As President Obama officially began his second term, with the inauguration speech, the parade and the festivity of inauguration luncheons and balls around the capital, his eyes and the eyes of his supporters are already on his legacy and on the view that history will have of him.
The “legacy thing” may be harder than Barack Obama imagines.
Beginning his second term, Obama has a focused, though unstated, agenda: to achieve presidential greatness in the eyes of historians and Americans.
In this, he will almost certainly fail.
He is already a historic president as the first African American to be elected, but there is a chasm between being historic and being great.
Presidents are ultimately judged not by their total record, or by their ability to enact their agendas, or by their popularity. They are judged by whether they get a few very big decisions right or wrong
What exactly does that mean?
These appraisals are made while a president is in office and, more definitively, after he’s left.
Does a president’s performance stand the test of time based on what happens later?
Did his policies advance or retard the nation’s well-being? Were they wise or simply expedient?
Depending on the answers, much else can be forgiven or forgotten,
Who are the truly “great” presidents in the eyes of history?
Every school child knows the three “great” presidents: Washington, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.
They topped the first presidential ranking by historians in Life magazine in 1948. They’ve topped six subsequent rankings elsewhere.
Through no fault of his own, Obama will not be joining them.
The first requirement of presidential greatness is that the country faces a mortal peril: something that puts the American experiment — its embrace of freedom and equality, its trust in democratic institutions, and its belief in itself — at risk.
The great presidents have all defused that risk.
Against that single measure what did the three great presidents accomplish and why will President fall short in the view of history?
In 1789, no one knew whether the Constitution would survive; Washington’s stature inspired loyalty that gave the system permanence.
Lincoln’s single-minded pursuit of total victory over the Confederacy — when many in the North, discouraged by the endless bloodshed and inconclusive combat, wanted a truce — saved the Union and ended slavery.
FDR preserved the nation’s democratic political values and institutions in the face of an economic collapse that gave rise, from left and right, to calls for radical change; and, of course, he presided over victory in World War II.
Obama will be denied a similar opportunity because, for all the nation’s serious problems, none yet rises to the level of mortal peril. Obama’s reputation will necessarily be less exalted.
So President Obama’s administration will forever be historic, in that he was the first Black President of the United States, but whether he will be viewed among the great presidents is an open question.
But history’s verdict will be present-oriented and forward-looking.
How have his fateful decisions played in the real world?
Obama’s reputation will ultimately depend on a handful of these, including (probably) his handling of the economy in the dark months of early 2009, Iran’s nuclear program, the federal budget and, perhaps, something now unimagined.
“Crises demand leadership,” writes Merry, “and in the American system that leadership can come only from the president.” Not just leadership, but leadership in the right direction.