The Need for Distance
Siena polled 238 historians and compiled a list of best to worst Presidents in history, based on a pretty wide range of criteria. To no one’s surprise, George W. Bush is low on the list–fifth from the bottom, as a matter of fact, ahead of only Franklin Pierce, Warren G. Harding, James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson, and is the lowest ranking 2-termer on the list by a long shot. Nixon comes in 9 spaces ahead of him, and he had to resign from office, to give you a sense of where he stands.
Barack Obama is on this list as well, and comes in at number 14, between Andrew Jackson and Lyndon Johnson. That’s some heady company for a man who hasn’t even faced his first midterm election, much less a re-election campaign, and whose results have been, to say the least, mixed–and I say that as someone who will no doubt support his re-election and thinks he’s done okay given the media landscape, the opposition party, and the circumstances.
I’m not a historian, but I’d find it difficult to rank any president more recent than Carter, maybe Reagan, possibly Poppy Bush if I stretch it, mostly because it’s hard to tell just where a President is going to fit in without some time to reflect on his policies and their effects. For instance, it’s only now, almost 30 years since his election, that I’ve started to really recognize the damage to the social contract and race relations that Reagan’s rhetoric and policy decisions have wrought.
A President’s policy choices can have incredible effects that do good or cause damage well after they leave office, and very often those effects aren’t seen right away. For example, had Reagan not undercut and undone many of Carter’s energy policies, it’s possible we’d be further down the road to energy independence. Reagan’s anti-labor union policies still resonate today, and one of the most damaging things he ever did was push the image of the Cadillac-driving welfare queen, a racist and classist metaphor which infects public discourse even now.
So if I’m only starting to get a grasp on how what Reagan did affects this culture and this nation, how on earth could I make a judgment about the job George W Bush did, or the job Barack Obama is doing right now? It may be true that Dubya deserves to be fifth from the bottom of that list–I don’t see him making much of a climb in the coming decades–and it’s possible that Obama will deserve his elevated spot, but there’s no way of knowing that right now.