"I would put our legislative and foreign policy accomplishments in our first two years against any president — with the possible exceptions of Johnson, FDR and Lincoln — just in terms of what we've gotten done in modern history."
60 Minutes interview
My, someone certainly has a high opinion of himself and his place in American history.
I didn't watch the president's recent interview on CBS' 60 Minutes, but, apparently, in a segment that was not aired originally, he claimed that his administration's "legislative and foreign policy accomplishments" were as good or better than any other "with the possible exceptions of Johnson, FDR and Lincoln."
As I have said here before, I'm something of an amateur historian. I minored in history when I was in college, and I have always had an interest in the American presidency and American politics in general.
I'm also a journalist. That was my major in college, and it is the subject I am teaching now. I was trained to write and to think in Associated Press style, which constantly strives for clarity and consistency. So, when a president compares his presidency to "Johnson, FDR and Lincoln," my question is, "Which Johnson?"
The statement, you see, is imprecise. There have been two presidents named Johnson. I'm pretty sure I know which one Obama meant — Lyndon, who succeeded John Kennedy nearly 50 years ago, not Andrew, who succeeded Lincoln nearly 150 years ago.
Until the Clinton presidency, Andrew Johnson was the only president to face an impeachment trial in the Senate — where he was acquitted by a single vote. He chose not to seek a full term on his own in 1868.
A Siena College survey that was released in July 2010 rated Andrew Johnson as one of the five worst presidents in American history.
No, I'm quite sure Barack Obama did not mean to compare himself to that President Johnson. His image has undergone some changes in a century and a half, but, in recent years, he has been remembered as a "white supremacist."
I'm convinced the first black president in American history does not want to be remembered as comparable to Andrew Johnson.
Lyndon Johnson, on the other hand, is almost a Lincoln–like figure for American blacks — and he was responsible for the most advancements — in housing, education, employment opportunities, voting rights, in fact rights in general — for blacks and all other underprivileged Americans.
But LBJ, as I wrote about a month ago, had the misfortune of being a president who wanted to do great things domestically (which he did) but served at a time when foreign affairs dominated.
I wrote that Obama appears likely to turn out to be LBJ in reverse — a president who first ran for the presidency because he wanted to end a war and wound up being undone by his inability to tame the economy.
In addition to teaching journalism, I have also been teaching basic writing, and one of the things I try to impress on my students is the importance of using the right word to express the right thought.
That isn't an easy thing for most people — even people who earn their livings (or who have earned their livings) as writers struggle at times to find the right word. I know I do. Most of the time, I keep a thesaurus within arm's reach whenever I sit down to write — and there are still times when I choose the wrong word.
Nor is it easy to select the right word when one is being interviewed without some notes or a TelePrompTer to help. Consequently, I do have some sympathy for Obama. I have seen many people "misspeak" (to use a word that was particularly popular during the Watergate days) in such a setting.
But this wasn't the first time Obama has been interviewed by someone. Far from it. He is no novice when it comes to being interviewed. He just has a tendency to stick his foot in his mouth when he does.
When Obama suggests that his presidency is the best in history "with the possible exceptions of Johnson, FDR and Lincoln," I really have to marvel at his use of the word "possible" and what it implies.
In hindsight, Obama himself might admit that it wasn't the most prudent word choice he could have made, but I believe it speaks volumes about what he really thinks of himself and his presidency.
I think he really does believe his presidency, in its first two years, accomplished more than any other president — but he will allow for the possibility that LBJ, FDR and Lincoln accomplished more.
Lincoln is kind of a no–brainer. The Siena survey listed him third, and most surveys rank Lincoln in the top three.
FDR was the top–rated president in Siena's survey, which is also kind of a no–brainer. The only president to be elected four times, he guided the country through its worst economic crisis ever and is credited with leading it through World War II even though he died a few weeks before hostilities ended in Europe.
But Siena's survey did not rank LBJ in its Top 10. Apparently, Obama holds him in much higher esteem than most historians — at least the ones who were surveyed.
They ranked Theodore Roosevelt second. Roosevelt is remembered for several achievements — trust busting, conservation, labor laws, public health and safety laws — that continue to influence American life.
T.R. was the first American to receive the Nobel Prize — but, unlike Obama, he was rewarded for an actual achievement (negotiating the resolution of the Russo–Japanese War), not merely for his potential. By his omission from Obama's statement, though, it appears the president thinks his accomplishments in his first two years were greater than Roosevelt's.
