Erik Loomis runs down the environmental records of the presidents with the strongest records and finds that LBJ, Jimmy Carter, and even long-ago Teddy Roosevelt have accomplishments that stack up favorably besides President Obama’s.
This is, I think, an excellent encapsulation of the “levels versus rates” problem of intertemporal political comparisons. After all, the big Obama administration initiative that everyone’s upset with now is his decision to interfere with EPA rule-making and keep a Clinton-era ozone standard in place. If Obama were actually to take us back to the environmental policy status quo that existed at the end of the Johnson administration, he’d be one of the worst presidents of all time. That said, taking a pure “levels” look can be absurd. US environmental protections were probably slightly stricter at the end of the George W Bush administration than at the beginning, but it would be pretty perverse to label a president who sided with industry incumbents at basically every turn as more environmentally friendly than the Clinton administration. Still, I don’t think you can really evaluate presidents or congresses purely in terms of rates. I just don’t think it’s possible to imagine anyone living up to the pace of progress on domestic issues that was achieved in the Johnson administration. There’s nothing comparable to creating Medicare, Medicaid, ESEA, the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Wilderness Act, etc. that’s out there to be done.