As Barack Obama enters the final months of his presidency, historians, journalists and self-appointed pundits will participate in the ritual of ranking him on the scale presidential greatness.
Although these surveys garner plenty of attention, they are of little real value. The criteria for judging presidential greatness is fuzzy, failing to account for complicated presidents like Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson who were both influential and profoundly flawed. Most of all, they are inherently biased. Surveys of the public opinion, for example, often rank John F. Kennedy as one of the nation's greatest presidents, alongside Abraham Lincoln; historians, most of whom are liberal, are reluctant to acknowledge the accomplishments of conservatives like Ronald Reagan.
With these disclaimers in mind, I offer my own flawed and biased assessment of the Obama presidency. Assuming there are no dramatic developments in the remaining months of his presidency, where should Obama rank on the list of presidential greatness? I would say high, very high.
There should be little debate over the "greatest" presidents in American history. There are three who stand head and shoulders above the others: George Washington, who forged a new nation; Abraham Lincoln who preserved it; and Franklin Roosevelt who saved it. They are in a category all their own. No one else is close. (This list also has the advantage of being politically balanced. There is one Republican, one Democrat and one who governed before political parties existed, so we can call him an independent.)
The next category, which I term "near great," would include those presidents who inspired the nation, and, who, through the sheer force of their personality and skill, shifted the political debate in America, leaving a legacy that endured far beyond their administration. On this list, I would include Thomas Jefferson, whose brilliant articulation of American ideals has shaped political discourse for the past two centuries; Andrew Jackson, whose populist appeals helped forge a coalition that would endure for decades; Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, who used the power of the presidency to combat the evils of industrialism; Harry Truman who established the foundation of America's Cold War policies; and Ronald Reagan, whose conservative ideals transformed the Republican party and offered a politically viable alternative to post-World War II liberalism.
Many of these "great" and "near great" presidents also made colossal mistakes: Jefferson owned slaves and did little to address the issue of slavery as president; Jackson implemented punitive policies that imposed enormous hardship on Native Americans; and Lincoln and Roosevelt violated civil liberties in pursuit of wartime victory. But the positive impact of their presidencies far outweighs the negative.
The next category of "above average" presidents would include James Polk who added large swaths of land to the United States and expanded presidential power; the often overlooked Dwight Eisenhower, who exercised admirable restraint in waging the Cold War; JFK, who inspired the nation but did not live long enough to leave a lasting imprint on the office; and Lyndon Johnson, whose impressive domestic legacy is offset by his disastrous Vietnam policy.
And then there is everybody else. The "average" presidents would include the likes of James Madison, John Adams, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. The "below" average group would consist of such forgettable presidents as Ulysses Grant and Gerald Ford. Then there are the indisputable failures, which, unfortunately, is the longest list. Among the more notables in this group are: Andrew Johnson, William Henry Harrison, Herbert Hoover, and, most recently, George W. Bush.
In what category does Obama belong? I would make a case that he be considered among the "near greats." Here's why:
Not since 1933, when FDR took office at the depth of the Great Depression, has a president confronted such a profound economic crisis on the first day in office. The banking system was collapsing, the two big automotive companies were near bankruptcy, unemployment was rising and the housing market was in a free fall. It was Obama's policies, enacted into law despite unprecedented Republican obstruction, that helped turn the economy around. In fact, Obama's policies have been far more successful than Roosevelt's New Deal program. It was increased wartime production after 1939, not New Deal programs, that ended the depression. Obama ended the "great recession" while slowly disengaging the nation from active involvement in two foreign wars.
Just about every economic indicator reveals an American economy on the rebound, and the growth has far outpaced that in other developed nations. You would not know that by listening to the cartoonish complaints of the Republican candidates running for president. What they fail to mention is that the economic results would be even better had it not been for the Republican-imposed sequester in 2011.
Like all "great" and "near great" presidents, Obama not only solved the problems he inherited, he has managed to leave his own mark on the institution. With the Affordable Care Act, Obama accomplished what every Democrat since Harry Truman has tried but failed to pass -- national health insurance for all Americans. He has championed other reasonable policies -- fighting global warming, ending gun violence through sensible gun control legislation, and immigration reform -- only to have his initiatives stymied by conservative opposition. Most of all, Obama has been masterful in exercising the intangible aspects of the presidency -- inspiring people with his words, and articulating a clear alternative vision for the nation that makes his opponents appear small-minded and petty. And lets not forget the symbolic power of being the nation's first African American president.
Obama's accomplishments in foreign policy have also been notable. In addition to the economic crisis at home, Obama inherited unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not only has Obama been winding down America's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has reoriented the nation's priorities abroad and articulated a more modest vision for America's role in the world. He signed a controversial nuclear deal with Iran, opened relations with Cuba, and has refused to be drawn into another ground war in the Middle East. His Eisenhower-like restraint in the use of military power has sent Bush-era neoconservatives into hysterics, but it has dramatically improved America's image in the world.
What remains unclear is whether Obama's vision and his policies will reshape the Democratic party and endure long after he leaves office. Lets hope so.