Monday, February 15, 2010

Presidents Day

A fellow blogger, who I have mentioned here on several occasions, John McIntyre, provides something of a rundown on the background of Presidents Day in his blog, You Don't Say, today.

I don't have much to add to that. I will say that I remember when the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were observed separately.

When I was in elementary school, February was noteworthy for three things — first Lincoln's birthday on Feb. 12, then Valentine's Day, then Washington's birthday on Feb. 22. Then, when I was in second or third grade, I guess, we began observing "Presidents Day" on the third Monday in February — which never coincided with Lincoln's actual birthday and only occasionally fell on Washington's actual birthday.

And, ever since, instead of honoring two of the greatest presidents in American history on their birthdays, we now honor all the men who have held the title of president — the great, the near–great and the not–so–great alike — on a single day.

I guess the most contemporary way to put it is this: You may have voted for Barack Obama in 2008, and you may hate George W. Bush with a passion. Or you may have voted for John McCain and you may hate Obama with a passion. But today, we honor all our presidents, whether we liked 'em or not, whether we voted for 'em or not.

Today, I hear a lot of talk about "greatness." And I have lived long enough to know that it is true that time really does heal all wounds. Well, most of them, anyway. Time may not heal the wounds that some married couples inflict on each other on the path to — or even during — divorce proceedings, but people do seem to be more forgiving of their presidents.

In my experience, the verdict of history is rarely rendered in full. Presidents who were hardly popular when they left office enjoyed better reputations by the time they died — and some have come to be seen as positively visionary for decisions or statements they made that were regarded as foolish or foolhardy when they were in office.

Perhaps that knowledge will encourage Bush and his supporters.

On this date last year, I wrote about historians' rankings of the presidents. I wrote about a list that had just been released and ranked all the ex–presidents, even George W. Bush (who had only been out of office for about a month).

I observed that any president whose term had ended less than 20 years before the rankings were compiled should be exempt — on the grounds that not enough time had passed.

I still feel that way — so it shouldn't be a surprise that I definitely don't think it is appropriate at this point to say whether the Obama presidency is a success or a failure. If he's a one–termer, check back with me around 2033. If he's a two–termer, make that 2037.

I do have opinions about the administration's priorities and its policies. That's probably why I was interested in Steven Thomma's piece for McClatchy Newspapers, the premise of which is that Obama's chance of achieving his goal of being a transformational figure "may be slipping from his grasp."

"Obama's quest to usher in a new liberal era — one with major new policies and a growing Democratic voter majority punctuating a shift away from the conservative era that Reagan ushered in — is in trouble and may be disintegrating," Thomma writes.

That's the kind of conclusion that you can only reach in hindsight. During the Reagan presidency, it was far from clear that a transformation that would last long after he left the White House was occurring. But, seen from 2010, we can see that Thomma's conclusion about the conservative era is valid.

If, for good or bad, his name is going to be mentioned in the "transformative figure" conversation, I believe Obama will need a second term. Note that I am not saying that he has earned a second term or that he deserves a second term. That is a decision that will be made in 2012 — and it seems likely to me that the decision will be based on things that haven't happened yet.

I think he was wrong when he said he would rather be a great one–term president than a mediocre two–term president. It doesn't work that way. History often serves to confirm the verdict that is rendered by the people at the polls. And if they reject a president who is seeking re–election, history's conclusion follows their lead.

When you look at the rankings of the presidents, inevitably the thing that jumps out at you is the fact that the great presidents — well, most of them — served more than a single term. Most two–term presidents tend to be remembered with fondness. Unless one is elected president after promising not to seek a second term, being a one–term president is not likely to qualify him for the label of "transformative figure."

I think Obama needs to be more responsive to the immediate needs of the American people. He may think he has been. His defenders may think he has been. But the public opinion polls tell a different story.

I would like to think that Michael Shear's article in the Washington Post, in which he reports that the White House is "retooling" its communications apparatus, is a sign of a renewed sense of seriousness that is being given to a vital part of the president's strategy.

But I'm not convinced. Not yet.

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