Political scientist says Obama’s presidency has been average, but might end up mediocre


Stanley A. Renshon, a professor of political science at the City University of New York, says American presidencies end up in one of six categories — great, good, average, mediocre or poor.

With nearly three years remaining in Barack Obama’s presidency, it’s still too early to make any final judgements on his stewardship.

But HERE‘s how Renshon rates his performance at this juncture:

A president’s historical reputation begins during a successful campaign — demonstrating his election skills, his promise as a president, and the promises he makes to the public about his policy ambitions and how he will govern once in office. It develops most fully during his time in office — a function of the promises he kept and abandoned, the domestic conditions he faced, international circumstances and the decisions he made regarding them. A president’s patterns of leadership are reflected in these accumulated choices. History leavens these judgments. Some presidents, such as Harry S. Truman, look better on reflection; others, such as Richard M. Nixon, continuously carry their opprobrium with them.

Five years into the Obama presidency is certainly not too early to take a preliminary sighting by political sextant, understanding that three more years can be a long time, for better or worse, for a president’s historical reputation.

Where should we place President Obama within the continuum…? Great presidents successfully face nation-defining circumstances — guiding a new country into its cultural, economic and political existence (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson), fighting major wars (Franklin D. Roosevelt), overcoming economic depressions (Roosevelt) and keeping the Union intact (Abraham Lincoln). Their mistakes and excesses (Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus; Roosevelt’s internment of the Japanese) are weighed against the problems they faced, and represent an exception to an otherwise exceptional record.

Good presidents successfully face major, but not catastrophic, problems such as managing the Cold War (Dwight D. Eisenhower), rekindling public confidence with a leadership and governing paradigm that works (Ronald Reagan), as well as dealing with ordinary presidential problems (economic downturns, non-catastrophic foreign policy crises).

Average presidents do their jobs adequately if not well. Like every other president, they sign numerous bills into law, initiate some of their policies (Bill Clinton and welfare reform; George H.W. Bush’s managing the demise of the Soviet Union). Sometimes, as in Lyndon B. Johnson’s case, their signature accomplishments (a major civil rights law) are balanced out by unpopular and unsuccessful wars (Vietnam) or landmark legislation (Great Society) that over time goes awry.

Mediocre presidents do not lack accomplishments so much as being historically haunted by gross errors of judgment or leadership (Nixon, Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter). Some poor presidents serve, period, to no particular distinction, one way or another (Warren G. Harding).

For Obama, we can rule out placing him in the best or the worst categories. He said he wanted to be a great, transforming president, but has fallen far short. Nor can we say that he has been a poor president — although if his signature heath-care law ultimately fails, he will be in danger of a legacy of mediocrity.


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