The periodic Siena College poll [.pdf] of 238 presidential scholars in colleges and universities across the nation ranked Barack Obama, after only a year-and-a-half of his presidency, as the 15th best president out of all 43 in American history. His predecessor, George W. Bush, earned an abysmal 39th rating. Yet, despite differences in rhetoric and political party affiliation – and thus against the conventional wisdom – the polices of Obama and Bush are strikingly similar.
The Siena College poll is not only biased from polling academicians on the Left, but also rates presidents on 20 attributes, some of which measure effectiveness – that is, ability to get done what they promised – and even personal characteristics – for example, background, imagination, and even luck.
But should people care if Obama had a bad background? The scholars downgraded him on family, education, and prior experience before being in the White House. And so what if Ronald Reagan was lucky enough to have the Soviet Union collapse just after he left office?
Shouldn’t presidents be judged solely on their accomplishments – that is, whether their policies were good for the country? Of course, the Siena poll does include some assessments on policies, but it is heavily biased toward government activism in domestic and foreign affairs. It is also striking that two presidents – Obama and Bush – with such similar policies get such disparate ratings.
For example, despite Obama’s image as a progressive Democrat and Bush’s image as a conservative Republican, they both have a record of activism in both domestic and foreign relations. Domestically, Bush bailed out the banks and socialized the AIG Insurance Company and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mortgage lenders. Obama pushed through a pork-filled bill to re-inflate the collapsed economic bubble, socialized some of the American auto companies, and will apparently win even deeper government intervention in the financial industry (the banks’ correct perception that they were too important or big for the government to allow them to fail helped cause their risky behavior that led to the meltdown in the first place). By piling the irresponsible prescription drug benefit for the wealthiest group in society on a teetering Medicare program, Bush pushed through the first new entitlement program since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs of the 1960s; similarly, Obama has “helped” the less affluent by requiring them to buy health insurance but providing government subsidies for only part of the bill, thus raising health insurance company stock prices with the prospect of new coerced customers.
In the civil liberties area, although Obama has dropped the scariest of the Bush administration’s justifications for detaining terrorism suspects indefinitely without trial – that as commander in chief, the president can rule by fiat and ignore laws passed by Congress – Obama still relies on the congressional resolution authorizing the war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban as a justification for this continued unconstitutional behavior. Although Congress had the chance to include such a suspension of habeas corpus in the congressional war resolution, it chose to pass it up. Although Obama pledged to close Guantanamo prison and end torture, the prison has not been shuttered, and torture has been restricted but a loophole still exists. It can be assumed that the warrantless domestic surveillance of Americans continues under Obama after Congress meekly sanctioned and widened the Bush administration’s brazenly illegal and unconstitutional snooping.
In foreign policy, although the arrogant rhetoric has changed substantially from the Bush years, American policy hasn’t morphed commensurately. Although Obama has pledged to completely withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq, this promise may be hard to keep if violence in Iraq rises after the pull out begins. In Afghanistan, Obama has tripled U.S. forces and has sunk the United States deeper into the quagmire. Obama has given up Bush’s ridiculous “war on terror” rhetoric. But he may be making new enemies as fast as Bush by aggressively pursuing a not-so-secret war against al-Qaeda in more countries, striking the group’s local affiliates, which usually haven’t focused their attacks on the United States but are now beginning to do so in retaliation. As for North Korea and Iran, despite the façade of increased negotiation with these pariah states, the former has not been persuaded by coercion to give up its nuclear weapons, nor the latter its apparent quest to get them. Only in relations with Russia have Obama policies significantly improved the situation – with an arms control treaty and the scaling back of dubious U.S. missile defense plans in Europe.
Some hope exists that Obama may ultimately prove to be a better president than Bush (he can’t get much worse). If the withdrawal from Iraq actually comes to fruition, the surge in Afghanistan was the price a Democratic president had to pay to begin withdrawing forces after 18 months, and Obama begins to reduce the massive record U.S. budget deficit of 11 percent of gross domestic product by cutting spending (every time a large budget deficit has occurred in U.S. history, it has been closed), he may rise above Bush. But he likely will never deserve the no. 15 ranking of all time given by the Siena poll.