President, n. The leading figure in a small group of men of whom—and of whom only—it is positively known that immense numbers of their countrymen did not want any of them for President.
― From: The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce
‘He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he’s our son-of-a-bitch!’
― President Franklin D Roosevelt‘s (1933-1945) reported ‘presidential seal of-approval’ response when apprised by his advisers of the ruthless Nicaraguan U.S. client-dictator Anastasio Somoza García‘s less attractive leadership attributes (circa 1939).
‘As democracy is perfected, the office of the President represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be occupied by a downright fool and complete narcissistic moron.’
― H.L. Mencken, as usual, his acid tongue one suspects firmly tucked into his (other) cheek.
‘I’ll be long gone before some smart person ever figures out what happened inside this Oval Office.’
― President George W Bush, (2001-2009), in what some less than kind souls might suggest was an uncharacteristically non-moronic moment of presidential candour and lucidity.
‘You don’t know how to lie. If you can’t lie, you’ll never go anywhere.’
‘Politics is supposed to be the second-oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.’
― Ronald (the Gipper) Reagan (1981-1989), possibly showcasing another rare, yet welcome, moment of presidential candour and lucidity.
Brief: The current U.S. presidential campaign again underscores the increasing irrelevance of the presidency and anyone who might aspire to the position. The quality, integrity and character of the candidates, the elevated levels of hoopla and the ballyhoo, the superficial, inconsequential and ‘prefabbed’ nature of the political debate are all pointers to an institution—the jewel in the crown of the American polity—that ain’t what it used to be. All that remains is for a critical mass of Americans to come to this realisation, and it may well be “all over Rover” for the exceptional nation. Such realisations for many cannot come too soon. It remains to be seen as to how much the present campaign brings folks closer to this point, and what might transpire as a consequence.
— The Making and Unmaking of an Oval One —
Generally at his most mischievous when commenting on the presidency, Gore Vidal once famously quipped that ‘any American who is prepared to run for president should automatically, by definition, be disqualified from ever doing so.’
Riffing on a similar theme, Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, said, ‘anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.’
As pithy and droll as these maxims are, they are a pointer to the reality of the modern presidency and to anyone who aspires to the role. And if we allow ourselves to think about it, they also provide us at once some insight, paradoxically, into how much the institution of the presidency has changed, and also how much it has remained the same.
Quite apart from the power, authority and influence—perceived or otherwise—the position nominally bestows upon the incumbent, such is the inflated mystique, aura, and the mythology attached to, or invested in, the institution of the American presidency that few other countries if any come close to matching it, in either intensity or constancy, with their own respective leaders or executive heads of state.
It’s a given that any one purporting to deliver insights into the Grand American Narrative cannot do so without recurring reference to the respective occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., whom Vidal cheekily referred to as The Oval One(s).
It is amply clear much ink is spilt, airtime devoted [to], and bandwidth consumed [in] the preoccupation with analysing and assessing their commanders-in-chief during and well after their time in office. Frequently accompanying such deliberations, are similar musings on and about the institution itself. As indicated, this again is moreso than in parliamentary democracies such as in my country Australia, along with others such as New Zealand, the U.K., and Canada.
Moreover, this extends also to those aspiring to the office. Those unsure of this will have any such doubts dispelled over the remaining 12 months of the presidential election campaign, the very length and cost alone—to say nothing of the vacuous electoral “hoopla” and the “ballyhoo”—sufficient evidence to underscore the above.
Along with present and future aspirants, notwithstanding their departure from the political arena, past occupants also for one reason or another (usually a myriad of them), are referenced incessantly, and not always with good intentions or favourable outcomes as a result.
On a more micro level, what’s less clear though is how we might determine the impact—for good or ill—the decisions, policies and doctrines of individual past presidents have had on the unfolding of that narrative, to say nothing of their global impact.
And with the next presidential election campaign in full swing, now may be as good a time as any to examine some presidential tenures and legacies (including especially that of the incumbent), along with the criteria we might bring to the task of doing so.
