Today is Presidents Day. I want to do something a little different. Rather than ranking the presidents or trying to find some historical quirk to talk about, I want to talk about my presidents. I have been alive during seven administrations. I want born during Ford and am in the middle of Obama. It will be another generation or two before history can do a good job with these men (it’s really too bad they are all men), but it may be interesting to look at the impressions they have made.
In many ways Gerald Ford is the ultimate placeholder president. Since I was born during his time in office and he only had one abbreviated term, I obviously don’t remember his presidency. He served from 1974-1977. That’s not a lot of time to get things done. His most famous legacy is pardoning Nixon. That is not a good thing, although it is completely understandable. Less famously, he did appoint John Paul Stevens to the Supreme Court. That is a good thing. Given that he came into an impossible situation, I’d say I have an overall favorable opinion of him.
The very first political memory I have involves Jimmy Carter. When I was in kindergarten, Jimmy Carter was running for reelection. My parents are very political, but didn’t feel that the evening news was appropriate for little kids. So I knew almost nothing about what was going on. My teacher had an election in our class. We could choose between Jimmy Carter, John B. Anderson and Ronald Reagan. I voted for Anderson. I don’t know if it was the white hair or the glasses, but he looked like the guy for me. Of course, Reagan won easily. I got home and told my mom about our election. She said I should have voted for Carter. Even if I had a real vote, it wouldn’t have helped Carter very much. I’m not sure there has ever been a president with worse luck. Perhaps Andrew Johnson had worse luck, but it’s close. He took over a country still reeling from Watergate. He had to deal with an oil shortage and energy crisis. And he had the Iran hostage crisis. He spent his entire four years dealing with messes that weren’t his fault. He is one of the only politicians that I really believe is honest. Unfortunately, that’s not enough. He was an ineffective president. Of course, sadly enough, that still puts him firmly in the top half of my presidents.
Ronald Reagan was also part of my first political memory since he is the one who beat Carter. Honestly, I’m completely baffled by his reputation. As far as I can tell, Reagan’s presidency was an unmitigated disaster. The one thing that might have mitigated it was the appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court. She was the first woman to serve on the high court and that was great. Unfortunately, he also appointed Scalia, so his judicial appointments are kind of a wash. He completely blew up any semblance of sound fiscal policy. Iran Contra was blatantly illegal. And if he really didn’t know about it, it just shows that he was grossly incompetent. He gets a lot of credit for the end of the Cold War, but it’s not like Gorbachev tore down that wall because Reagan asked nicely. The Soviet Union was collapsing under its own weight at that point. Reagan just happened to be there (actually Bush happened to be there, but for whatever reason Reagan gets all the credit). And then there was the War on Drugs. We’re still paying for this. Try as I might, other than Sandra Day O’Connor, I can’t come up with a single nice thing to say about him.
I have completely mixed feelings about George Bush. He showed a willingness to compromise (it was forced compromise, but he did compromise). He raised taxes because he had to do something to try to fix Reagan’s mistakes. He did get Hussein out of Kuwait. And he implemented a successful cap and trade system to stop acid rain. On the other hand, he appointed Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Those good things are legitimate goods, but Clarence Thomas has gone a long way towards setting civil rights and feminism back fifty years.
Bill Clinton holds the distinction of being elected in the first presidential election that I was allowed to vote in. It was 1996 when he beat Dole for his second term. Clinton clearly did more good than bad. FMLA was big. As was appointing Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court. He balanced the federal budget. He did a decent job of handling all of the crisis that developed after the fall of the Soviet Union. But he did make some big mistakes. The Defense of Marriage act was a big mistake. I loved his desire to allow gays in the military, but Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was a bad result from a bad implementation. And then there were all of the personal scandals. I often wonder how a guy who is so smart can be so stupid. Everyone knew the Republicans were looking for anything they could find to make his life difficult, and he kept handing them things. But, like I said, there was clearly more good than bad.
What can I say about George W. Bush that hasn’t already been said? He reacted badly to the two biggest non-economic crisis of his administration, 9/11 and Katrina. He destroyed the economy. He started a war of aggression. He tortured people. He appointed Alito and Roberts to the Supreme Court. He refused to deal with climate change. But I still have a lot more good to say about Bush than Reagan. He legitimately helped Africa deal with its AIDS crisis. His attempt to deal with immigration really wasn’t bad. He was a lame duck by the time of the recession, and he had a lot to do with causing the recession, but he did pass TARP. He created the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. And he did have a pretty diverse cabinet, it’s just too bad they were also pretty incompetent. Bush is sort of the anti-Clinton. Clinton made some big mistakes, but did more good than bad. Bush did some good things, but did more bad than good.
Finally, we have my current president, Barak Obama. It’s way too early to tell, but overall I think he’s doing a fine job. First of all, in case you hadn’t noticed, he’s black. It is hard to overstate how big a deal, in a good way, that is. He appointed Sotomayor and Kagan to the Supreme Court and they seem to be doing well. He passed the Affordable Care Act, which is great. He has restored America’s reputation in the world. He is serious about climate change. I am disappointed that he didn’t spend some of his initial political capital on climate change, especially when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. And I would have liked some more substantive changes after the Great Recession. But, overall, I think he is the best of my presidents.
So, those are my impressions. I’m not a professional historian, just an interested observer. But I do think these impressions are fair.