Worst Since World War II? Hardly. Obama faces Unique Political Environment in a Fractured, Dangerous, and Unresponsive World by Thomas Martin Satruday


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Historians looking back on the Presidency of Barack Obama will be forced to take full account of the absolutely unique political environment he’s had to contend with. A Ph.D. in American History led me to ponder the thesis that Obama is the worst president since World War II. Just being a professional historian doesn’t make any of us right. But we do have a good deal of context for such an evaluation that few Americans have. In that respect our judgments are more sound and grounded on the historical record.

We know much about all our presidents, whatever our politics, and so too we grasp more fully anything that is unprecedented. Lincoln faced everything Obama did. Until Union victory, and his martyred death, he was thought a decent man but not at all effective doing anything. The 1864 butchery on the battlefield was such that Lincoln himself wrote he did not think he would be re-elected as late as the end of August that year.

He was thoroughly despised by a vast majority of Americans North and South, until Union victory and his martyred death intervened in 1865. Without it, he’d be somewhere close to James Buchanan, but worse, since he in that place, would have failed to preserve the Union, with no emancipation for blacks, and being simply among those most responsible for so much killing.

That kind of unique environment now, is centered on the very serious challenges to Obama’s very legitimacy to simply hold the office he’s been elected to twice in strict accord with our Constitution, and republican democracy.

Presidents since World War II, have all faced strong censure by political opponents. But the men who held the office were respected for the office they held. That’s not been true with Barack Obama. And evaluating his legacy of achievement is complicated by unprecedented legislative political obstruction, racial animus, and the hyper-polarization so central to the last five years, and no doubt for a number of years to come.

History does not favor strict partisanship when writing it to explain and enlarge our understanding of our collective past as a people. But all of us in this field have to look at the reality of that past, and try to tell the story of the significant currents of change and those things which most characterized an era that we find in document based primary research.

So here is what I would take as my starting point. This political polarization, legislative obstruction, and the discomfort among many Americans with a black man in the White House have acted and shaped the Obama presidency the most. And nearly all of this is coming from Republican conservatives via something that did not exist in so organized a fashion within that political party prior to the Obama presidency; The Tea Party.

The split within the Republican Party, its move decidedly to the right of where it had been, and the battle lines between a great deal of social change pushed by Democrats, recognizing the movement of the great majority of Americans to the left on social issues have been large factors too.

This is that unique political environment I started with. The following grading out of President Obama is based on where we are at present, and the certainty that this will change somewhat in the generation that follows in ways we cannot predict.

Foreign Policy: Grade C+
President Obama made two very difficult decisions on two wars that were both going badly, and that he opposed and did not start. They show courage, and the recognition it was not in our foreign policy interest to stay as imperial masters in Iraq, and Afghanistan any longer. The previous administration made huge mistakes in this region that Obama inherited, and that only now both political scientists and diplomatic historians are beginning to see have no easy answers.

The President already has two related achievements, getting Osama bin Laden, and capturing the key mastermind behind the Benghazi terrorist attack, and bringing him to face American justice. The Bergdahl controversy bears too little information, and it is too much in the present to evaluate at all. And the prevention of another 911 style terrorist incident is a quiet achievement as so much of it exists in the shadow world of the FBI, CIA, and the ubiquitous NSA.

His Libyan mission was superbly successful in helping Libyans remove a dictator that was moving to kill a significant number of citizens, not potentially in the future, but actually in the present. Skillfully bringing in the international community and having few American casualties demonstrated both action and wise restraint.

Congress reined him in on Syria. The emerging cold reality is that there are so many factions in this war that few if any are subject to our control. Truthfully, those people are hostile to us, as the rise of ISIS has shown contemporaneously. Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement are exchanging body blows. But our work diplomatically had in fact done something significant: Assad’s chemical weapons stocks have been removed and destroyed amid all this chaos; quite an achievement.

Nation building in Libya, Egypt, Syria, and both Iraq and Afghanistan all foundered on the failed attempts to put the square peg of American style democracy into the round hole of the Sunni- Shia split across the region, and a clan based tribalism too weak to build any consensus. That covers both the last two presidencies.

The president gets poor marks for being able to fashion a coherent foreign policy that our presidents must communicate for that to be fully effective. We know he wants to end, and has largely ended, the Neo-conservative foreign policy of the Bush-Cheney years. He ended waterboarding and rendition torture overseas. Congress has not given him the necessary authority via obstruction to close Guantanamo. Obama got a distinct dose of reality, in taking on the national security state in a very dangerous world.