In this we should also consider that this presidential election has to be by far the most surreal and head shaking of all—a big call I know. The veritable conga-line line-up of candidates on the Republican side alone provides ample evidence of Mencken’s acerbic comment above: Should the Republicans win in 2016, it is already something of a forgone conclusion the White House will once again be “adorned with a downright moron”, one possibly even more inept and dangerous than the last one who might have fit that description, on that side of politics at least.
And for those looking to the Democratic side of politics for a more attractive alternative, and think Hillary Clinton might offer such, Mike Whitney, after observing in a recent piece on Counterpunch that while regretful Democrats might legitimately claim that they never thought Obama would turn out to be such the disappointment, ‘the same can’t be said about Clinton’, then adds the following to underscore the point:
‘There’s simply no excuse for anyone to vote for a proven commodity like Hillary and then complain at some later date, that they didn’t know what a scheming and hard-boiled harridan she really was. Clinton’s hawkishness is part of the public record. It’s right there for everyone to see.’
As for Bernie Sanders—this election’s New Great (White) Hope—in the post-Obama era, the disillusion amongst voters is apt to be widespread and deep-seated. There will likely be a ‘once bitten, twice shy’ attitude amongst ordinary average Americans (Mencken’s “plain folks of the land”?) seeking a significant change in their economic and social circumstances via the new president, and they’ll be rightly suspicious of any candidate for the role promising such. As they should be.
In a country where voting is not compulsory and folks feel considerably disenfranchised from what remains of the democratic process, this spells the death-knell for any candidate no matter how credibly they position themselves, or how many promises they make. If Sander’s campaign gives way to Clinton’s as most expect it to, the ‘Obama Effect’ will have played a significant role to be sure.
All of which is to say, along with considering all those aspiring to be the next Oval One, if said campaign is not, in and of itself, sufficient prima facie evidence of the decadent, desperate depravity of the U.S. ruling elites and the concomitant dying throes of empire, then I’m not sure what further proof might be needed to fully satisfy the requirements of any ‘reasonable doubt’.
This observation further underscores the need-nay urgency-for deeper reflection not simply on the presidency and those who aspire to the Office, but on the very future of the Republic, if only because so much of the “future of the Republic” appears to be invested in the institution and expected from the person who occupies the role.
Either way, from this we might just get a better handle on how to view the campaign itself, what each candidate truly stands for and how each might fare, and ultimately what we might to expect from the next White House tenant. Admittedly, none of this I can guarantee. In fact, although much care will be taken as it were, I’d be loath to accept any responsibility later on should things turn out quite differently from what we expect for all this musing!
And with that said, therein lies one the greatest conundrums attending the person holding the highest office in the land that—as of this writing at least—still remains the world’s most powerful empire, the most dominant geopolitical force to be reckoned with.
Before continuing, it might be instructive to consider whether the “power, authority and influence” of the incumbent at any given time has any basis in reality. Something to consider especially is to what extent a president might manifest that power, and even more importantly, in whose favour he might wield it.
Moreover, we should ponder whether in fact the “mystique, aura, and the mythology” attached to the presidency itself is what it used to be, at least to the extent that it “used to be” [was/is?] of some objective substantive import. This, by extrapolation means we may have to touch on whether the “power, authority and influence” of the presidency is ‘out of whack’ with the “mystique, aura, and the mythology” embedded in the institution and by extrapolation, embodied in the incumbent.
In an interview on the Real News Network with prominent journalist and author Chris Hedges not long after the beginning of President Barack Obama’s first term, the eminent American author (Democracy Inc.: Managed Democracy and the Spectre of Inverted Totalitarianism), and political philosopher (sadly, now recently departed) Sheldon Wolin—after indicating he did not expect much from the new Administration and that “the basic systems” [of power and influence] in the US are going to “stay in place” unchallenged—had this to say about the freshly minted POTUS, one upon whom the weight of expectation was arguably unprecedented in the modern era:
‘This [view] is shown by the [Wall Street] bailout. It [the Obama administration] does not bother with [changing] the structure at all. I don’t think Obama can take on the establishment we have developed….he inherits a system of constraints that makes it very difficult to take on these major power configurations. I don’t think he has an appetite for it [ideologically]… The corporate structure isn’t going to be challenged. There has not been a word from him that would suggest an attempt to rethink the American imperium’.
