We’re hard on our presidents. We hold unrealistic expectations for them and project unachievable hopes and dreams onto them. As soon as the president makes a mistake, we’re ready to give up on him (or, someday, her), as is evident in the significant decline in public approval for Joe Biden after only eight months in office. We fail to understand the need to give the leader of our nation some leeway, and that in the end, it is the totality of his or her four-year term that matters, not the days, weeks or months highlighted by our 24/7 media.
If we consider the performance of presidents since Watergate, we will quickly recognize that they all achieved significant successes and serious failures during their terms.
In terms of successes, we can include the following:
Jimmy Carter: The Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, environmental protection and the strengthening of the federal student loan program for higher education;
Ronald Reagan: The revitalization of the conservative movement in the United States, significant economic reform and recovery and the achievement of substantial arms control agreements with the Soviet Union;
George H. W. Bush: The competent management of the end of the Cold War, the reunification of Germany and a substantial political-military victory in the Persian Gulf War;
Bill Clinton: The revitalization of the Democratic Party, along with substantial reductions in the nation’s deficits, unemployment and crime;
George W. Bush: The achievement of the first meaningful education reform law in decades, along with effective, if only temporary, management of the post-9/11 political and strategic response of the United States to terror;
Barack Obama: The rescue of the imperiled U.S. economy through a massive stimulus program, the passage of legislation to guarantee health-care coverage for all Americans, the negotiation of an agreement to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability and the elimination of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden;
Donald Trump: The Abraham Peace Accords between Israel and its Gulf neighbors and the swift development of a vaccine for COVID-19.
At the same time, each president also has a lugubrious legacy, a failure, that attaches to his name:
Mr. Carter’s inability to achieve a substantial energy policy, in addition to his lackluster performance in dealing with a Democratic Congress;
Reagan’s seeming indifference regarding growing levels of budgetary deficits and the AIDS epidemic, as well as his (or his staff’s) glaring disregard of constitutional boundaries in Iran-Contra;
The elder Bush’s highly visible and poorly explained about-face on his very public promise of “no new taxes”;
Mr. Clinton’s poor judgment in having an inappropriate sexual relationship with a White House intern;
The younger Bush’s ultimate obsession with a policy of preempting terrorists that drove the country deep into military commitments in Iraq at exorbitant expense;
Mr. Obama’s failure to develop an effective U.S. response to the civil war in Syria, to achieve meaningful reform of U.S. immigration policy and to close Guantanamo Bay; and
Mr. Trump’s initial failure to face the COVID-19 issue seriously, \and his consistent distortion of the truth and undermining of constitutional norms.
So how do we balance the score card?
In addition to the policy wins and losses, we need to consider the president’s enunciation and pursuit of a positive vision for the country, his persuasion and political acumen in bringing others along in pursuit of his vision, his ability to capably mange a sprawling executive branch of some 3 million people, and his skill in making solid decisions after inviting a full exploration of options and alternatives. In addition, we should consider how the president conducted himself as the leader of the free world and as the head of state.
We should also ask the questions that we would ask of any leader: What is your purpose in leadership? And why should anyone be led by you? Finally, we should ask the question that Ronald Reagan asked in the 1980 presidential campaign: Are you better off or worse off than you were four years ago?
The verdict on the last question for President Biden is still out, but there Is no doubt that he has the right motivations for leadership and that through his life and political experience he has earned the right to lead us. Now let’s give him a chance to do it.
Michael Eric Siegel (MSiegel569@aol.com) is an adjunct professor of government at Johns Hopkins University and author of “The President as Leader.”