During this season’s “House of Cards” (Netflix), the wife of the presidential candidate challenging the evil incumbent Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) says of her husband: “He has a chance to be a fine president. A great president.” Maybe. But presidents don’t create legacies, and those who think they do subject the nation to great and unnecessary risks.
We hear much about the Affordable Care Act being Barack Obama’s legacy. Obamacare represented just a step forward. American healthcare has a long way to go. Moreover, President Trump and Republicans vowed to “repeal and replace.” Will they? We’ll see. But I suspect Mr. Obama’s legacy will reflect not what he set out to do but what he had to do. (More later.)
I doubt George Washington took office thinking about his legacy rather than the job at hand. He had to react to the creation of a new form of government under the Constitution. During his eight years in office, Washington had to shape the executive branch from scratch. He also had to contend with the pioneering efforts of a newly devised Congress, Supreme Court and thirteen states. All had their own Constitutional visions. Washington’s legacy consists of navigating unchartered waters successfully.
Abraham Lincoln assumed office with the nation on the brink of splitting. Shortly after his inauguration, the nation toppled over the brink. Lincoln’s greatness lay not in promoting grand plans by which history would hail him but in meeting this daunting challenge—leading in ways about which he may never have given prior thought.
Yes, some presidents see opportunities. