Who would you pick?
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."
(Editor's Note: This first appeared several years ago and is being reposted due to reader interest.)
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.
Getting back to George W. Bush, his foreign policy would almost have to be considered a failure, and it was a failure of commission. He wasn’t responsible for the 9/11 attack in any meaningful way, of course, but his response—sending the U.S. military into the lands of Islam with the mission of remaking Islamic societies in the image of Western democracy—was delusional and doomed. One need only read today’s headlines, with forces aligned with Al Qaeda taking over significant swaths of territory within Iraq, to see Bush’s failure in stark relief.
In addition, Bush’s wars sapped resources and threw the nation’s budget into deficit. The president made no effort to inject fiscal austerity into governmental operations, eschewing his primary weapon of budgetary discipline, the veto pen. The national debt shot up, and economic growth began a steady decline, culminating in negative growth in the 2008 campaign year. The devastating financial crisis erupted on his watch.
It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that Bush belongs in the category of the country’s five worst presidents, along with such perennial bottom-dwellers, in the academic polls, as Buchanan, Franklin Pierce and Millard Fillmore. Harding also occupies that territory in these polls, but it’s difficult to credit such an assessment, given that he quickly dealt successfully with all the problems bequeathed to him by Wilson and presided over robust economic growth and relative societal stability.
Thus do we come to one man’s assessment (mine) of the five worst presidents of our heritage (in ascending order): Buchanan, Pierce, Wilson, G. W. Bush and Fillmore.
Is it conceivable that Obama could descend to such a reputational depth? It depends, in large measure, on the outcome of the effort to salvage and bolster the president’s profoundly troubled Affordable Care Act. There’s no doubt that, in domestic policy, the Obama presidency will be defined by that single issue. And, if it destabilizes the nation’s health-care system and the overall economy to the extent that some are predicting, the president’s historical reputation will be severely affected. And this failure, if it emerges, will be viewed as one of commission, not of omission.
On the other hand, if the Obamacare system is righted and the country ultimately manages to transition smoothly into a new health-care era, the president’s historical reputation will be salvaged. As it appears now, absent some powerful new development in American politics (which never can be ruled out), Obama’s historical standing will rise or fall with Obamacare.
But one thing we know: Neither the judgment of history nor the judgment of the electorate will be rendered with any degree of sentiment or sympathy. As Lincoln said, "Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. We…will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation."
Robert W. Merry is the author of many books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.