Close your books, America. It's time for a pop quiz.
Do you believe Barack Obama is:
a) The best of presidents? A blogger who goes by the name Troubadour on Daily Kos pretty much makes the claim in a recent post: "Barack Obama is either the best President we've ever had, or more humbly, equal to the best Presidents we've ever had (and thereby one of their number)."
In the current Washington Monthly, Paul Glastris writes that what Obama has accomplished so far "is stunning. Health care reform. The takeover and turnaround of the auto industry. The biggest economic stimulus in history. Sweeping new regulations of Wall Street. A tough new set of consumer protections on the credit card industry. A vast expansion of national service. Net neutrality. The greatest increase in wilderness protection in fifteen years. ... " And Glastris goes on.
"That Obama has done all this while also steering the country out of what might have been a second Great Depression," Glastris observes, "would seem to have made him already, just three years into his first term, a serious candidate for greatness."
b) The worst of presidents? Obama "is absolutely the worst president," political commentator Michael Graham said on the Imus in the Morning radio show in January. "The secret weapon Republicans have ... is Barack Obama. The guy still doesn't get it. He spent all of last year killing jobs. I mean how stupid are you when you say, 'I want to kill the AT&T-T-Mobile deal, I want to kill the pipeline deal and I don't want you building an airplane factory in South Carolina in the middle of a recession?'"
At one point host Don Imus chimed in, "Obama is the worst president since Jimmy Carter."
Rick Santorum tells the people of Florida that he is running against Obama, "the worst president this country has ever seen."
And in August 2011, Louisiana political commentator Jeff Crouere wrote on the BayouBuzz website that Obama is "the undisputed 'Worst President in U.S. History.' " As president, Crouere noted, "it is clear that Barack Obama is dangerously in over his head for he has no executive experience, no business experience, and no real world experience."
c) All of the above.
He is the best of presidents; he is the worst of presidents.
What the Dickens is going on here? Which is it — best or worst?
Could it be both, America? Could it be that President Obama is at once the best and the worst president? Ever? Is it perhaps possible that because the world is such a complicated mass of contradictions, we — as a nation — are forced to balance two completely opposing notions of a president at once? And that a contemporary president is put into such complex situations, his decisions turn out to have immensely positive ramifications and equally immense negative ramifications — all at the same time?
Convoluted Job Description
Of course, you could pencil in: d) Other. And point out that Obama is neither terrific nor terrible, but middling. Or you could insist that we — as a nation — are so polarized, it's inevitable that a lot of people will think a president is the worst and a lot will think he's the best. So we deal with it.
Love Obama or not, America has strong feelings about this president. When Gallup asked people recently to rate how the presidents since 1970 will go down in history, those surveyed listed only one man — President Obama — in the top four on both the best and worst lists. The February poll showed that 38 percent believe Obama is an outstanding or above-average president and 36 percent say he is a below-average or poor president.
"Yes, Obama is high on the positive and he's high on the negative," Jehmu Greene, former adviser to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign and Fox News contributor, said on-air.
Only a couple of recent presidents have come close to Obama's simultaneously high positive and negative numbers in similar polling, Gallup reports. For instance, in the summer of 1999, Bill Clinton had a positive rating of 36 and a negative of 31. In July of 1987, Ronald Reagan was at 37 and 26.
Maybe the love-hims and the hate-hims are so multitudinous because the contemporary president is put into soul-spinning positions every day. Because the chief executive is, as President George W. Bush described it, "the decider," he is forced to make countless decisions — many of which benefit some Americans and hurt others.
The president's job description "is one of the most convoluted ever devised," says Dean Keith Simonton, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and author of the 1987 book Why Presidents Succeed: A Political Psychology of Leadership.
The president "has a multiple of separate responsibilities that operate independently of one another," Simonton points out. He must be, among other things:
- Commander in chief of powerful military forces — waging wars and stopping them
- A legislative whiz, who both initiates — and vetoes — monumental legislation
- The country's foremost diplomat, who must get along with many countries — some of which don't get along with each other
- National head of human resources, responsible for hiring numerous key people for an array of key positions, including judiciary, Cabinet, diplomatic and military posts — and ensuring that those people have enough support and resources to do their jobs
- America's official spokesman on a plethora of issues and policies both domestic and foreign — some not always popular
- A savvy politician and party partisan who must support — and garner support from — fellow party members, while at the same time pursuing a bipartisan approach to immense national and global problems
"For good or ill," Simonton says, Obama "will also be judged according to criteria that must be considered unjust by any rational standard — most notably the economy. Even though the U.S. president has very little control over economic growth — particularly now that the economy has become global — he still is saddled with the blame for a bad economy."
As historic precedent, Simonton cites Herbert Hoover. "Hoover is elected president by the biggest landslide victory ever," Simonton says, "and is defeated for re-election by an even bigger landslide. Why? Because of the Great Depression caused by the economic policies of his predecessors."
And then there are times, Simonton says, when "a political system attains a state in which genuine political leadership is impossible."
The best historical example, in Simonton's mind, is the era in American history leading up to the Civil War. "Certain issues were so divisive — slavery being just the most conspicuous — that the country only welcomed weak presidents who would not rock the ship of state, like James Buchanan," Simonton says. "Only when that divisiveness shattered the Democratic Party into pieces could the nation get a great president, Abraham Lincoln, who was willing to face the problems head-on."
The Irony Age
Is America in one of those divisive — and decisive — moments? Are we looking to Obama to be weak like Buchanan or great like Lincoln?
Obama has given his own administration high marks. In December, he told 60 Minutes, "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."
The Obama bashers went berserk, saying that Obama was calling himself the fourth-greatest president.
The fallout continues. On April Fool's Day, John Tabin in the American Spectator wrote a pseudo-paean to the president: "President Barack Obama is among history's greatest leaders, and we're blessed to have him," Tabin opined. "Russia needed an advocate in the White House, after all."
Republican rival Mitt Romney also makes light of Obama's "greatness." A new Romney-approved ad says that Obama was just being modest in ranking his achievements below other presidents'. "He's in fact, America's best president," the voice-over says, "at piling on debt."
The ad ends, "We can't afford four more years of America's best president."
By saying best, of course, Romney means worst. In this age of irony, such sarcasm is easily understood.
So, America, is Obama the best or worst president? Perhaps a multiple choice test on Obama is the wrong way to go. Not everyone has an extreme view of Obama. For many Americans, it is more of an essay question.
Obama has had successes and he has had failures. Discuss.
Erwin C. Hargrove, a presidential historian at Vanderbilt University, says that Obama's "great strength as a politician is his ability to rhetorically unify people. His corresponding weakness is that he is loath to draw sharp lines as a partisan leader. He underestimates the hostility of his opposition."
And what about Obama as president? Of course, it's still too early to assess all of his achievements, says UC Davis' Simonton. "The jury is still out. At this point we also don't know whether he'll be re-elected — although the probability is very high."
Re-election and the chance to continue for another four years are important to the ultimate determination of Obama's scorecard, Simonton says. "The greatest presidents usually need two full terms to establish their legacy."
If Obama is not sent back to the White House by voters in November, many of his hallmark decisions — made cooperatively and unilaterally — Simonton says, "will be quickly swept aside."
Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.