In the spring of 2006, midway through George W. Bush’s second presidential term, Princeton historian Sean Wilentz published a piece in Rolling Stone that posed a provocative question: Was Bush the worst president ever? He said the best-case scenario for Bush was "colossal historical disgrace’’ and added: "Many historians are now wondering whether Bush, in fact, will be remembered as the very worst president in all of American history."
The Wilentz assessment was probably a bit premature. It is difficult to judge any president’s historical standing while he still sits in the Oval Office, when political passions of the day are swirling around him with such intensity. And yet the Founding Fathers, in creating our system of government, invited all of us to assess our elected leaders on an ongoing basis, and so interim judgments are fair game, however harsh or favorable.
Which raises a question for today: How will Barack Obama be viewed in history? Will he be among the greats? Or will he fall into the category of faltering failures?
Before we delve into that question, perhaps some discussion would be in order on what in fact constitutes presidential failure and how we arrive at historical assessments of it. First, consider the difference between failure of omission and failure of commission. The first is when a president fails to deal with a crisis thrust upon him by events beyond his control. James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln’s predecessor, comes to mind. He didn’t create the slavery crisis that threatened to engulf the nation. Yet he proved incapable of dealing with it in any effective way. In part this was because he was a man who lacked character and hence couldn’t get beyond his own narrow political interests as the country he was charged with leading slipped ever deeper into crisis. And in part this was simply because he lacked the tools to grapple effectively with such a massive threat to the nation.
But, whatever the underlying contributors to his failure, there is no denying that his was a failed presidency. It was a failure of omission.
A failure of commission is when a president actually generates the crisis through his own wrong-headed actions. That could describe Woodrow Wilson in his second term, from 1917 to 1921. He not only manipulated neutrality policies to get the United States into World War I but he then used the war as an excuse to transform American society in ways that proved highly deleterious. He nationalized the telegraph, telephone and railroad industries, along with the distribution of coal. The government undertook the direct construction of merchant ships and bought and sold farm goods. A military draft was instituted. Individual and corporate income tax rates surged. Dissent was suppressed by the notorious Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, who vigorously prosecuted opposition voices under severe new laws.
One result from many of these policies was that the economy flipped out of control. Inflation surged into double-digit territory. Gross Domestic Product plummeted nearly 6.5 percent in two years. Racial and labor riots spread across the land. The American people responded with a harsh electoral judgment, rejecting Wilson’s Democratic Party at the next election and giving Warren G. Harding, hardly a distinguished personage, fully 60.3 percent of the popular vote. In addition, Republicans picked up sixty-three House seats and eleven in the Senate. The country has seen few political repudiations of such magnitude.
That’s failure of commission. Although historians have given Wilson a far higher ranking in academic polls than he would seem to deserve, it’s difficult to argue with the collective electorate when it delivers such a harsh judgment. If we assume that our system works, then the electoral assessment must be credited with at least some degree of seriousness.