As we recover from our
schnockered spirited celebrations of the founding of our great nation 238 years ago, we can rejoice in our freedom to hold and express our individual thoughts and beliefs. But let’s also remember this empirical axiom: there are opinions and there are facts. Everyone has a right to his or her own opinion but no one has a right to the facts – these exist independently of our opinions about them.
So, if a pollster asks a representative sample of American voters to name the best and worst presidents since World War II, what the survey reveals is a collection of opinions which may or may not align with actual facts.
The results don’t even have to be internally consistent: a particular president – Barack Obama, for example — might come in fourth among 12 as “best president” and tops as “worst president.” Which is exactly what happened when Quinnipiac University – which runs a reputable polling operation – asked the question.
Analyzed objectively – in terms of actual accomplishments – Obama, despite a Republican Party dedicated to stopping every initiative and despite a media phalanx (see: News, Fox) dedicated to misrepresenting and smearing his every move, has, as Washington Monthly put it, “gotten more done in three years than any president in decades.”
Measured in sheer legislative tonnage, what Obama got done in his first two years 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. A revolutionary reform to student aid. Signing the New START treaty with Russia. The ending of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Even over the past year, when he was bogged down in budget fights with the Tea Party-controlled GOP House, Obama still managed to squeeze out a few domestic policy victories, including a $1.2 trillion deficit reduction deal and the most sweeping overhaul of food safety laws in more than seventy years. More impressively, on the foreign policy front he ended the war in Iraq, began the drawdown in Afghanistan, helped to oust Gaddafi in Libya and usher out Mubarak in Egypt, orchestrated new military and commercial alliances as a hedge against China, and tightened sanctions against Iran over its nukes.
Oh, and he shifted counterterrorism strategies to target Osama bin Laden and then ordered the risky raid that killed him.
Bin Laden is dead and GM is alive, as Joe Biden put it during the 2012 campaign. And there’s so much more – much of it unappreciated, as has often been the case with presidential achievements until years later.
Approval Years Later For example, as Paul Glastris notes in the Washington Monthly, when Franklin Roosevelt created Social Security in 1935, it offered scant benefits that were delayed for years, excluded domestic workers and was derided by liberals as a sellout until decades later, when benefits were raised and it became the popular program it is today. FDR’s first proposal for a GI Bill for returning World War II veterans was poorly funded and aimed at keeping returning veterans from flooding the labor market. Only later was it clear that it helped build America’s first mass middle class. Harry Truman chose the policy of containment over a more aggressive “rollback” of communism at the dawn of the Cold War. When he left office, his approval rating was 32 percent. Decades later he was hailed as a visionary on foreign policy.
Americans – egged on by Republican detractors and their propagandists at Fox – have been told over and over again that Obama is a feckless presence. Despite the fact that 288,000 jobs were created in June and the unemployment rate is down to 6.1% — its lowest since September 2008 – many Americans still are feeling financially under water.
The stock market has rebounded to a record high – with the Dow breaking 17,000 last week – yet the wealthy and their GOP lap dogs are still complaining that Obama hasn’t done enough.
There are plenty of things to complain about under Obama: his seeking consensus with partisans who always see compromise as capitulation, his fetish for government secrecy and expansive spying and his failure to punish big banks for bad behavior, for example.
Our biggest complaint is that his communications skills – so brilliant in his first campaign – have been abysmal in his presidency. He sounds aloof too often, fails to speak plainly about complex problems, allows himself to be cornered and defined by the opposition and allows idiots to publicly represent signature and critical initiatives and responsibilities.
But compared to his towering accomplishments against all odds – in the face of subtle and overt racial animus – Obama’s faults will, we expect, be judged petty when the historical record is examined in years to come.
So whatever opinions a confused populace may express about the president’s effectiveness and proficiency, remember these are opinions, not actual facts.