I always believed that rating presidents is an inane exercise for many reasons including the burden of the impossible task of comparing a president from the early 19th century with one in the early 21st century under very different domestic political, economic, social conditions and developments in the international arena that impact the balance of power. How can anyone possibly compare Andrew Jackson with Lyndon Johnson, James Polk with George W. Bush, and Lincoln with Kennedy? This is a mystery best reserved for fiction rather than serious scholarship.
Presidents have to be judged on the merits of the effectiveness of their policies at the specific period in history and not across the span of time as though they governed at the same time as a future or a past president. Moreover, they have to be judged against the realities of the constraints of the political system and the Constitution, the economic and social structure, and of course the dominant culture and sub-cultures of the nation that are impossible to change for any president.
The absurd “political beauty contest” of rating presidents is more fitting for the media seeking to entice, manipulate, distract and brainwash the public by providing a superficial overview of presidents that often includes personal traits and “likeability factors” as though a candidate for president is a candidate for dating or going out to socialize with voters. Not that the cult of personality is anything new in politics or the exclusive domain of contemporary bourgeois politicians in America. However, having a candidate that “makes people feel good” so that the mass voters form a popular political base is really a key criteria for bourgeois politicians and it is what is expected of them by those who provide the financing to their campaigns.
Not to belabor the issue of people judging by appearances and falling for “image-making”, especially their leaders as Nicolo Machiavelli (The Prince) argued five centuries ago, but it is extremely rare that anything of substance is analyzed when it comes to rating presidents like beauty queens. When substantive issues are raised, they are simply a reflection of the person’s ideological orientation without full disclosure of criteria used to rate presidents by the individual doing the rating. Considering that more than half of US voters do not identify with either Republican or Democrat party, ranking presidents becomes just another intellectual exercise whose significance rests in the attempt to convince people that popularity sovereignty is at works when this is far from true.
History will always judge Obama from the prism of his race – the reality that he was the first African-American president in a country with a very long history of racism that only intensified under this president largely because of the socioeconomic polarization owing to the lingering effects of the Great Recession of 2008 and neoliberal policies, but also the deep institutional and cultural racism of America. Where Obama actually delivered anything more than the symbolic political and psychological satisfaction to people who believed a minority must have the opportunity to become president is another question addressed below. Beyond the race issue that will also be in the forefront of his legacy, the others are the economy and foreign policy.
The first issue is that Obama ran for president in 2008 when the Great Recession was the worst economic contraction since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Of course, he promised to revive the economy and gave the impression that he was the new FDR of the 21st century; an indication that he would undertake massive reforms rather than preserve the status quo. Whether he revived the economy on a sound basis for the duration, whether he revived finance capitalism and corporate capitalism to the detriment of the middle class and workers living standards is something that people can judge for themselves looking at statistics of declining living standards for the majority despite unemployment reaching 5% in 2015-2016.
The second issue is that Obama promised to change America’s image in the world after George W. Bush, a president ranking among the worst in history and who had sunk the nation in two wars (Afghanistan and Iraq) and the ‘war on terror’ that had contributed to a monumental budgetary deficit without any tangible results in terms of reducing jihadist activities globally and engendering greater stability in the Middle East. Obama came to office promising to create a positive image of America around the world, one that would not have the country as the most hated on the planet and one that would strive to restore leadership without the aggressive militarist baggage that Bush had created. He also promised to respect human rights, to put an end to war crimes that many governments and organizations had accused the US of committing, and to close down the Guantanamo prison where political prisoners were and still are kept. Whether any of this was achieved or we are right back where Obama started in 2008 in terms of terrorism and a tainted US image in the world is another issue we will analyze below.
Arthur Schlesinger and the Criteria for judging presidentsIn 1948, an election year that kept Harry Truman, the first Cold War president, in the White House, historian Arthur Schlesinger was the first scholar to conduct a poll of 55 colleagues to rate presidents on “performance”. Making a reputation as a scholar of Andrew Jackson – the pro-slavery president of Indian removal policy fame - Schlesinger joined the Kennedy administration and provided his own criteria for ranking presidents, including: 1. “great presidents who were strong party men” like Jackson; 2. They confronted the Supreme Court (as did FDR), and 3. They aroused strong opposition as did Kennedy. One is immediately struck by the absence of key criteria appropriate for any democracy, namely, economic improvement for the majority of the people, maintaining peace, safeguarding civil rights and human rights, and improving social justice to achieve the ideal of a truly democratic society. None of these are included by Schlesinger or the vast majority of those ranking presidents since 1948.
