It is difficult to compare presidents outside of a narrow context of time. It is like trying to compare baseball players, like Ruth and Aaron, or football players, like Johnny Unitas and Peyton Manning. For athletes, the games they play were different then; and for presidents, not only the country, but the world is different.
There is no way of knowing how a president today would have fared when faced with the prospect of the First or Second World War, or how they would have handled the advent of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. These are answers we can never have answered, and speculation is pointless. Despite any internal similarities, the external contexts cannot be ignored: Korea is not Vietnam and Vietnam is not Iraq.
What we can do is judge them by their accomplishments, by how they faced the challenges of their time. Coming off arguably one of the most disastrous presidencies in our history, that of George W. Bush, who cut taxes yet involved us in two un-paid for wars, and crashed our economy and that of the rest of the world as a result, we found ourselves with our nation’ first black president.
Not only did Barack H. Obama face the deeply entrenched racism of the nation that elected him, but a Republican Party determined to obstruct his every move, to make him a one term president and that term an utter failure. All the while, he had to face his real work, that for which he was elected: digging our nation out of the hole into which his predecessor had dragged us.
And it was a deep hole. Hated by the world, our economy in shambles, two wars continuing and with no real end in sight, let alone any idea of what, exactly, would constitute victory, Barack Obama stepped up to the plate, and like Babe Ruth calling his shot, made his play. Like Ruth, he hit it out of the park. This is not hyperbole. The facts prove it.
The wars are over, the economy is booming. Unemployment, like gas prices, are dropping and we have seen record levels of job growth. By any measure of success, including that of Republican candidates in 2012, his presidency has been a success. Even businesses and Wall Street agree that Republicans are killing the economy, and the evidence proves that the economy grows more under Democratic than Republican presidents.
And not only did he end the wars (and without getting us into any of the new ones proposed by Republicans) and restored the economy, but he helped speed along social change by embracing marriage equality, kicking DOMA to the curb and ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; he has supported women’s rights, including equal pay and the right to manage their own reproductive rights; He has fought for workers and for a living wage; battled on behalf of the environment; and fought for the rights of immigrants. And with the Affordable Care Act, known fittingly as Obamacare, he has given all Americans access to healthcare for the first time in our nation’s history.
His list of accomplishments, even minus any opposition, would be staggering. Considering the odds against him, they are truly monumental. In all these areas, he has made life better for Americans. Not just for the rich, but for all Americans.
Right off the bat, President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. This was a measure of the world’s relief at being rid of President Bush as much as anything else. The world heaved a sigh of relief. And that alone spurred the much-needed cycle of healing. But it is what President Obama did as himself, rather than as not-Bush, that has really sealed his legacy.
We have just seen that he has been named by Americans as the most admired man in the world for the seventh straight year. There is good reason for that. And it is not because he is FDR or JFK or even Abraham Lincoln. It is because he is Barack H. Obama, and that is no small thing in itself. He was, like so many other great men in our nation’s history, the right man in the right place at the right time. And he answered the call.
He may not have been as liberal as some of us would have liked, but neither was he as far left as Republicans imagined. That he seemed to them to be a Marxist shows not how far left Obama was but how far Right they had moved. In many respects, Obama is a Republican out of the past, embracing many policies once embraced by the GOP. These make him much more of a centrist than someone to the far left of the political spectrum. But that might have been exactly what we needed in 2008.
Some have complained and continue to complain that Obama did not bring the change he promised, but he did bring change, and a great deal of it. Republicans have asked if we miss Bush yet. No, resoundingly, we do not. We can quibble, but it would be wrong to judge him according to what he did or did not do from our own personal lists of things we wanted done. What matters, and what alone matters, are the results.
And the results, as I pointed to above, are spectacular. Despite a steadfast refusal to do their jobs, despite every roadblock Republicans could put in his path, President Obama has persevered, with class and with style, holding his head up proudly like the American he is, sharing credit for his successes and accepting responsibility for his failures.
It is impossible not to compare Bush and Obama: the man who got us into war and the man who got us out of it; the man who destroyed the economy and the man who restored it; the man who alienated the world and the man who makes friends of enemies, including Cuba.
But ultimately Obama must be judged for who he is and not for who he is not, and according to those standards, he is a great man indeed. He is, I will assert here and without any hesitation, if not the greatest American president ever, the greatest president of modern times.