With Wolin’s words in mind, Obama’s performance thus far—especially now that we have had much more time to analyse and assess both the performance and the man himself—underscores for many the ‘thesis’ that the presidency is no longer relevant in mapping out a realistic yet optimistic and attainable future for the nation as a whole and it is no longer powerful enough even with a mandate to facilitate the machinery of state towards a more positive, egalitarian, productive and constructive outcome for all participants.
Nor does it appear that the rest of the world—including some of America’s stanchest allies—accord the Oval Office and its incumbent occupant the status it has enjoyed in the past. With the world changing in profound, unpredictable ways, it is to be expected the nature and function of the presidency itself, will change also. But there must be more to it than that. And there is of course!
If Obama promised change, then as already hinted at, his first term tenure alone appeared to underscore the hoary old platitude that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Whether Obama instinctively knew that even before he was elected is open to debate, but it is difficult to escape the conclusion he did.
On the other hand, it may just be that he recognized—as Wolin has reinforced above—that as president he represents, embodies—and acts in the interests, and on behalf of—forces that are much larger, more powerful and much more immutable than the Office itself and any person who might hold the Office, totally removed from their popularity with Americans, or for that matter, the rest of the world.
As noted already, none of this of course is likely to prevent present or future presidential candidates from promising more change than we might poke a stick at in a month of election Tuesdays! And therein it would seem lies one of the great unspoken frauds in the American political process—certainly insofar as those who aspire to the office goes—and of course one of the truly great illusions, held (we might even say, cherished) of course by all those who would vote for them.
In his 2010 book The Next Hundred Years – A Forecast for the 21st Century, geostrategist and CEO of Stratfor, George Friedman, after noting that in the long-term at least, presidents are not especially “important or powerful” people anymore, adds the following, ostensibly about Obama (but by extrapolation, future presidents):
‘[He has to] govern within the realities and constraints that [have] defined previous presidencies, and whilst he may or may not be popular, his ability to redefine anything as massive as the United States and the global system [is] severely limited’.
Obama may have even privately surmised that to be ‘successful’ and ‘effective’ he needed to recognize the above reality or not harbor any illusions about it (or any ambitions of his own at odds with these forces), even if he doesn’t always feel comfortable with such “recognition” and constraints.
That being the case, there is at present disturbingly little sign thus far into the fag-end of his second term that Obama is showing any discomfort with that recognition. No doubt there are numerous folk who believed in his message of audacity combined with his shill of hope would be saying ‘more’s the pity’.
Even accepting Friedman’s argument that he was ‘constrained’ as described, there seems no doubt in many people’s minds that Obama could have, and should have done, more. Much more! And in other ways, much less! Obama wasn’t for example “constrained” by his Iranian nuclear weapons deal, one for which there was ample opposition. Likewise with the Trans Pacific Partnership. But his time has effectively run out. At this point, most presidents are looking to consolidate their achievements such as they are, so as to shore up their legacies, for better or worse.
Of course a president can attempt to define his legacy and put a shiny gloss, which they and their supporters almost always do try. At the end of the day though it is the historians and the pundits and—to the extent they allow themselves the time and are sufficiently motivated to do so with some sense of purpose—Americans themselves in general that will do that. And although a consideration for later, it’s very possible in this era given the geopolitical zeitgeist, that Obama’s larger legacy may actually be determined by forces once again way outside of his control, even much moreso than his predecessor’s was.
In summary, assessing a president’s legacy is generally easier said than done. As we are about to see, it is not a job for the faint-hearted or the time-poor. And it would appear now moreso than ever that this observation holds. This is especially the case when it comes to assessing the presidency and its incumbents at any given time considering the state of the broad political economy of the U.S. itself, and, as noted with Obama above, the state of the even wider geopolitical landscape. Both of which at present, we can say without risking too much contradiction, are an unholy shambles of the like we have not witnessed in the modern era! Both of which are also in a state of flux, with uncertainty and accompanying tumult the order of the day, and in ways where it is difficult also to define any comparable era in recent memory.
