When President Obama famously told Diane Sawyer of ABC News that he would rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president, he seemed to be playing to history over the electorate. Now, while he may well become a two-term president, history isn’t likely to place him among the greats. Already it can be seen that his presidency lacks the kind of luster needed for such a standing.
Indeed, his first term can be characterized as one of the great missed opportunities in American presidential history. And having missed the opportunity for greatness, he isn’t likely to get another chance.
To understand this, it’s helpful to review some of the presidential greats and ponder what made them great. Many were elected in times of crisis, as Obama was, or when the electorate struggled with profound, defining issues for the nation. These presidents met their respective crises or worked through the defining issues by transforming the country’s political landscape, creating new political fault lines that spawned new governing coalitions. In doing that, they managed to bring a new level of stability to the nation, allowing it to move forward into a new era.
This is precisely what Obama proved incapable of doing.
Consider Lincoln. As he was emerging as a national figure, the country was on the verge of disintegration, with Southerners threatening to secede and Northern abolitionists practically daring them to go. In such an environment, level-headedness became a rare commodity. New York’s William Seward, a man of stature and probity, actually denigrated the U.S. Constitution because he saw it as thwarting his abolitionist sentiments.
In the midst of this chaos of political emotion, Lincoln never lost his head. The sanctity of the Constitution remained uppermost in his mind as he crafted a policy matrix concentrated on thwarting slavery in the territories, never where it had been constitutionally sanctioned. This separated him from the radicals on both sides and allowed him to craft a new political framework that became the underpinning for the new Republican Party. When the dust of war finally settled, that new party became also the agent of national industrialization and thus the dominant party of the era.
Franklin Roosevelt represents another example. After the Great Depression destroyed the Republican Party’s political standing, FDR quickly scrambled up the nation’s political fault lines in order to craft an entirely new coalition—focused on the new threats and fears of that time—that would dominate the country’s politics for two generations. African-Americans had been Republicans since the Civil War because it was the party of Lincoln, but Roosevelt brought them into his New Deal fold—while also retaining the Solid South. Labor had been split between the trades and the industrial unions, but now they came together under the FDR banner.
Not only did Roosevelt construct a large Democratic coalition, but in doing so he also drove a wedge through the Republican Party—between those who wanted to resist the new political force at every turn and those who wished to forge an alternative that incorporated some of the New Deal’s popular elements.
Theodore Roosevelt wasn’t elected in such a time of crisis, but the nation struggled with problems and abuses of the industrial era. Either the Republican Party would address these problems and abuses or the Democratic opposition would ride them to power. Resolving that they would be handled within his own party, TR fashioned an entirely new model of the activist president and inserted concepts of progressivism into the Republicans’ successful governing philosophy. In doing that, Roosevelt opened up fresh governing approaches and set the country on a new course.
Finally, Ronald Reagan leveraged the financial crisis he inherited to pull together a new governing coalition that included industrial-era working-class Americans who had been glued to the Democratic Party since FDR. He did it in part by crafting a new political idiom—supply-side economics—for handling the severe economic dislocations of his time. His governing approach drove a wedge through the opposition Democrats, just as Franklin Roosevelt had done to the Republicans a half century earlier. That wedge was evidenced by major party defections suffered by the House Democratic leadership when it came time to vote on Reagan’s economic initiatives.
In contrast to these leaders, Obama failed to articulate a new political idiom to address the country’s new era of crisis. He spawned no new political fault lines, nor did he craft a new governing coalition. Rather than unite an expanded Democratic Party and split the opposition Republicans, he united the Republicans and split his own ranks on such matters as the Affordable Care Act and energy legislation. Even after the voters dealt Obama a fearsome repudiation in the 2010 midterm elections (expelling many Democrats who had stuck with him), the president took hardly any steps to change his approach or inject new thinking into his governing philosophy.
Obama’s excuse is that congressional Republicans thwarted so many of his plans in an effort to undermine his presidency. But all the presidential greats faced opposition forces that would have done the same thing if they could have. They couldn’t because those presidents proved too resilient, dexterous and forceful. House Speaker Thomas P. (“Tip”) O’Neill, who presided over the Democratic-controlled House in the Reagan years, would have crushed the president’s initiatives on the floor if he could have figured out a way to do it. But Reagan’s fresh political locution, designed to address the country’s ominous economic problems in new ways, proved irresistible. The balance of credibility resided with the president.
Few presidents can reach levels of greatness in history’s pantheon because few presidents are elected in times when the electorate is looking for someone to transform the country’s political landscape and set it upon a new course. But Obama was elected in such a time. The financial crisis may be in the past now, along with the Great Recession that it spawned. But the country faces persistent problems that merge into a lingering crisis of the regime—the country’s multifarious debt overhang, the coming entitlement blowout, the ominous power of the big banks, the financial warp at all levels of government wrought by public-employee unions, the seeping global influence, the domestic and global currency threats and the political deadlock spawned by all of the above challenges.
These are problems Obama was elected to address, so the debilitating deadlock could be broken and the country could move forward. But he never could do it with the same old political rhetoric based on the same old political fault lines and the same traditional political coalition. Yet that’s what he brought to the challenge of his time. It may be enough to render him eligible for rehire when the voting collective decides his fate on November 6. But it isn’t the stuff of greatness.
Robert W. Merry is editor of The National Interest and the author of 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 (Simon & Schuster, 2012).
Image: Elizabeth Cromwell