Any American president hoping to stake a claim to being viewed by future generations as great and transformative — or at least very good and effective — would be wise to choose his predecessor well.
To that end, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan probably couldn't have done better than to follow, respectively, James Buchanan, Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter.
Similarly, President Obama no doubt benefited from comparisons to George W. Bush, who's unlikely to make many historians' lists of the presidential greats.
Succeeding an unpopular White House occupant only goes so far, however. While the successor gets the benefit of at least not being the hapless guy before him, establishing a legacy that's favorably remembered through the ages takes much, much more.
Obama was always going to have a special place in history books as the nation's first African-American president. For as long as the Republic lasts, his will be the first nonwhite face grade-schoolers encounter as their eyes scan, from left to right, the timeline of American presidents starting with George Washington.
That's no small feat given the nation's peculiar history. But in 2008 as the wheels were coming off the economy and anxieties for the future surged, Americans had an aching need for a national feel-good story that summoned forth their better angels. Obama provided one.
The mere presence of a black president in the White House, however, can't do anything to slow massive layoffs or keep banks from imploding. That's where what matters is what a president does, not what he looks like.
It's in Obama's actions that his claim for a more substantive legacy lies.
While it's too early to know how history will ultimately judge the 44th president, as he enters his second term he appears to have as good a chance as any of his recent predecessors to have his presidency ranked among history's more successful.
Great National Crisis
That this statement can even be made seriously is remarkable in its own right. Given that Obama had no chief executive experience outside of leading his several political campaigns, voters in 2008 were largely buying a president on spec. It wasn't the first time Americans had done that; Abraham Lincoln never had run anything major either before he became president.
Like Lincoln, Obama as president-elect found himself thrust into a great national crisis even before his presidency officially began. The Great Recession was in full sway by January 2009, destroying 500,000 jobs the very month he entered office. While it's easy to forget now, the fear of a depression was vivid then.
Enter Obama's much ballyhooed and much derided $900-billion-plus economic stimulus, which was on the drawing boards in the weeks between his election and his inauguration. Many partisans may still debate whether it was the lance that slayed the recession dragon or splintered ineffectually against it.
The consensus of economists who study these things using abstruse mathematical equations, however, is that the stimulus was the difference between a painfully slow recovery and Great Depression II, the sequel.
"We ought to remember how bad the situation was there because the economy was just falling off a cliff," said Alan Blinder, a Princeton University economics professor and a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve.
"Nobody was talking about a fiscal cliff then; it was the whole economy that was going off the cliff," said Blinder, whose new book, After the Music Stopped, examines how we entered and exited the greatest financial crisis of our time.
'Getting Worse At A Slower Pace'
"Month by month the job losses were large and getting larger and that continued into the early days of the Obama administration and then turned around enormously," Blinder continued. "The joke line of the day was: 'Very soon into the Obama administration things started getting worse at a slower pace.' That doesn't sound great, but in fact it is. You arrest the fall, and then you've got to slowly start digging out. And we're still doing the digging out."
But it wasn't just the stimulus, Blinder reminds us. The Obama administration, through Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, navigated financial institutions past dangerous shoals, taking steps that eventually reassured financial markets the banks were essentially sound, all without nationalizing banks, which some experts had called for.
It's a largely underappreciated part of the response, but one that led the financial system back to relative health far sooner than many experts predicted, a key piece of the overall recovery. Linked to actions by the Federal Reserve under Chairman Ben Bernanke to keep interest rates low, cash flowing and the banks functioning, greater calamity was averted.
Obama even used the financial crisis to score an environmental victory in the spirit of his former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's dictum to never let a serious crisis go to waste.
In a move environmentalists hail, Obama used the leverage of the federal dollars that kept U.S. automakers afloat to get the manufacturers to acquiesce to new auto mileage standards, requiring an average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 from the standard of slightly more than 30 mpg today.
"In concert with the bailout of the automakers, we're now producing more efficient cars," said Bob Deans, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Consumers who want to get a car that gets you an honest to goodness 35, 40 miles to the gallon or higher now have dozens of choices, where just a few years ago we didn't have many domestic choices on that. Now we do."
Health Care And History
If it weren't for the fact that Americans are a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately people, keeping the economy from the ultimate peril might seem like enough to ensure a presidential legacy.
But of course Obama didn't stop there. Aided by the same Democratic-controlled Congress that passed the stimulus without a single Republican vote in the House and just three in the Senate, he also won passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010.
