The Importance Of A Comparative Perspective

Matt Stoller hypothesized last night that “If there are historians in 100 years, Clinton-Bush-Obama will be considered some of the worst leaders in American history.” Taking that to be less a historiographical hypothesis (realistically, history’s judgment on Obama has a lot to do with whether he gets re-elected) than a personal judgment, I asked Stoller who his top ten favorites presidents are. I think this is an important question since I think it’s hard to assess the claim that Barack Obama is a “good” or “bad” president unless we ask “compared to what?’

In response, Stoller gave me seven rather than ten “FDR, Lincoln, Grant, Washington, T. Roosevelt, Truman, LBJ.”

Maybe that’s a good list. Maybe it’s a bad one. The difficulty of even producing a top ten list highlights, I think, the fact that from a real left perspective there aren’t a ton of super-admirable presidents in American history. Which is fine. But I think it does put claims about the merits (or lack thereof) of the Obama administration in the appropriate context. The left-wing critics of Obama who I meet tend not to be super-enthusiastic about the records of the Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, Carter, Ford, or Nixon administrations either. Indeed, when pressed Obama’s critics from the left can often be pushed to concede that he’s the greatest progressive success story in the White House in four decades. That’s no small thing.

My view is that the retroactive assessment of a character like LBJ speaks volumes to these comparative issues. The American left was not, at the time, exactly enthusiastic about the Johnson administration. After all, if Barack Obama tried to boost defense spending to nearly 10 percent of GDP and scale back entitlements to their LBJ-era levels, he’d be castigated as an extreme traitor. Even on the issues Johnson was good on, he never, for example, publicly opposed miscegenation laws. FDR’s entire presidency was founded on a corrupt bargain with white supremacists, and in 1937 he orchestrated a disastrous move to fiscal and monetary contraction that cost huge numbers of people their jobs for no real reason.


Sometimes when I bring these things up, people then create a construct whereby I’m saying nobody should criticize the president. That’s silly. During his administration, the left criticized Johnson’s conduct of the Vietnam war and for good reason. Activists pushed FDR on racial justice very consistently and with frustratingly little success and for good reason. But this is the nature of the interplay between activists and presidents, it’s not a personalized betrayal that just happens to recur every single time.