Something caught my eye in Charlie Pierce's argument for repealing the Espionage Act. He called Woodrow Wilson "American history's most overrated man". I've heard that a lot. It mostly focuses on Wilson's conduct to restrict civil liberties during World War I. There was the Espionage Act, the Sedition Act, the arrest and prosecution of Eugene Debs and the re-segregation of the federal government.
Lyndon Johnson, of course, also comes off poorly in progressive circles because of Vietnam, Vietnam and Vietnam.
Obama, if you've read anything at FireDogLake besides TBogg, is as bad as
One progressive president who has been spared the outrage of other progressives is FDR. Apparently, Japanese internment, Dresden and kowtowing to the Southern Democratic mandarins in Congress on civil rights is not that big a deal.
When we examine these four presidents, it's curious that FDR largely escapes condemnation, that FDR skates free. (And Truman is still held accountable for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Loyalty Act and escalating the Cold War.)
Woodrow Wilson passed the first income tax, lowering the high tariffs that enabled monopolists to control the American markets. Wilson passed the Federal Reserve act to bring some order and stability to our nation's money supply for the first time since Andrew Jackson killed the Bank of the United States. He passed the Clayton Anti-Trust act that allowed for more enforcement and specifically exempted labor unions from prosecution. The Federal Farm Loan act finally provided cheap mortgages to struggling farmers. He passed the first anti-child labor laws (subsequently overturned by the mossback Supreme Court.) He put Louis Brandeis on the bench. He gave interstate rail workers an 8 hour work day. He created the Federal Trade Commission to investigate unfair trade practices.
And he tried like hell to keep us out of war.
Wilson's presidency ended weakly with the Versailles debacle, but much of that was because the massive stroke that nearly killed him. And his conduct during the war was not a beacon of civil libertarianism. But to condemn a man who really transformed the presidency from a "chief magistrate" to an active participant in legislation who rallied the populace around progressive causes because he was hard on the Wobblies, seems to me to be the same sort of nitpicking that plagues Obama.
Obama passed the Affordable Care Act, a massive Keynesian stimulus, saved the auto industry, passed the Lily Ledbetter act, got us out of Iraq, is getting us out of Afghanistan, he reversed a host of decisions on abortion and reproductive rights, he made student loans more affordable by cutting out the middle men, he signed Dodd-Frank, he signed the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, he pushed for the death of bin Laden and he did this while fighting a GOP in Congress that has gone insane. (I'm paraphrasing Bob Dole there.)
As for LBJ, the list of progressive accomplishments is pretty long: Medicare, Medicaid, Civil Rights Act of '64, Voting Rights Act of '65, expansion of Social Security, immigration reform, the various aspects of the "War on Poverty" and education reform.
If there is a common theme in the Progressive criticisms of these men, it is that their involvement in foreign wars and the infringement of civil liberties that goes along with them have somehow nullified their accomplishments in other areas.
What's so curious about this is that Wilson's vision for a post war world was remarkably liberal. His ideas of collective security were intended to bring peace and stability and avoid the sort of impingement on civil liberties that war brought. Lyndon Johnson got us into Vietnam in order to protect his liberal agenda at home. Obama understands that any major al Qaeda attacks on the US would imperil his presidency.
Liberals suffer from the preconception that they are "weak on national security". This is why they have overreacted in many ways. But their overreactions are intended to protect them and their liberal agenda from electoral defeat.
This goes part and parcel with the magical thinking that imbues most progressive critics. They believe the president is a magical actor who can use the "bully pulpit" to sway public opinion and make wonderful things happen. And when wonderful things fail to happen, it is blamed on the man in the White House.
This is in many ways the flip side of the GOP. They imbue their leaders with magical powers, too. But they remain steadfast in their support until it is no longer necessary electorally to do so. But even their veneration of men like Reagan is more a projection of their own fantasies rather than an accurate picture of reality. Whereas liberal project their own failings on their leaders.
Obama, Johnson and Wilson are not gods. They are not perfect men. But neither was FDR. Neither was Lincoln. What they have done is navigate a system designed to thwart change and stymie government action, a system crafted in an age when the state was used solely as an instrument of tyranny. The Constitution was crafted as a counter-argument to the tyranny of the Coercive Acts and the anarchy of Shays's Rebellion. It's unwieldy and imperfect.
And when you are trying to change things, it's a constant hindrance. If, like Mitch McConnell, all you want to do is stop things from happening, it's remarkably effective.
Obama is doing the best he can, with the tools he has. Just like those who came before him.
The constant attacks on him presuppose a world where magical thinking is the foundations of American government.