Barack Obama, Overperformer

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As we consider Obama’s legacy and decide just how good a president he was, it’s helpful to remember what we’re comparing him to.

By Seth Masket

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President Barack Obama waves after he spoke during the SelectUSA Investment Summit on March 23rd, 2015, in Maryland. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Much has been made of the stark differences between the president who leaves the White House this week and the one who moves in. But it’s important to note that, in their own ways, both are highly unusual presidents. Barack Obama is as much of an outlier as Donald Trump looks to be.

This is not simply due to Obama’s own background and upbringing, which are obviously pretty atypical for presidents of the United States. I am speaking more about the management and accomplishments of the executive branch. We’ve had presidents with pretty strong records of economic performance and legislative achievement. We’ve had presidents who have avoided major wars. We’ve had presidents who have managed to complete their terms virtually free of scandal. We’ve basically never before had someone who accomplished all of this.

Here’s a very brief review of Obama’s predecessors going back half a century.

George W. Bush’s administration had three major scandals — the use of false evidence to secure public and congressional support for a war with Iraq, the mismanagement of relief during and after Hurricane Katrina, and the outing of a Central Intelligence Agency operative to politically punish her husband. On top of that, even if the 9/11 attacks were a source of considerable public support for Bush and his Republican colleagues for several years, they nonetheless constitute one of the most catastrophic intelligence failures in American history.

Bill Clinton’s tenure in office was marked by recovery from a recession and strong economic growth, but heavily tarnished by scandal. Many of these scandals were murky and bizarre witch hunts, but they resulted in clear evidence that he’d conducted an affair with a White House intern and then lied about it under oath. While he finished out his two terms with strong public approval, he remains one of only two impeached presidents, and that impeachment completely dominated his second term.

As the first African-American president, Obama just had to be damned near perfect, knowing full well that any slip up would be taken as an indictment of African Americans overall and a confirmation of so many implicit biases.

George H.W. Bush served only one term largely due to the misfortune of being at the helm during a vicious recession. He prosecuted a large-scale war against Iraq that could hardly be said to have been necessary but was certainly well managed with clear and achievable goals. His main association with scandal — other than an ill-advised anti-tax pledge — stems from his ties to his predecessor….

Ronald Reagan’s presidency is generally considered a successful one, and there’s good reason why he remains the one unifying figure for modern Republicans. But the Iran-Contra scandal that emerged in his second term, quite possibly with his knowledge if not direction, was borderline treasonous. It massively tarnished his second term, took a heavy toll on his popularity, and would likely have led to substantial prison time for several of his appointees if not for his successor’s pardon of them.

Jimmy Carter had no serious ethical lapses, and just about as many significant accomplishments. He presided over a recession, an energy crisis, hundreds of embassy employees being held for over a year in Iran, and a catastrophic attempt to rescue them.

Gerald Ford is really only known for one major decision during his term — the pardon of his predecessor, Richard Nixon. Whether or not it was the right thing to do, it was deeply unpopular and likely cost him his election bid in 1976.

The three presidents elected in the 1960s — John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon — bear a number of similarities. They were on the younger end — Kennedy was in his 40s, the others were in their mid-50s upon inauguration. They were obviously intelligent and heavily engaged in governing. All had experience in Congress and could claim a number of significant legislative achievements during their presidencies. They also all had deep, deep personality flaws. Kennedy, by many accounts, was addicted to sex, drugs, and risk; his administration only avoided scandal along these lines thanks to the abiding nature of the press corp. Johnson sought to top Kennedy’s excesses and also prosecuted a deeply unpopular, lengthy, and destructive war. Nixon got elected in part by prolonging that war, and then used the office of the presidency to attack his political enemies and cover up his crimes. He resigned to avoid impeachment.

I could go on. The point is that, while history certainly records some of these presidencies as being more successful than others, basically all of them had significant problems, very often resulting from the actions of the president himself. This did not happen under Obama.

Why might this be? It’s helpful to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent assessment of the Obama presidency to understand this. “He walked on ice but never fell,” Coates summarizes. Basically, as the first African-American president, Obama just had to be damned near perfect, knowing full well that any slip up would be taken as an indictment of African Americans overall and a confirmation of so many implicit biases.

Indeed, Obama may have, at times, been too cautious. Jonathan Bernstein has criticized Obama’s sometimes excessive vetting process for appointees, which leaned more toward avoiding administration scandals than actually filling open positions and running the executive branch. Obama was willing to quickly jettison appointees like Shirley Sherrod and Van Jones who appeared to be lightning rods for criticism.

Avoiding bad things is not the only measure of presidential greatness. Quite a few people would be willing to accept a few scandals, overreaches, or even abuses of civil liberties in the service of important victories and dramatic improvements in the nation. (Think Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, for example.) Very few presidents fall into that zone.

But as we consider Obama’s legacy and decide just how good a president he was, it’s helpful to remember what we’re comparing him to. In many regards, his administration was considerably better than we usually get. And as we switch to a president who not only doesn’t avoid scandals but appears to welcome them, we should prepare ourselves for some significant whiplash.

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