Yet one might argue such an exercise assumes greater urgency going forward as political debate becomes increasingly inconsequential, trivialised and insubstantial with each presidential campaign, at a time when the issues facing the nation and the world it purports to lead and provide an example to are far from being so.
This sentiment was underscored recently in a piece written by Andrew Bacevich, ostensibly commenting on the entry of Jim Webb into the presidential race, but also taking time to comment on that quadrennial “Game of Thrones” we have all come to know, anticipate and love as the presidential election.
After noting in his introduction that political campaigns ‘should clarify‘, and that the need for such clarification in this current campaign is ‘especially great’, he adds that, ‘[s]adly, they rarely do. Instead, they obfuscate’. The way Bacevich sees it,
”In recent decades, US foreign policy has been a muddle. One failing outranks all others: a persistent misuse of American military power. Costly efforts to “fix” the Greater Middle East have accomplished next to nothing—apart perhaps from facilitating the rise of the Islamic State. On such matters presidential candidates should have plenty to talk about. Yet talk that goes beyond the recitation of platitudes will occur only if the campaign includes voices willing to acknowledge how far we have gone astray.’
It appears unlikely that what Bacevich is suggesting is going to happen anytime soon in this campaign, Webb’s entry into the campaign notwithstanding—one which if it wasn’t still-born from the off, has since been lost in the ether of trivia, absurdity, and irrelevance that are the hallmarks of modern presidential campaigns. And the overall tone of his piece would suggest he doesn’t think so either.
— Good President, Bad President —
Of course the first observation one might make is that Democrats will generally being to the task a ‘different set of tools’ when is comes to assessing one of their own, and likewise with the Republicans. Think here Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-45) for the Democrats, and Ronald (the Gipper) Reagan (1981-1989) for the Republicans.
Yet we might discard this provision as a useful consideration from the off by recalling Ambrose Bierce‘s mischievous, yet even more pertinent, aphorism:
‘A democrat is one who believes the republicans have ruined the country, and a republican is one who believes the democrats will ruin the country.’
Complicating matters in this endeavour are the numerous variables we might use to ascertain the ‘success’ or otherwise of a presidential tenure or legacy, and this is without accommodating the reality that no presidential tenure is self-contained or plays out inside a vacuum.
As Friedman noted, each president inherits any number of realities bequeathed by their immediate predecessors, to say nothing of the cumulative effect of decisions taken by those presidents further back in the narrative.
Again, as noted, such realisations are unlikely to discourage future White House aspirants from promising hand on heart they can “Turn America Around” or “Make America Great Again”—even candidates with one of their own in the Oval Office at that time. This of course is de rigueur, Electoral Politics 101 if one likes.
Whether in reality or symbolically, the Office of the President of the United States represents, embodies—and acts in the interests, and on behalf of—forces that are much larger, more powerful, less transparent, more insidious, less accountable and at present much more immutable than the Office itself and especially the person who holds the Office at any given time.
Moreover, the “much larger, more powerful, less transparent, more insidious, less accountable and at present much more immutable” forces effectively hold at bay any real reform in the system via the democratic process. They remain implacably—if imperceptibly for many—opposed to any form of proactive people power, although they are always prepped to give it lip service. If you doubt this, just listen to a few of the debates by presidential candidates.
In short, if the Office itself isn’t expendable, the same can’t be said for the individual occupying it. The JFK Thing I believe is ample evidence of this. To all intents and purposes, these folks are simply keeping the seat warm for the benefit of the greater ‘good’. So whilst the pivotal narrative focus herein necessarily name-checks various presidents of the era within the contemporary narrative setting, it is with the “much larger” and “more powerful”—and indeed, darker, anonymous, sinister—forces that we should be most concerned with.
Put simply, presidents come and go. The ‘faceless forces’ remain. None of this is to say that presidents don’t matter; they can cause a lot of damage as it were (and they do with almost predictable certainty, albeit invariably with unpredictable ‘innovation’), so in that sense, they have a profound influence and impact—albeit too often a counterproductive one at best and downright destructive at worst.
But on the face of it, the nerve centre of the American machinery of government and the headquarters of its democracy such as it is played out is still the office of the POTUS. Yet, there is an inverse relationship between the increasing expectations the US electorate has of presidential candidates and just exactly what those who are elected president can, might, and/or willing to, deliver.