Instead of judging presidents by policy results impacting the lives of all people, Schlesinger and all of those endeavoring to do same since the late 1940s listed such things as dealing with “turning points in history” – regardless of the result benefiting the majority of the population or resulting to its detriment. Although Schlesinger was molded by FDR’s New Deal when he was young, he came of age as a Truman Cold War Democrat who influenced the ideological orientation of American liberalism as expressed in the 1960s. Typical of an American scholar rating presidents on criteria of preserving and strengthening the system of government, Schlesinger simply assumed presidents ranking must be conducted from the perspective of the white male Anglo-Saxon elites.
a. Winning wars without considering the cost to society both short and long term;
b. Strengthening the economy and financial institutions geared to raise GDP but not necessarily closing the rich-poor economic gap;
c. Dealing with public corruption but not necessarily private sector corruption that went as unchecked or minimally regulated in the 19th as it is in the 21st century;
d. Unifying the party under strong consensus to mobilize popular support but not addressing the needs of the people who comprise the popular party base;
e. Imposing executive branch power over legislative and judicial to harmonize and rationalize capitalist interests, but not necessarily to provide a social safety net for the poor, women and minorities;
f. Confronting the political opposition to demonstrate Machiavellian leadership qualities for the sake of a “strong nation” but not for the improvement of citizens’ welfare.
In 2016 amid a climate of extreme right wing populist Republican presidential candidates trying to outdo one another on which one is more militarist and more in favor of strengthening corporate capital to the detriment of the majority, Schlesinger would be considered a left-wing liberal merely because he would be outspoken against the neo-Fascist orientation of the Republican Party as detrimental to forging a middle-of-the-road consensus. Nevertheless, Schlesinger remains the American bourgeois scholar icon who defined the criteria for rating presidents. Such criteria always takes into account preserving the political economic and social status quo, no matter how detrimental to the welfare of its citizens. After all, Schlesinger supported the Bay of Pigs operation and the Vietnam War that were disasters by any one’s estimation, including his own.
Scholars who follow the Schlesinger model have no problem ranking presidents today on:
1. How well did the president conduct policy to fight terrorism, rather than how we can mitigate or eliminate terrorism by addressing its root causes that range from the Palestinian Question to repeated interventions in the Middle East with intent to destabilize and divide for the same of securing spheres of influence;
2. How well did the president help economic recovery based solely on GDP, stock market performance, and “official employment” criteria, rather than living standards improvements, upward social mobility, and strengthening the middle class and workers as the popular base of a democracy. (Unofficial is twice as high and part time and seasonal account for distortions in official stats);
3. How strong US defense is for the purpose of benefiting the military-industrial complex as Eisenhower warned more than half century ago, instead of how US foreign policy benefits its citizens;
4. How can we strengthen corporate welfare that entails massive transfer of income through the fiscal system and in subsidies at the local, state and federal levels, no matter the consequences to the social safety net, the public debt, and viability of the capitalist system?
If the sole criterion is how militarily strong has any given president made the country, then we could argue that this is no different than the criterion of a dictator. If the criterion how effective the president was in strengthening the economy without the benefits accruing across the broad population, then we could argue that the criteria ought to be same as for non-Western dictators in power to benefit themselves and a small circle of people backing them. After all, the top 1% according to the New York Times determines fiscal policy to benefit itself. (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/30/business/economy/for-the-wealthiest-private-tax-system-saves-them-billions.html?_r=0). If the criterion is how effective is a president in mobilizing public support for political consensus to govern on behalf of the capitalist class while keeping a docile working class and middle class, then this ought to be fully disclosed as all other criteria.
