The Obama Watch

Obama Against Any President

What really makes a president great?

By and 1.25.12

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According to President Obama, those presidents who grow government the most are candidates for being the greatest presidents. Big glitzy programs count for a lot. In an interview with Steve Kroft of CBS on 60 Minutes Overtime, President Obama spoke glowingly of his contributions: "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."

A key problem, of course, is that the president's two largest programs, his stimulus package and Obamacare, are both under an avalanche of criticism. The stimulus package led to a rise, not a fall in unemployment, and its pork-barrel provisions are exposed almost daily. Obamacare scores low in the polls; it is heavily challenged in the courts; and all Republicans voted against it and most ran elections against it very successfully in 2010.

Presidents Johnson and FDR have similar baggage. In Johnson's first two years, Vietnam became intractable; and increasing the payments in Aid to Families with Dependent Children gave single mothers incentives to take the cash from the government and not get married. FDR's major programs of his first two years, the AAA and the NRA, were both struck down by the Supreme Court. And FDR ended up with more than 19% unemployment in 1938 when the countries of Europe, according to a League of Nations survey, had only 11%. Is that the kind of success a president should emulate?

If we look at the opinions of historians, however, President Obama may be on the right track. They tend to give high ratings to presidents who announce big programs and increase the national debt sharply. Johnson does well, and FDR does even better -- ranking among the top three presidents in most polls. The Arthur Schlesinger Presidential Polls, for example, conducted in 1948, 1962, and 1996, consistently exalted FDR at the top, or near the top.

How do historians rank presidents who achieve prosperity and security for Americans? Let's pose the question this way: What if we had a president who, in his first two years as president, cut federal spending in half; produced budget surpluses in both years; cut tax rates, and slashed unemployment from 12 to 2%? Where should historians rank such a man?

The answer is "in last place -- the worst president in U.S. history." That has been the fate of Warren G. Harding, who was president from 1921 to 1923. He accomplished all of the above -- the federal budget plummeted from $6.4 billion in 1920 to $3.1 billion in 1923; tax rates on the rich fell from 73 to 56%; and the U.S. slashed the national debt and unemployment during Harding's two years as president -- before his untimely death in office.

True, some historians point out, Harding had two major scandals with the Veterans' Administration and with oil leases at Teapot Dome. His appointees extorted or stole public money, but Harding seems to have known nothing about it. Along these lines, Solyndra and Fast and Furious, two recent Obama scandals, may prove to be as damaging to him as Teapot Dome was to Harding.

But Harding's record at improving prosperity for Americans was strong. And shouldn't that be a major point in evaluating his presidency? Harding's humdrum cuts in tax rates and federal spending may lack drama, but they gave Americans jobs.

Under President Obama, by contrast, millions of jobs have disappeared, home values are way down, and standards of living have declined. Yet President Obama tells us he likes "what we've gotten done" with Obamacare and stimulus spending. So do most historians. But historians are safe with tenured jobs; other Americans get laid off when taxes rise, regulations increase, and debt skyrockets to pay for Obama's hope and change. And they, more than the historians, will elect the next president in 2012.

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About the Author

Burton Folsom Jr. is professor of history at Hillsdale College and author of New Deal or Raw Deal? (Simon & Schuster, 2008). His latest book, co-authored with Anita Folsom, is FDR Goes to War: How Expanded Executive Power, Spiraling National Debt, and Restricted Civil Liberties Shaped Wartime America (Simon & Schuster, 2011).