Obama’s tenure once again underscores this point. Indeed, one might say it is the text-book case study in that respect. Americans seemingly unshakeable faith in the democratic process to deliver them a better life through improved leadership, better policy and more effective government seems to know few bounds. This is evidenced by everything from the levels of hoopla, ballyhoo, pageantry, spectacle, ritual, pomp, circumstance, ceremony, cost, duration, hyperbole, faux symbolism etc. of the presidential campaigns themselves, all of which will become increasingly evident over the next 12 months.
This is despite that reality that the individual power that the president, once elected—even those exceedingly rare, capable ones with the best intentions—actually has available to deliver on these expectations, is limited. As for applying these “variables”, context and perspective is crucial. As well, said “variables” may not always be obvious at the time, and may only become so in hindsight (a consideration for another time perhaps). Nor can we guarantee there’ll be consistent rhyme or reason in what “variables” may appear to apply from one commander-in-chief to another.
(One other key consideration herein is the capability and ostensible determination of any incumbent Oval One to pursue the promised objectives that got them elected, and the willingness and perseverance to do so. This also is decidedly a ‘story’ for another time.)
Shortly we will examine some of the criteria whereby we might consider great and not-so-great presidencies, and from there readers so inclined might then use this as a guide as they contemplate with a view to evaluating any past (or present) White House tenant. However firstly, there are a couple of instructive examples that might serve to pave the way as it were for such an exercise. A bit of the requisite stroll down presidential memory lane as it were.
For his part Harry S Truman (1945-1953) may never be considered one of the ‘great’ presidents, but he—against all odds—won a second term in office, considered no mean achievement at the time and even now. Moreover, during his tenure time he was party to or presided over some of the most momentous decisions ever taken in the modern American narrative, at least one of which he came to regret. By most accounts one of these decisions wasn’t necessarily the dropping of the Big Ones on Japan by the way, a ‘decision’ that had effectively been set in motion.
Herein, even if so inclined he may have found it difficult to reverse it given the prevailing zeitgeist. And insofar as we know, there is no indication Truman questioned or second guessed the decision. Possibly two of the more momentous decisions taken by the unrequited former Missouri haberdasher were the establishment of the National Security Act and America’s involvement in what came to be known as the Korean War. The former if not the latter is—tellingly—one which the historical record shows he harboured a considerable measure of regret.
By the same token, Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) whose tenure as commander in chief is rarely accorded much in the way of high accolades, was in the view of some as being ‘too good’ for America. To whatever extent he genuinely or consistently reflected such implicit values, America was just not ready for Carter’s belated recipe of restraint, self-denial, humility, or self-reflection.
Even if we only factor in the rise of Ronald (the Gipper) Reagan (1981-1989) to the presidency in the wake of Carter’s ‘failed’ tenure, the consequences of Carter’s time in office were also substantial, but of course there are numerous other considerations that need to be taken into account. In the Grand American Narrative especially, things are never quite that ‘simple’.
To underscore this, Carter’s national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski was directly instrumental in drawing the Soviet Union into invading Afghanistan through the use of Islamist insurgent forces from within and outside the country—notably Saudi Arabia. (Osama bin Laden anyone?) And the record is pretty clear on how that panned out for America. (In this we might say Brzezinski left an even more profoundly significant legacy than his boss, one which he appears to be, 35 years hence, still dining out on, and serving up to anyone willing to chow down with him.)
And it goes without saying that love “The Gipper” or loathe him (and like John F Kennedy, folks did just that), his presidency shaped the political economy of the United States and the Western world in substantive ways—to say nothing of the broader geopolitical landscape—that depending on which side of the fence one sits, all those affected are either still benefitting from, or recovering from!
It’s at this point where we might look at what makes a ‘good’ president ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ president ‘bad’ if only because it may help to illuminate the current state of the union and the role that the presidency has played in bringing it to this point. As one might expect, historians generally have several criteria for what characterizes a successful, effective and popular president. Few presidential legacies combine all three consistently.
