Monday, February 20, 2012
So, today is perhaps Washington's Birthday, Lincoln-Washington Day, President's Day or Monday, depending on where you live and work.
At our school, today is "Day off after the formal".
Anyway, since today is President's Day, I thought I'd offer up some underappreciated Chief Executives for you. First of all, it is impossible to be underrated if your name is Washington, Lincoln or Roosevelt (Teddy or Franklin). By definition, those four are lionized. Jefferson, too, but Jefferson was in many ways more important as a symbolic leader of a political philosophy than he is as a President. He's like Jackson in that way. Neither were especially "great presidents" in terms of policy - think Jefferson's disastrous Embargo Act or Jackson's high handed actions - but they represent the beginning and end of the realization of true democracy in America. So... important.
But which Chief Magistrates are most underrated?
From the Antebellum period, the consensus is that James K. Polk was the most underrated. In fact, the consensus is SO strong, that he's almost not underrated anymore. Still, the man who negotiated the western border with Canada, created a (flimsy) national banking structure to replace Hamilton's Bank of the US, and then wrested a third of Mexico away from Mexico City has a pretty impressive bio.
From post-Civil War to the Hiroshima, I think Woodrow Wilson is clearly underrated. The Federal Reserve, the first income tax and the correlating reduction in tariff rates, the Clayton Anti-Trust Act and the Federal Trade Commission, Louis Bradeis's seat on the Supreme Court, leading the reluctant country into war by creating consensus first all add up to another impressive resume. In fact, at the time, Wilson could legitimately claim to having as impressive a legislative record as anyone besides Lincoln (who dealt with a rump Congress).
In modern times, it becomes tougher to gauge. I saw a poll over at Daily Kos and voted for Clinton, but I think LBJ and Eisenhower deserve some credit, too. Eisenhower was the guy who calmed the Cold War and kept it cold. It's not a stretch to say that Eisenhower gave the US crucial breathing room to accommodate its new role in the world. LBJ was in many ways greatest civil rights President. I would say even better than Lincoln, because Lincoln did not have to deal with Southern Senators and LBJ did. And that's not to mention Medicare and Medicaid.
I guess what makes underrated presidents underrated is the negative side of the ledger. Both Polk and Wilson suffered from poor public personae. Polk actually had a poor private persona, too. His achievements of adding huge amounts of land also led directly to disunion and civil war.
Wilson of course had the Versailles/League of Nations fiasco. The stroke that nearly killed him made him temperamentally unsuited to negotiate the Treaty through the Senate. And he was awful on race relations.
Eisenhower, too, was not very helpful on race. While he sent the 101st into Little Rock, it was clear it was more in a fit of anger at Orval Faubus, rather than a sense that schools should be intergrated. His years are not known for active achievements, except the Interstate Highway System. His role was mostly passive.
LBJ, on the other hand, has the horrible weight of Vietnam around his neck. For all his many achievements, he is the author of that particular tragedy.
And so as we evaluate Clinton and maybe Obama, we see in Clinton primarily a passive leader. Active as a world leader, but at home he essentially guarded the government against the depredations of the Gingrich Republicans. His great achievement was balancing the budget. They don't carve your face into mountains for that.
As for Obama, a second term always pushes you closer toward greatness. If ACA works as planned, he could become a very well regarded president, but he will need one more big thing, I think, before he is referred to as a GREAT president (aside from re-election).
Might I suggest global warming? Seriously, might I?