continuing, but without our major involvement. From more than 187,000 troops in the Mideast when Obama came into office, we are down to less than 15,000. Leading us into those wars is a major ratings negative, which will adversely affect President G.W. Bush. Getting us out is a major positive, and President Obama will likely be the beneficiary.
Cuba: Forty-three years ago Richard Nixon made his international diplomacy reputation on the opening of Communist China for international trade. It is still a major positive in his rank as a U.S. president. If President Obama’s Cuba initiative goes well, it is likely that his ranking will benefit significantly by this effort.
Many other evaluations can be made on President Obama’s administration, including becoming energy self-sufficient, lower gas prices, the immigration initiative and so on. It is significant to remember that there has been no hint of personal or administrative scandal in the Obama administration to date. We have painful memories that Nixon had Watergate, Reagan had Iran-Contra, Clinton had Lewinskygate, G.W. Bush had torture and Kennedy had prostitutes in the White House — all by their sixth year in office.
It is not hard to find the negatives that haunt President Obama. Congress has become inoperable during his administration. Progress for his presidency has become an exercise in executive orders rather than shepherding legislation through Congress, as Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan were known for. Congressional gridlock will not enhance President Obama’s status with historians.
It is likely President Obama will be remembered for the short range as a visionary and a communicator but not as a major presidential success story. He came into office without much of the preparation necessary for running the largest bureaucracy in the world. And his successes are the product of his individual initiatives as opposed to being able to bring the rest of the elected leadership along with him.
Presidential Obama’s long-term ranking is difficult to predict after just six years in office and without knowing the effects of his policies down the road. We should remember that when he was elected, he was one of many running for the highest office in the land. When the smoke cleared in 2008, our voting majority had chosen him over all the others. Then we did it again in 2012 by an even greater majority. Wasn’t it Winston Churchill who said, “The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter”?
Dr. Mark L. Hopkins writes for More Content Now and Scripps Newspapers. He is past president of colleges and universities in four states and currently serves as executive director of a higher-education consulting service. Hopkins’ latest book, “Journey to Gettysburg,” is now available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. Contact him at email@example.com.