To make the Top Ten, presidents (or to be precise, ex-presidents) would probably need to tick all these boxes in order to make any short-list. As a rule, we might posit that one-termers need not apply, and it is here again that Carter’s case is instructive.
Despite all of his admirable efforts to rehabilitate his rep after his hapless turn as commander-in-chief, he rarely comes within a coo-ee. As evidenced by the polls at the time he handed back the keys to the White House, Carter was about as popular as barbequed pork spare ribs might have been had they deigned to serve them at the signing of the Camp David Accords, an agreement that was arguably his signature, and not insignificant, achievement.
Now the former Georgian peanut farmer may be a good person, a good Christian family man and humanitarian, a good mah-jongg player, even for all I know, a good patriot and statesman with the Founding Father’s own political ‘DNA’ coursing through his varicose veins, but he’ll never trouble the Presidential Top Ten compilers or pundits anytime soon.
According to many, Carter either allowed history to shape him, or was unable to prevent it from doing so, and that was his undoing. Reagan and his minions successfully portrayed him as an ineffectual seat warmer. From this though we should not extrapolate that Carter was a bad president. Many argue he was simply mediocre, another category one could explore, but again for now let’s keep things relatively simple.
And although a story for another time, another digression here is useful. In defining or assessing Carter’s legacy, we cannot exclude the back channel dealings that took place as part of the so-designated October Surprise in the lead up to the 1980 presidential election, whereby the Reagan team prolonged the release of the American embassy hostages—captured during the Iranian Revolution of the previous year—in Tehran. Failure to negotiate their release was the principal contributing factor in Carter’s perceived ineffectiveness, leading to his ignominious defeat.
And although we can safely say that if the hostage rescue emission in Iran had been successful, not only would Carter have been reelected with a landslide, they would have immediately designated another ‘possie’ on Mount Rushmore and chiseled the man’s visage into that iconic geological landmark post haste for everlasting posterity and relocated said mountain closer to Washington, and the rest as they would have been history.
For our purposes herein though, as much fun as are the counterfactuals, especially so we might say in the case of assessing presidential tenures and their legacies, we are restricting ourselves to considering the ‘normal’ course of events as they were perceived to have taken place at the time and/or as history has recorded them.
— More Delirium in the Oval Imperium —
As for popular, it means just that, for the most part. But here the image thing (the intangible) needs to be taken into account. “Popular” implies or suggests things like genuine affection, personal admiration, political attractiveness and economic effectiveness. John F Kennedy (1961-1963) embodied a lot of these things in varying degrees to be sure, but Richard Nixon (1969-1974) was rarely popular or personally admired.
Again, as noted, JFK was as hated as he was loved, with both the event of his assassination and the unprecedented outpouring of national grief that resulted—along with the pathological resistance of the power elites to allow over 50 years later for a more authentic, legitimate, acceptable accounting of the events of that day—serving to underscore this in spades.
As well, it includes other intangibles such as charisma, a strong, decisive, engaging and confident manner, someone who evinces, evokes and embodies commonly held values, principles and ideals, and communicates these in an engaging, natural manner that resonates with people, along with someone who demonstrates true empathy with people and identifies with their issues and problems.
Now all this will make you popular with people, even those who may not be ‘gaga’ over your politics or policies, and will give most presidents and their devotees bragging rights to him being a good—if not great—one. But it’s very hard for even the most astute, nimble and adept of political ‘animals’ to get all of these ducks flying in the same direction for any period of time.
There are many factors: the zeitgeist, the election cycle, the economy, national security etc. that muddy the waters as well.
As for effectiveness, that is a more complex consideration. Some commentators focus on the sins of ‘commission’ and the sins of ‘omission’ as standard criteria.
In essence, this is what the president did do/say that maybe he should not have done or said, or what the president didn’t do/say that maybe he should have. For George W Bush (2001-2009), the effective abandonment of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was an example of the first instance, with the invasion of Iraq almost certainly qualifying in the second instance.
And some historians place as much emphasis on assessing a president’s performance within the context of his time in office, and how well they are seen to be responding to the challenges and issues of or around that period of office, whilst others emphasise the grand and linear sweep of history that is important, more a ‘legacy’ view rather than a contemporary view.