Historians will no doubt suggest that Obama too heavily relied on Drone strikes around the world, and raised serious moral and humanitarian issues in the process. Noteworthy here is that a majority of Americans of all political stripes share this view.

Note the unrest, violence, and intractable problems both in what we did in the Middle East, and that nasty realization we may be just coming to, that while we can militarily be dominant in the traditional big power manner via threat and wars, our moral or soft power, and standing as a beacon of democracy trusted worldwide has been perhaps fatally compromised by the previous occupant of the office.

My historical assessment here is that as we learned in Vietnam, that even a superpower has distinct limits in the influence it can exert in a world where leaders, such as Vladimir Putin, can do things we just don’t have the resource leverage at the point of his incursions to counter in Eastern Europe. Iran is not yet resolved. Only still another war, this one very certainly to require the balance of our armed forces for years, and the killing of millions of Iranians and far too many thousands of Americans is patently and distinctly counterproductive.

Other nation states, however small and seemingly vulnerable, have a great deal of leverage our leaders have failed to see since Vietnam. We don’t run the world. It hits back and surprises the best of us. Billions of humans have the potential to become independent historical actors.

China and especially North Korea have followed intractable foreign policies requiring us to make our peace with them as we can, or go to World War Three Obama’s pivot to the Pacific has met with some success, especially with our ally Japan. The world circus of our decade makes any major paradigm shift in policy there hard to sell. There are just too many distractions competing with it.

How any presidential administration could limit the incredible number of conflicts in our world and fully secure our national security simply is an impossibility for the foreseeable future. This is on the way to being the hardest lesson in a generation, demonstrating the effective limits of our influence on events worldwide.

The Economy: Grade A-
The American economy was shattered in the burst of the mortgage bubble speculation of the period from the end of the Clinton years, to just as Obama took office. He used a good deal of his political capital to enlarge emergency measures from the Fed to stabilize the banks and the markets. The huge stimulus package stopped the bleeding, and created a lot of jobs to pull us out of ever greater job loss in just the first six to eight months. The auto industry bail out, while distasteful to most Americans, actually did a lot of good. An industry was saved.

There have been 56 months of job growth, GDP is up, the stock market is the highest it’s even been.

President Obama then brought to Congress a ten bill package to improve infrastructure, improve education and research, to help create more jobs and make us more competitive. Startling is the fact that he offered ten measures that in various forms had been championed the year or two before by the opposing party. He carefully avoided a lot of expansion in the welfare state.

Obstruction in a Congress just taken over by a Republican majority permitted them to vote down everything and complain about the President’s lack of success doing these things. This is an example of where obstruction seriously impedes a president’s success. Obama has skillfully used the “bully pulpit” to argue for middle class Americans hit hard by the economic meltdown just as Bush left office, and in a period of marked income inequality, where wages have been stagnant or dropping for thirty years.

Cooperation with Congress to Legislate and Enforce Newly Passed Legislation: Grade C+

President Obama will have historians saying he lost a lot of opportunity to work with Republicans those golden first two years of his presidency. It was not political hostility, or arrogance, but a professorial and detached involvement with the hard work with both houses of Congress successful legislation requires. He sat there and waited for the Congress to act. Would more prodding and close involvement in the legislative process given him more legislative success? My best assessment right now would be his relationship with John Boehner has been a disaster and yes, for a few measures that were needed. The rest, just total obstruction from Republicans at a level we’ve never seen in our history until now. That is both an unprecedented and absolutely unique environment under which Obama has struggled to operate. President’s, whatever we may think of their policy objectives, have little legislative authority beyond the veto, and executive orders within the existing budget.

Pulling him up from complete failure is the documented historical fact that key Republican leaders met in Washington D.C. on the very day he was inaugurated to both undermine the Obama presidency, and block nearly everything he might try to do. Since then, this has been the least productive legislative Congress in our nation’s entire history. While a few bills have been obstructed by Democrats in the Senate, the level of obstruction in the newly formed Republican dominated Congress since January of 2011 has done little or nothing to address the nation’s clearly identified problems, no matter what party or policies were supported in the House. The common observation that the obstruction and almost criminal inaction has left a full third of our Federal government fully dysfunctional is accurate.. The government shutdown of a year ago had nothing to do with Obama.

