By Barry Rubin
In his interview with 60 Minutes, Barack Obama said he was the “fourth-best president.” I can only presume it was cut—like so many other great stories that have been self-censored by the media—to keep Obama from looking bad.
But those making fun of Obama for his claim have just skimmed the surface. Actually, there is much to be discovered from further examining what he said.
First, Obama showed how he takes the mass media’s total support for granted, something inconceivable for any previous president. He begins:
The issue here is not going be a list of accomplishments. As you said yourself, Steve, you know, I would put our legislative and foreign-policy accomplishments in our first two years against any president …
In other words, Obama is attributing the claim that he’s a great president to the interviewer, Steve Kroft. According to Obama, Kroft has already proclaimed him to be wonderful. Obama is just going along with what the media says.
It has often been remarked that Obama is a narcissist, but what we see here is even worse, a man so closed and arrogant that he cannot take criticism into account. Any democratic leader needs to heed criticism and adjust policies based on experience, the weaknesses pointed out by others, and changing conditions. Obama is incapable of doing so.
Note in Obama’s case how his new “jobs bill” is merely a repeat of the failed stimulus. And similar things can be said about his foreign policy. He does not learn or grow with the office. This is like a ship’s captain being warned there’s a big iceberg ahead yet he keeps bragging that he has set the perfect course.
This theme is reinforced by his saying: “The issue here is not going be a list of accomplishments.” In other words, no one can even dispute that he has had great accomplishments. The science is settled; debate is closed. This also tells us that if Obama gets a second term, he won’t do any better at all.
The end of the quote is also patronizing:
But, you know, but when it comes to the economy, we’ve got a lot more work to do.
Yes, that minor problem of the economy.
But in terms of history, what Obama says has been misinterpreted:
I would put our legislative and foreign-policy accomplishments in our first two years against any president — with the possible exceptions of Johnson, FDR, and Lincoln — just in terms of what we’ve gotten done in modern history.
In passing, let’s note that Obama is one of the most inarticulate of all presidents. He finds it difficult to construct a proper sentence. Take away the hype and his level of expression is on the same level as that of George W. Bush. And that is not meant to be exaggerated. I think it is precisely accurate.
But to be fair to Obama, he was only referring to the first two years of previous presidents. Indeed, during their first two years in office, neither Roosevelt nor Lincoln had any great foreign policy accomplishments at all. And Johnson’s main “accomplishment,” tragically, was the Vietnam War.
So, starting with Lincoln, what presidents had great foreign policy accomplishments in their first two years? Between 1861, when Lincoln took office, and 1941 — with the exception that proves the rule of 1917-1920 — the United States was mostly isolationist and not a great power.
I would say that the president with the greatest foreign policy record in his first two years was Harry Truman, who had to deal with the end of the war with Japan, get the armed forces home, and deal with the political situation at the end of World War Two, the transformation of America into a peacetime great power, and the acceptance of the need to fight the Cold War.
Other top presidents on foreign policy in the first two years would be — in chronological order — Eisenhower, Kennedy (the Cuban missile crisis), Reagan, and George Bush. I’d explain in detail but it would take too much space. Even George W. Bush’s management of the September 11 crisis far exceeds anything Obama did during his first two years.
What has Obama accomplished? He can only claim one thing: to have made America more popular after George W. Bush. There is some truth to this, but it is exaggerated. In fact, while at first there was a popularity effect, it has diminished, and anyway, popularity is not the most important thing in international affairs. The START treaty with Moscow might also be mentioned. Doesn’t add up too much.
Obama has not accomplished anything in Africa, Asia, or South America. U.S.-European relations are friendly — but is this some great accomplishment?
As for the Middle East, Obama has been disastrous. He singlehandedly sabotaged the peace process and has opened the door to anti-American radical regimes.
Can anyone seriously maintain that Obama has achieved a huge amount beyond briefly “restoring” America’s popularity to — though he and his supporters never admit this — the levels it enjoyed under Bill Clinton?
Then there’s domestic policy. And here we must point out an important Obama assumption: he feels a great president is someone who can brag about “what we’ve gotten done” by getting new laws passed. I think Obama genuinely doesn’t understand that having new laws — more spending; more regulation — is not inevitably better.
A president can be great for not messing up the non-governmental sector, for not passing new laws. From Grant to McKinley, along with Calvin Coolidge, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan, rapid economic progress and prosperity took place precisely because they didn’t get too much “done” in Obama’s sense of the word. That is vital to understand: America would be better off if Obama had done less.
As for activist presidents, though, whom I’d nominate for the most achievements in their first two years: Teddy Roosevelt brought needed regulation. One might also list Franklin Roosevelt, Truman (who for some reason Obama continues to ignore), and Johnson. Actually, I’m not sure Lincoln would qualify despite his overall greatness since the first two years of his term was spent fighting a largely losing Civil War.
You might well want to change that list of best presidents on foreign or domestic issues during their first two years, but the point is that Obama doesn’t belong on it. I won’t go into detail about the damage that he did to the United States, especially economically, because you know about that already. Obama claims he saved America from a great depression. Well, instead he has delivered it into a great recession.
Finally, note that Obama said the phrase “possible exceptions” when referring to Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Johnson. In other words. Obama is saying that maybe he is number one, the best president ever. I’m not surprised that many Americans can’t–and don’t want to–believe that they’ve elected such a “zany” person to power.
At a time of extreme crisis, at home and abroad, the man at the steering wheel is visibly ideologically obsessed, psychologically unfit, and not competent. Many people would dismiss that sentence with scorn and insults. But isn’t it obvious once the hype is discarded?
What is especially frightening here is Obama’s combination of egomania and blindness. Without self-criticism, there is no room for improvement. Without humility, errors will multiply.
Pete Seeger is a left-wing songwriter. His song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” — about a foolish captain who marches his men into an impassable swamp — was a veiled attack on Nixon. Yet I think it applies even better to Obama:
Well, I’m not going to point any moral;
I’ll leave that for yourself
Maybe you’re still walking, you’re still talking
You’d like to keep your health.
But every time I read the papers
That old feeling comes on;
We’re waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool says to push on….
Waist deep! Neck deep! Soon even a
Tall man’ll be over his head! We’re
Waist deep in the Big Muddy!
And the big fool says to push on!
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction will be published by Yale University Press in January. Latest books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at http://www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports, http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com