1. Overall, was Obama a Good President?
Judged on the Schlesinger criteria, Obama was an average president who held the status quo in tact at a critical time of the Great Recession that started under Bush and two wars that proved a foreign policy and economic disasters During the 2008 presidential campaign, I argued on website of the World Association for International Studies (Stanford University) that people should be cautious about buying into the 'Obama mystique', that his presence was largely symbolic, intended to de-radicalize the masses and not substantive, that it was obvious his policies would not be very different than those of Bush who has the distinction of earning the rightful place of one of the worst American presidents.
Both Bush and Obama promised that bailout money in the trillions was necessary to save jobs and keep the economy going, presumably living standards steady. Taxpayer money went into banks and corporations but people still lost their jobs and suffered sharp drop in living standards, while the economy remains anemic. Bush was in office eight years and his gift to the world was two wars and $3.3 trillion in debt - 3.3% of GDP. After seven years in office, Obama continued the wars of the previous administration, started a new on in Libya and Syria, and added $3.3 trillion or 2.7% of GDP to the sovereign debt in his first three years alone. While Bush inherited a $3 trillion debt, Obama inherited $6.3 trillion debt and the Republican economic crisis. The debt Obama added technically belongs to his predecessor, although it was his decision to continue along the same fiscal and defense policy lines as his predecessor. He continued the policy of strengthening corporate welfare that only adds debt and weakens the middle class, as he continued militarist adventures, expanding them to Syria that benefit the defense industry at the expense of the people.
Could Obama be the president of the people as he presented himself? Considering the source of funding for Obama’s 2008 campaign, it is difficult to imagine this was the choice of the common man and woman. “Goldman Sachs donated nearly a million bucks to Obama. Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase donated nearly $1.5 million to the Obama campaign while Morgan Stanley pitched in over a half million dollars. When you break it out by individual companies, you find that employees of Goldman Sachs gave more to Obama than workers of any other employer. Goldman Sachs is followed by employees of the University of California, UBS, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, National Amusements, Lehman Brothers, Harvard and Google… Obama has a three- or four-to-one fund-raising advantage over McCain.” New York Times (July 1, 2008).
The US could have done worse with McCain and Romney who would have sunk the economy deeper in debt by providing even more corporate welfare gifts and lower tax brackets for the top 1%. In short, the people have the choice of who will be less reckless in foreign affairs and domestic policy that would make the majority even poorer. It is not a choice of which president will represent the workers and the middle class but which president will cause less damage because the system is such that it caters to the 1%.
2. Obama, Terrorism, and the war in Iraq and Afghanistan?
In his last state of the union, Obama boasted, “The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined.” Historically, the US has had a bipartisan foreign policy, with differences on tactics, rather than goals. While the Republicans are generally blatant militarists insisting on unilateral foreign policy approach, Democrats like Obama will consider multilateralism once they have no choice as has been the case with Syria and Ukraine where interventionism just has not worked out as they envisioned. Obama did not start the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan and certainly not the war on terror. Nevertheless, he did not seek political solutions to crises, yielding to the militarist establishment. According to Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, the results of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are as follows:
1. 1. Over 370,000 people have died due to direct war violence, and many more indirectly (The US Green Party estimate of Iraqis dead is one million)
- 210,000 civilians have been killed as a result of the fighting at the hands of all parties to the conflict
- 7.6 million — the number of war refugees and displaced persons
- The US federal price tag for the Iraq war is about 4.4 trillion dollars
- The wars have been accompanied by violations of human rights and civil liberties, in the US and abroad
- The wars did not result in inclusive, transparent, and democratic governments in Iraq or Afghanistan. (http://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/)
In 2011 Congress had approved a total of $1.283 trillion for things such as military operations, base security, reconstruction, foreign aid, embassy costs, and health care for veterans for the three operations initiated since the 9/11 attacks. Of that amount, $806 billion was allocated to expenses for Iraq and $444 billion for Afghanistan and related expenses. http://247wallst.com/investing/2013/04/19/the-real-cost-of-terrorism-for-nations-billions-and-trillions/#ixzz3xQlqHqET
These are the remarkable costs that militarism has delivered to America under both Bush and Obama, and this does not include money spent on Homeland Security that both Bush and Obama insist on maintaining because they made the war on terror a permanent fixture of US foreign and defense policy. According to one estimate, the US spends more than $100 billion annually on counter-terrorism, while the cost to the world economy is estimated in the trillions. The war against “Muslim terrorism”–the ultimate specter and trap haunting US foreign policy - has expanded under Obama. Under Obama, there were operations across North Africa especially in Libya on the pretext of wanting to help “spread democracy”, when in fact the US was working toward the same goal as terrorists to bring down anti-Western regimes. The same was the case with Syria and Yemen. While Obama pulled troops out of hot spots, he expanded drone warfare that many governments and organizations have accused for killing innocent civilians that the US dismisses as “collateral damage”.