"After all is said and done, this administration did succeed in a way that no Democratic administration has succeeded in laying a foundation for universal health care," said Robert Reich, the Clinton-era labor secretary and University of California, Berkeley, public policy professor.
Consider that the politics of health care insurance so intimidated the man who told Americans that the only thing they had to fear was "fear itself," the president who introduced Social Security legislation for crying out loud, that FDR took a pass on health care reform.
"Franklin D. Roosevelt knew that the cards were so stacked against him that he didn't even add it to the New Deal," said Reich. "Harry Truman could not do it. John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, they all tried and they failed. Bill Clinton tried and notoriously failed. And we should not ignore that remarkable accomplishment. It's not perfect. But it's a foundation. And it will be developed upon and added to."
Of course, not everyone would agree with Reich's view that the health care legislation was a net good. Or Blinder's that the economic stimulus was salutary. Indeed, an entire political movement — the Tea Party — sprang from opposition to those and other Obama initiatives.
The antipathy toward Obama and his policies in some quarters rose to such a pitch it spurred something Americans had never seen before: a member of the opposition party shouting "You lie!" at the president during a joint session of Congress.
That anger undoubtedly fueled the Republican juggernaut of the 2010 midterm elections, leading to the Democrats' loss of House control in a rout of historic dimensions. The divided Congress has ever since been the greatest obstacle to Obama's continued agenda.
While many Obama supporters have wished the president would match his opponents' enmity and fight ire with ire, so to speak, Obama — who rarely seems to simmer, let alone boil over in public — has generally maintained his signature detachment, his cool. This, says, Reich may actually be one of his greatest achievements.
Obama "has been a voice of reason and calmness at a time in American politics where that kind of voice is becoming scarcer and scarcer. I don't remember this degree of divisiveness and anger in politics," Reich said. "And that temperament is exactly necessary for the times. And it will be remembered as an important aspect of the Obama presidency."
Obama's mellowness has seemed a good fit with his political pragmatism. He's more a problem-solver than the ideologue many of his critics have accused him of being and many of his supporters have unrequitedly longed for.
'Extricator In Chief'
This pragmatism has been especially evident in his foreign and national security policy. Whether it's been ending U.S. military involvement in Iraq, drawing down forces in Afghanistan, killing terrorists, navigating the Arab Spring, containing Iran, pivoting to Asia or waiting for Israel and Palestinians to once again decide they have no good alternatives to negotiations, his approach has been more to deal with the world as he finds it than to try remaking it after some American ideal.
On foreign policy and national security, "he's had no spectacular successes, save killing Osama bin Laden, but no spectacular failures either," said foreign policy expert Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, who has advised Republican and Democratic secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli relations.
"It is a foreign policy for the times because what is ultimately eroding the source of our national power and strength is the six deadly Ds: debt, dysfunctional politics, deficits, decaying infrastructure, dependence on hydrocarbons and a deteriorating educational system," Miller said. "Obama has understood that we do not have the luxury any longer of playing loose with when, why, how and where we project our military power. That's why I call him the extricator in chief. He is extricating America from the two longest wars in our history where the standard of victory was never, 'Could we win?' but, 'When could we leave?' "
If there were an Obama Doctrine, says Miller, it would be illustrated by the approach to ousting Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, which, before last September's Benghazi attacks on Americans, at least, had looked like a success.
"It was multilateral, it was internationally sanctioned, it was low-hanging fruit from a military standpoint and, at the end of the day, we don't own it," Miller said.
But, again, if Obama is wedded to anything, it's what's most likely to work, which explains the limits at times to his multilateralism and willingness to work with international partners. For instance, in the raid on bin Laden, or many of the drone strikes on terrorist targets in Pakistan and Yemen, Obama's policy has been for the U.S. to essentially go it alone.
As his second term begins, Americans now have a clearer idea of what to expect from their president, even though it may not be clear how he will accomplish what remains on his agenda, including immigration reform, gun control and putting the nation on a sustainable fiscal path, given the partisan divide and gridlock of Washington.
But anyone who has followed Obama's extraordinary American story should have learned by now that he has a knack for confounding expectations, especially of those who, as his Oval Office predecessor might say, make the mistake of "misunderestimating" him.
As he has repeatedly said over the years, he is "the skinny guy with the funny name" who got elected president — twice — stunning his Republican opponents more the second time than the first.
His greatest challenge now may be: How does he put together a second-term record of achievement that rivals his first? Because now, the comparison is not to Bush, but to himself.