The ongoing intra-party feuding between Establishment and Tea Party Republicans has bordered on madness, to say nothing about being on the edge of treasonous.. That level of self-inflicted dysfunction must be laid in future at the very doorstep of Republican members of Congress, in the Boehner led House of Representatives. Historians will treat them about as harshly as you can

Obama has the Lilly Ledbetter Equal Pay Act, Obamacare just now emerging as a huge success story after a horrible roll out, are significant achievements. Obamacare is the most significant piece of legislation in this decade, and perhaps of this generation.

As his two terms continued, the Republicans in the House cannot even get a Transportation Bill that never was the least bit controversial done. Immigration Reform got distinctly bi-partisan support in the Senate, where the legislation was the product of real contributions from all parties. In the House, the Speaker has not called it up for a vote, though vote counters in that body say a minority of Republicans with nearly universal Democratic backing would pass it today.

How can a president be effective, when the Congress refuses to meet its most basic responsibilities? As a historian, this would provide some great research material for a book on Obama, or this decade in our history. There is no equivalency in the offense committed here. It’s substantially with the Republicans, and the fact of it supersedes any competent historian’s ability to shape the story, or spin it somehow to fit a given scholar’s predilections as to what is best. This just is.

Obama’s principled and strong stand for the middle class, saving the safety net, and pushing raising of the minimum wage over a glacial level of activity in the legislative, and distinctly not the executive, has to lead any competent chronicler of the past to give the President high marks for creative executive actions all done within the Constitution, save one on recess appointments done when Congress was decided to be in session, with a ruling of the Supreme Court that drew the line there. The lengthening historical record shows Obama doing by executive order, limited law making we’ve seen since the beginning, all the way back to George Washington providing some of the needed action.

Civil Rights and Social Change: Grade B+
Obama’s rhetorical and moral positions for protecting women’s access to healthcare, particular reproductive healthcare, and his welcome and courageous announcement he was now openly supporting the LGBT community, ending don’t ask, don’t tell in the military, are of distinct importance to the evaluation of what will certainly be a successful president. He’s known just when to move with the American public here, demonstrating a deft set of pivots at just the right moments, mobilizing public support at a key time for what is now seen already, as what a vast majority of Americans in both parties support has been a distinct success.

His advocacy of protecting voting rights in America, as they are under the most determined attack since 1964 and 1965, when they were enacted, has been and will be revelatory of where this man’s moral compass has taken him.

Attorney General Eric Holder’s strong action in preserving perhaps the most important human element in preserving our democracy has yet to bear fruit, but he’s taken the right course at the behest of the President.

The environment and intense polarization is especially notable here. Republican core constituencies have been left behind by the vast majority of Americans of all colors, getting younger and more influential in moving this nation away from old positions, with declining support that puts Obama distinctly on the right side of history. Race relations are a key part of the disgust for this black man, with both a white Caucasian Anglo-Saxon and Kenyan black African ancestral background.

The historical record shows he is a native born American as the Constitution requires: end of debate.

Fundamentally, we are looking at a successful presidency. One of a number of common yardsticks is his winning two terms as opposed to one term in office.

Based on this and so much more analysis to date, Barack Obama is NOT the worst president since World War II. That thesis lacks the support to be accepted as valid. These assertions just don’t align with what we already know and are likely to see, as the sample size of five years plus is large enough to make a more than educated and even an informed judgment.

Where I am in evaluating presidents since World War II, minus a set ideology, produces this assessment, as this liberal progressive historian will now demonstrate party and ideology little affect the rankings. We all have our favorites and least favorite failures and these may vary somewhat among historians.

Here are the rankings from the top to the bottom as reflected by where I am now in evaluating Post World War II presidents.

1) Dwight David Eisenhower
2) Harry S. Truman
3) William Jefferson Clinton
4) Ronald Wilson Reagan
5) John F. Kennedy
6) Lyndon Baines Johnson
7) Barack Hussein Obama
8) George Herbert Walker Bush (Poppy Bush)
9) Gerald R. Ford
10) James Earl Carter
11) Richard Millhouse Nixon
12) George W. Bush (The Younger)

To recover some hope here for the lowly rated, neither Nixon, nor the second Bush are the worst presidents ever. Those honors go to James Buchanan and Warren G. Harding. The recent Bush presidency is above those two, with Nixon just above that.

Subject to Change over Time: (Stay Tuned)
Struggles for Justice
“Speaking for the Voiceless, Protecting the Vulnerable”

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