Obama had the opportunity to change the course of US foreign policy but he chose to continue along the same lines. He could have rejected using the war on terror as the pretext to perpetuate Pax Americana, and he could have chosen political solutions to crises as he ultimately did with Iran over the nuclear issue. His legacy will be that he maintained the foreign policy, defense policy and war on terror policy that Bush started, never addressing root causes of conflicts including the Palestinian Question and backing Saudi Arabia which has been behind jihadist terrorism for decades.
3. What was his best policy? What was his worst policy?
“Obamacare” (Affordable Care Act) is about his best achievement, as far as it goes, despite massive Republican opposition. Although a future administration may do away with Obamacare or water it down substantially as I believe will happen in the name of neoliberalism, health care was an issue that had been important for Democrats since the Clintons in the 1990s and it was Obama who managed to implement it. He will also be remembered for trying to satisfy the socio-cultural agenda of the middle class by defending lifestyle choices such as gay marriage. To his credit, he held firm on women’s right to choose and funding of clinics providing services to women. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/06/25/obama-legacy-scotus-trade_n_7667946.html; http://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2016-election/how-president-obamas-legacy-will-define-2016-election-n451616
Obama would also like to be known for his environmental policy owing to the Paris climate agreement of December 2015. Compared with his Republican predecessors since Reagan, he at least held the line on the status quo rather than permitting further emissions that result in greenhouse gasses that contribute to global warming. However, the corporations committed to a “green economy” in which they see profits for the future and the low energy demand made it easier for Obama to push the green agenda Because the Republicans oppose the Paris Agreement and because it cannot become binding until 55 member states parties responsible for more than half of the world’s pollution have ratified it, there is serious doubt this will ever see the light of day in Obama’s lifetime. (http://www.nationaljournal.com/s/70708/obama-reaches-green-legacy-will-history-books-agree; http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/dec/12/obama-speech-paris-climate-change-talks-deal-american-leadership)
The growing socioeconomic gap and downward social mobility owing to a fiscal system that favor the very wealthy is his greatest failure along with a militarist foreign policy disguised as “multilateral engagement” because of the deals with Iran and Cuba, and more recently “Metternich-style” negotiations to resolve the Syria impasse where ISIS reigns supreme. Although official unemployment is at 5%, living standards are continuing to decline for the majority of the middle class and workers saddled with debt. Even worse, the prospects of young people are very dim because even those coming out of college with a degree cannot find jobs in their own field and certainly not a good paying job. The land of opportunity is now the land of opportunism and Obama who did not create this phenomenon simply contributed to it instead of doing what he could to halt it.
The post-2008 recovery has been very weak because job creation came at the expense of low-wage jobs, including part time. One reason that January 2016 was one of the worst for Wall Street, which predicts economic trends, is because the US economy is consumer driven but the consumer is too deep in debt. WALMART closing 169 stores is indicative of low purchasing power of its customers who tend to be working class and lower middle class. When one looks at the map of closings, it is no surprise that they are throughout the south that is in fact the core of America’s “Third World” with a high concentration of poor.