Will incumbent president Barack Obama‘s Iran Nuclear deal withstand the opposition that is present and building in Congress and even apparently in the electorate at large? And if it indeed does, will it hold in the longer-term, and be viewed more objectively later on as a major achievement? Will his gung-ho pursuit of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) add ballast to what is already shaping up the be a very mixed legacy, to say nothing of the state of relations between the U.S. and its former Cold War ally Russia.
And if the following criteria were to apply—that of the differential between what the man promised to deliver before his time in office began and what he has actually achieved at the fag-end of it—how would Obama’s legacy fare then? I suspect probably not so well, even taking into account the unprecedented obstructionist nature of Congress he has faced throughout.
Certainly, there are plenty of folks who aren’t prepped to give the incumbent much slack here. The book Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, a collection of essays curated/edited by the Counterpunch team, does what it says on the box, and is a must read for anyone who still believes the office of the presidency still has some cachet with ordinary Americans.
As I have myself opined in previous writings, one of the things that will forever tarnish Number 44’s legacy will be the inescapable reality—dare we say, audacity—of his sheer betrayal as president. Coasting into the White House on the coattails of deep-seated, wide spread disillusionment, disaffection and dismay at a president tenure which promised so little and delivered so much as it were, Obama proceeded to promise so much, but delivered so little. That he did this by first engaging the trust, then rallying the support, of people who have never voted before and/or who’ve never actively campaigned for a presidential candidate—and almost certainly are never like to again—adds immeasurably to that reality.
Another key question here is whether it’s historians who are the best judges (or should be the only judges), or whether a presidential performance should be based at least in part on the popular opinion of the people he actually served—for better or worse of course—at the time. Even still, possibly the most important consideration of all is the degree to which any president’s tenure and legacy—along with the perceptions of it—will be defined by events that are out of his control, and that he allowed to get out of control.
In this sense the situation with Obama in respect to the Middle East and America’s relationship with Russia are just two examples where the dynamics at play are not only determining the reality and perception of that legacy in real time, but they will continue to do so for some time to come.
This is something that even George W Bush seems to understand, and probably goes a long way toward explaining his generally conspicuous absence from the political scene since he departed the White House. Presumably invoking the ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’ maxim, Bush doesn’t want his constant reappearance to remind folks of that legacy. By the same token, Bill Clinton seems to have few such qualms. My guess is that neither will Number 44!
Either way, an even more interesting and possibly more useful tool it seems might be cable channel C-Span’s 2009 survey of hundreds of academics and historians, who were asked to rate the various presidents on the following criteria:
- crisis leadership;
- moral authority;
- agenda and vision;
- the ability to persuade;
- economic management;
- international relations;
- administrative effectiveness;
- Congressional relations and policy success;
- upholding values of justice and freedom; and
- performance in (the) context (of the times).
Now space herein precludes a detailed examination of each of these criteria. Readers can of course—and are encouraged to—bring their own considerations to this task with the incumbent and any of his predecessors.
That said, with the possible exception of ‘persuading’ the American voter to vote for him in 2000 (one hesitates to say “elect” here as it was as we know the Supreme Court that ‘elected’—or ‘selected’—him), and then actually elect him for a second term in 2004, in few of any of the above criteria would ‘Dubya’—to use a more recent example—come up smelling like a bunch yellow Texas roses on any current assessment given the reality of the world over half a decade into the post-Bush era!
By the same token, some might argue Bush was right in one sense—his ‘don’t write me off yet’ swagger in response to a “Shit Presidents” surveys taken soon after leaving office has some legitimacy. We cannot predetermine absolutely they say, possible positive or negative outcomes of his presidency beyond this point in time; we can only surmise, and ‘hope’ that maybe ‘W’ was ahead of his time. In which case history may treat him a tad more favourably than at this point. But one suspects such an outcome would be a long shot indeed from the (ahem) Texas School Book Depository Building!