The survey listed George Washington as the fourth–best president, and that should be a no–brainer, too. He is remembered as the father of the country, its first president. Thanks to his selflessness (he declined the salary that was offered to him, preferring not to tarnish, in any way, his image as a public servant) and his insistence that the leader of the new country should not be a monarch, we call our presidents "Mr. President," not "Your Highness."
It set the tone for the last 200 years, but I can only conclude that Obama also believes his contributions to American life in his first two years as president are greater than Washington's.
The Siena survey ranked Thomas Jefferson fifth. Once again, that should be a no–brainer, shouldn't it? Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, and there are few documents in recorded history that have had the kind of influence on a culture that it has had.
Jefferson also was responsible for the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the United States at that time — and still represents roughly one–third of its land mass.
But, apparently, Obama feels his accomplishments in his first two years exceeded Jefferson's.
Sixth in Siena's survey was Jefferson's successor, James Madison. Before becoming president, he was the "Father of the Constitution." As president, he sought to continue Jefferson's policies, but he may be largely remembered for the crumbling of U.S.–British relations and the War of 1812, during which the White House, the Capitol and many other public buildings were burned.
Seventh in the rankings was Madison's successor, James Monroe, whose signature achievement probably was the Monroe Doctrine, which established the Western Hemisphere as the United States' sphere of influence and served notice to Europe that any attempt by any of its nations to interfere would be seen as an act of aggression and treated appropriately.
Ironically, America has not re–elected three consecutive presidents since Monroe's re–election in 1820. If Obama wins a second term next year, he would match Monroe's electoral achievement — but, apparently, he believes he has already bested Monroe as a president.
Siena's eighth–ranked president was Woodrow Wilson, a leader of the progressive movement. A Wilson biographer, John M. Cooper, wrote that Wilson's record of legislative achievement, which included child labor reform, the Federal Trade Commission Act and the Federal Farm Loan Act — was unmatched by any other president except FDR, and his advocacy of women's suffrage helped lead to the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
Perhaps it is subliminally, but Obama seems to think that what he did as president in 2009 and 2010 is greater than what Wilson achieved nearly a century earlier.
Ninth on the list was Harry Truman, whose low point in his approval ratings (22) was unmatched by any president until Obama's immediate predecessor, George W. Bush.
But that doesn't tell the whole story of Truman's presidency. From the day he succeeded FDR in April 1945 until he won the 1948 election, Truman did great things in spite of the fact that he had been virtually ignored by Roosevelt in his 82 days as vice president.
He knew nothing of the Manhattan Project, which gave him the weapon that he used to bring the war in the Pacific to a quick conclusion. The attitudes about his use of nuclear weapons in 1945 have changed over the years, but at the time and for years thereafter, it was believed to have saved hundreds of thousands who, it was said, would have perished in a fight–to–the–death invasion of Japan.
He had to deal with the transition from a wartime economy to a peacetime one, which always seems to be uneasy but was especially so after World War II. There were several economic conflicts that had gone unaddressed during the war years but boiled over when the war ended; Truman managed to deal with them all.
He was an advocate of the "Fair Deal," national health insurance and civil rights.
I would guess that Obama has quite a bit of respect for what Truman did as president — so much that he is clearly trying to duplicate Truman's "upset" victory in his re–election campaign in 1948. Truman won a full term largely by running against a "do–nothing Congress," and that seems to be Obama's strategy as well.
For that to work, you need a solid record of achievement to contrast with Congress'. Obama clearly believes he does, and so do his adoring supporters, but, judging from presidential approval ratings, millions are not convinced.
They are not convinced for much the same reason that the people of the late 1960s were not convinced about LBJ. They felt out of sync with their president's priorities. He was focused on domestic issues, which were (and are) important, but they were more concerned about the meat grinder of Vietnam.
In modern times, Obama's highest approval ratings have been for his handling of foreign affairs — when Americans are hurting at home, struggling to keep a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs. They need jobs.
The Siena survey ranked Dwight Eisenhower 10th. Eisenhower earned Americans' respect when he led the Allies to victory over the Axis powers in World War II, and he presided over a country that was at peace in the world but suffering from some postwar growing pains in the 1950s.
His most lasting legacy, I suppose, is the interstate highway system — and his warning, in the final days of his presidency, against the growing influence of the "military–industrial complex."
Both continue to influence American life, but Obama thinks his achievements are equal to or greater than Eisenhower's.
Maybe they are, but that will be up to the voters to decide next year.