4. Was Obama responsible for racial wars and police confrontations?
Of course Obama did not create racial wars and contrary to the right-wing media in the US he is hardly the cause for the divisions that exist in a society that has always been divided owing to class, race and ethnicity gaps the political regime and economy create. http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-obama-legacy-project-1452643869
However, neither he nor his Justice Department also headed by a minority did anything about police shooting to kill, not injure at unarmed black youth in the inner cities of America. Obama did nothing about the unofficial torture inside jail cells as well as at the Homan Square facility where at least 3500 people, 82% of them black were detained without due process and often tortured. The US government knew of the link between Homan Square and Guantanamo as it knew of the deep racist culture in the police department, but it did nothing. The same is true for most of the US where institutional racist practices prevail in the criminal justice system. (http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/aug/05/homan-square-chicago-thousands-detained)
What exactly has Obama done for Blacks? In 2013, the NAACP announced that Obama had done nothing to improve the condition of blacks. When we examine the statistics on the overall condition of the black community we find that in fact blacks are worse off now than they were under the right-wing Republican Bush-Cheney administration.
1. Black home ownership has declined from 46 to 43% under Obama who had no problem providing hundreds of billions in bank and corporate bailouts and corporate subsidies.
2. Black-white income gap has increased and the median income stands at about $19,000. “In absolute terms, the median white household had $111,146 in wealth holdings in 2011, compared to $7,113 for the median black household and $8,348 for the median Latino household.” According to FORBES, a typical white family enjoys 16 times the wealth of a typical black family. While income for whites fell 1% from 2010 to 2013, it fell 9% for blacks. http://www.forbes.com/sites/laurashin/2015/03/26/the-racial-wealth-gap-why-a-typical-white-household-has-16-times-the-wealth-of-a-black-one/#2715e4857a0b4fbed7cb6c5b
3. Black poverty is at around 28% in 2012, and black children suffer poverty rates are four times higher than white children. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/07/14/black-child-poverty-rate-holds-steady-even-as-other-groups-see-declines/
“More than half of all people in Black families (54.9%) and 70% of people in Black families headed by single mothers were living in poverty in 1959. Black poverty rates reached their lowest levels in 2000 (38.6% and 21.2% respectively) just before the dot com bubble burst of 2000. Black poverty rates have been slowly increasing since reaching 25.7% for all people in Black families and 41.2% for people in Black families headed by single mothers.” http://blackdemographics.com/households/poverty/
4. Black unemployment historically has averaged about double to that of whites. Obama has done nothing to reverse this trend, as blacks continue to dominate in low-skill and low-wage jobs. Blacks have seen few gains from the “Obama recovery”. It must be stressed that the annual growth rate under Obama has averaged 2.24% in comparison with 3.97% in all economic recoveries since the 1960s. In such an anemic climate black unemployment is twice that of the general population. While official unemployment if at 5%, it is at 23% for blacks. Black male unemployment for 18 to 34 years of age runs at 43%. What can Obama do about this in a free enterprise economy where neoliberal thinking prevails? Not much and that is exactly what he has done, which is why we have the statistics I have listed above. http://www.ibtimes.com/black-unemployment-rate-2015-better-economy-african-americans-see-minimal-gains-1837870
While Obama did not create any of the institutional and structural or cultural problems confronting blacks, he has done nothing to address them other than going on TV and decrying racism and inequality. That is nice, but Lyndon Johnson did the same thing and then he at least followed up with some measures to back up the liberal apologetic rhetoric.
5. Was Obama prepared for the Presidency and did he unify the country?
The assumption is that to become president one must hold some high public office. However, we have examples of presidents who held such high offices but they were disasters because of policies they followed. Besides, the president surrounds himself with an administration of people that run various departments in accordance with the considerable input of lobbyists who literally write legislation to benefit their corporate clients. Obama’s administration reflected what corporate America wanted, just as those administrations of his predecessors. The administration team is imposed upon the president by various powerful interest groups, mainly Wall Street favorites. The institution of the presidency is already captive to such interests no matter who sits in the Oval Office. The only choice is whether to strengthen the energy sector, vs. high tech sector, banking vs. traditional manufacturing, etc.
