History and the American President

In an attempt to reach a favorable partisan conclusion, Jeremy Lott, writing for internet embarassment Politico, concludes that Obama is slated to be a “failure” at worst, and a non-historic caretaker at best.

In the process, Lott displays a remarkable lack of understanding of the forces of history, and their interplay with the American presidency. For Lott, a President’s “success” stands or falls on the progress of his first-year domestic agenda, assessed at the six-month mark. This has never been the case, and will not be so for Obama, either.

Though obscured by the mists of history, and the restorative effect of having one’s visage emblazoned on currency, we must remember that America’s most “historic” Presidents were often, at the outset, nothing special. Lincoln spent his first year literally watching his country slip away, while he lived in the shadow of his more popular, more experienced secretary of state, and suffered legal backlash for taking the blatantly unconstitutional step of suspending the writ of habeas corpus (that power belongs to Congress alone). He recovered — eventually — but was still plagued by scandals within his cabinet, among them, Sam Chase’s delusional and highly public attempt to challenge Lincoln in the 1864 primaries. “Awkward” doesn’t begin to describe it.

Similarly, Franklin Delano Roosevelt spent the first few years of his tenure stymied at every turn by an obstructionist Supreme Court, tied up in outmoded notions of economic substantive due process. Attempts at a cure were worse, politically, than the disease: FDR’s attempt to “pack” the court backfired fabulously, bringing about justified charges of an “imperial” presidency.

And yet, today both are remembered fondly, as heroes of the republic. Why? Quite simply, a President’s ultimate meaning is judged by the part he plays in making grand trends, rather than how he handles an opposition as embarassingly dense as Joe Wilson’s. Lincoln literally saved the state, and FDR reinvented it. All else pales in comparison.

Lucky for Obama, health care reform is emphatically not a grand trend — similar failures, should he eventually fail to secure meaningful reform, did not blemish Clinton’s tenure (who, by the way, is well on his way to canonical status). When the history of Obama’s terms is written — yes, “terms,” because honestly, who’s going to challenge him? — he will be defined by his handling of his predecessors’ true, catastrophic failures, in the war on terror and the economy, as well as the degree to which he inspires a rebirth of American confidence, already underway. “Death panels,” etc., won’t even be a footnote. Nor will the Republican Party.

Besides, Obama has already made history — not just for his identity, but for partially unravelling the Reagan realignment on election night. Triumphs like those cannot be overlooked.

N.B. — you can email Jeremy, the author of today’s dose of Politico-brand wishful thinking,


  1. I find it pretty entertaining to watch Obama fans try and defend an early ‘place in history’ salvo. maybe now you start to realize that historical analysis of sitting Presidents is incredibly dumb.

  2. Mike, Obama has a unique place in history because he is the first African-American president. Simple. What else will happen is anyone’s guess.

    1. Looking at his family tree it looks to me like his blood like id much more Arabic ‘middle eastern’ than black or African.

  3. I an sure that BH Obama will be remembered in history books, but not the way he would like to be remembered.