And of course something that is difficult to measure at the best of times is the impact of myth on the perceptions of any president and the legacy thereof. Some might argue that in the overarching American narrative it is this consideration that is the only one that truly matters, especially in a country that appears to be so collectively enamoured of the power, authority, utility and persuasive symbolism of its own pervasive, deeply rooted mythologies, and its self-conscious, frequently referenced traditions. And in few other of the numerous, august American institutions is myth and tradition so invested as that of the presidency.
That Reagan, firstly as a Hollywood film star, then a long-time presidential aspirant, then as POTUS, was a master of leveraging these mythologies few question, and of course we will see no shortage of Republican presidential aspirants especially—and not just because there is “no shortage” of them—attempting to do likewise over the course of the next 12 months. Indeed, such is the inviolable durability of the Reagan myth, even Democrats occasionally ‘dips their lid’ to the Gipper, including Clinton and Obama. In the world of marketing and branding, when you get your competing ‘products’ singing your praises, you know you have all your ducks not simply flying in a row and in the same direction, they are quacking in four-part harmony on their merry way to warmer climes.
Again, to underscore the above, and using George II as a prime example, in the classic mythology of the American frontier narrative, Bush after 9/11 in effect assumed the mantle—albeit one of not so ‘noble’ stature and we might safely assume, [of] even less self-awareness—of the frontier hero Hawkeye, James Fenimore Cooper‘s “The Man Who Knows Indians”. Or more appropriately in Number 43’s case, the Man Who Thought he Knew Indians!
In his epic book Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-century America—itself part of an extraordinary historical trilogy that in so many respects, both defines and explains America now and then—esteemed author, cultural critic and historian Richard Slotkin observes the following about Hawkeye and his ilk, and which serves to underscore by way of analogy the George W Bush post-9/11 political persona; he:
‘….stands between the opposed worlds of savagery and civilization…acting as civilization’s most effective instrument against savagery—a man who knows how to fight like an Indian, to turn their methods against them. In its most extreme development, the frontier hero takes the form of the Indian hater, whose suffering at savage hands has made him correspondingly savage, an avenger determined at all costs to “exterminate the brutes”‘.
In Dubya’s case the “Indians” were Islamic terrorists, opponents of freedom, justice and the American way, and of course as noted, assorted evildoers bent on ruining Uncle Sam’s day! That the frontier heroes like Hawkeye and his descendants eventually prevailed against the Indians all those years ago is a matter of history. If current developments and events are anything to go by, the terrorist evildoers and their ilk may prove however, an altogether different challenge in the long run.
Similarly, we might posit Reagan himself—the president Bush 2 appeared to model himself on rather than his own one-termer POTUS pater familias George HW Bush, the Gipper’s VP and successor—in the role of the “Man Who Knew Communists”, over whom he eventually did ‘prevail’, at least according to the prevailing Republican mythology. Reagan, along with successfully ‘mustering’ and ‘corralling’ the prevalent, embedded myths of the American frontier to his enormous political advantage, went on to create more than a few “myths” of his own. As president, he was well positioned to do just that. Reagan’s acting itself may have been meat ‘n potatoes and pedestrian like, but as POTUS, the Gipper was all Method.
And those of his current admirers—of whom we might presume there is no shortage amongst the current Republican presidential contenders—to a man and a woman would doubtless be hoping some of the Reagan myth will rub off onto their own campaigns, to glue themselves onto the Reagan glam as it were. Such then is the man’s legacy and the reverence in which he is still held. The irony herein is that Reagan these days might be seen as something of a liberal or moderate! To say nothing of being a reasonably intelligent, articulate, and astute politician.
And that dear readers, qualifies as one of the scariest conclusions one might ever have to contemplate, when it comes to making sense of the presidency, defining the legacies of the various folks who can lay claim to the title—to say nothing of the quality and calibre of the current crop of candidates—and overall, the State of the Union now and where it might be heading.
Herein we might paraphrase the late, great comedian George Carlin,to wit: ‘don’t believe a fucking thing a presidential candidate tells you’. Yet somehow, whether we believe or don’t believe, that’s not going to make any difference at all. Someone is going to end up president. But at least you will be able to say you never believed them from the off, which will doubtless endear you immensely to your target audience!
Either way, we all know the mantra. “Be afraid, be very afraid.”
© Pox Amerikana, GJ Maybury 2011-2015