The issue of “unifying” for the Democrat party financial backers was really one of “de-radicalizing” the disgruntled workers and middle class after eight years of Bush, and co-opting the masses in the same manner as FDR when he too inherited a major economic crisis that could have polarized American society. According to public opinion polls, Obama’s popularity is much higher at roughly 50/50 split in approval/disapproval in comparison to Bush at roughly 65% disapproval and 35% approval after seven years in office. (http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/other/obama_bush_first_term_job_approval.html)
Obama’s major achievement was that he managed to protect and preserve the neoliberal establishment with predominantly Clinton administration individuals representing Wall Street. Neo-corporatism under Obama reached new levels. This is because he is black and managed to appeal to women, minorities and gay-rights supporters. These voters saw him as their president, regardless of his mainstream policies in the domains of foreign affairs, economic, fiscal and monetary policy as well as labor-management relations that continued to deteriorate to the point of collective bargaining coming under serious threat from the Supreme Court. While Obama essentially served traditional interests as his predecessors, he managed to include people who otherwise felt disenfranchised. This does not mean that there were not the extreme right wingers dominating the media constantly complaining that he was not sufficiently militarist and sufficiently supportive of corporate welfare and neo-liberalism like his predecessor Bush.
6. What will be Obama’s lasting legacy?
Beyond the color of his skin and its symbolism in a country with a long history of racism imbedded in its institutions and culture, Obama was a restorative president who upheld neoliberal status quo and militarism with some modifications on health care reform, personal lifestyle choice issues, and a commitment to restore some regulations to preserve the pluralistic society he inherited. His own and Democrat rhetoric aside about achievements that are really disasters such as the war on terror, the bottom line is that terrorism, as the State Department defines it, has increased under Obama largely because of policies the administration pursued resulting in feeding militant Muslims throughout the world.
US involvement in Libya and Syria where indirect collaboration with jihadists manifested the absurd contradictions of US foreign policy turned out to be an unmitigated disaster by any measure one wishes to use. Providing Israel with military aid in August 2014, with Democrats voting in favor, including presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, amid Tel Aviv’s bombing of Gaza where children and women fell victims is a reality from which no rhetoric can wash away as part of the Obama legacy. The US policy of Israel regardless of its crimes against the Palestinians, and backing Saudi Arabia in its various foreign policy disasters intended to weaken Iran and Russia have also backfired. If this was the kind of America Obama had promised in 2008 running against John McCain, would he still have won the race to the White House?
US involvement in Ukraine was equally disastrous and it yielded absolutely no benefit for the US other than to tighten the NATO containment policy around Russia. In a public opinion poll in March 2014, only 18% of Americans said that the US ought to become involved in Ukraine; this despite massive media propaganda trying to convince people otherwise. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/03/ukraine-poll_n_4891224.html) The irony is that Obama and the Democrats only disagree with their Republican counterparts on foreign policy and defense policy tactics rather than goals that are to maintain Pax Americana no matter the cost to the majority of the people at home and of course at the receiving end overseas.It is pointless to judge the president of the US on the basis of Socialist expectations because the institution exists to prevent Socialism and strengthen capitalism. One can only judge the president within the perimeters of the existing system. However, if a president, and this includes Obama, runs campaign promises of broadening the democratic system to engender more social justice, human rights, economic and judicial equality for all people, but then fails to deliver on every single promise, then analysts have every right to emphasize the failure of the president based on his broken promises intended to strengthen the system by deceiving voters and de-radicalizing them as Obama did. In short, even if a president wanted to make systemic changes to achieve some type of ideal Jeffersonian democracy, it is simply impossible under the existing social order. In September 2013, Obama admitted that the top 1% grabbed 95% of all new income, leaving just 5% of the remaining for the entire population? (http://money.cnn.com/2013/09/15/news/economy/income-inequality-obama/;
The road to downward socioeconomic mobility and rising aspects of authoritarianism in America continued under Obama and this is his legacy as historians of the future will confirm. When the National Archives and the future Obama presidential library declassify documents and make them available to researchers in the middle of the this century, we will have a clearer picture of this administration. Of course, the performance of the presidents who follow Obama will have an impact on how his rankings will evolve, as I suspect that the US will be going through some very difficult times in this century because socioeconomic and political polarization combined with militarist adventures will continue to weaken America.