Where Does President Obama Rank?

In 2009—not even a year into his presidency—President Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 2017—barely a month after his presidency concluded—President Obama was ranked the 12th best president in American history.

If only legacies were defined by awards and recognition.

It says something about the politics involved, in both cases, that President Obama was recognized prior to achieving any sort of peace or the allowance of any passage of time for a historical verdict. I could be mistaken, but it seems a peace prize assumes a peace achieved and historical recognition requires historical perspective. Alas, that is why I’ll never be on any of these committees. I clearly don’t get it.

Sarcasm aside, the C-SPAN survey on presidents is an admirable endeavor to solicit non-partisan opinion and is quite reputable. It uses ten “individual leadership characteristics” to provide objective benchmarks for historians in order to rank the presidents. Theoretically, this mitigates the bias caused by focusing on one aspect of a president. This means that President Obama’s score couldn’t be disproportionately weighted upward by his pursuit of “equal justice for all,” or downward for his poor relations with Congress.

Yet it doesn’t take long to understand why President Obama’s ranking is so patently absurd. First, consider the presidents surrounding President Obama in the rankings. President Woodrow Wilson, a fellow progressive, is ranked just ahead of him. Wilson oversaw the successful entry, participation, and victory of U.S. forces in World War One. Obama oversaw the (temporary) drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Following President Obama in the rankings are such luminaries as James Madison and John Adams, and relatively-accomplished presidents like Bill Clinton and James Polk (yes, seriously, James Polk). Madison and Adams were both in charge when the United States was under a much greater existential threat. Madison had to flee the White House before the British put Washington, D.C., to the torch. Adams had to prove that the strength and success of the Constitution and the presidency were not entirely contingent upon the strength of George Washington’s character.

Even Bill Clinton—rascal that he is—presided over an era of relative peace and prosperity and helped facilitate significant bipartisan compromises, such as welfare reform. What achievements can Barack Obama hang his hat upon? An anemic economic recovery? Lost standing and growing peril on the international stage? A never-popular health care “reform” that will be repealed and replaced under the weight of its own inconsistencies and incompetencies?

Dr. Paul Kengor, one of the small number of conservatives on the panel of historians who were surveyed by C-SPAN, highlights many of these same difficulties with President Obama’s ranking. The flaws in his ranking become starker as you analyze his rankings in individual categories:

His highest ranking is 3rd place in pursuing equal justice for all. This is perhaps the most anomalous category in the survey, though it is largely responsible for President Obama’s high ranking. What does it mean to pursue equal justice? Should he receive a higher ranking than the early presidents who helped established equality as an ideal in theory, even if not in practice? Or those who helped achieve women’s suffrage? Or those besides L.B.J., who opposed Jim Crow laws and helped achieve a degree of racial equality? Should a president who often appeared more vindictive than visionary on racial issues be placed just beneath Lincoln? It seems that beer summits and transgender bathrooms carry a lot of weight.

This should not be a partisan matter. Presidents Reagan and Johnson were ranked 9th and 10th, respectively. They were on polar opposites on the political spectrum, but both were incredibly significant and effective in accomplishing their respective agendas. L.B.J. launched the “Great Society” and Reagan took down the “Evil Empire.” President Obama—ranked 10th on public persuasion—couldn’t even convince the American people to embrace his signature (and doomed) accomplishment on health care. The blue dog Democrats who reluctantly rallied to his side were not followed by their constituents who kicked the vast majority of them out of office.

Already, the former director of the Norway Nobel Institute has expressed disappointment and remorse for awarding the Peace Prize to President Obama so early in his presidency. The prize was awarded with the hope of strengthening President Obama’s hand. In other words, it was awarded to him for his idealism and good intentions—neither of which turned out well in either the national or international arena.

How long will it be until C-SPAN’s esteemed collection of historians comes to its senses, as well? President Obama belongs in the bottom third of presidents, somewhere above the weak-kneed post-bellum presidents and below President George W. Bush, who, despite later setbacks and clear shortcomings, led us through the first phase of the modern War on Terror.

Unlike the Norway Nobel Institute, these historians need not grade President Obama based solely upon his intentions and rhetoric. They have a record—or a lack thereof—by which to grade him. Thankfully, they will have the opportunity to rectify this matter with the passage of time.

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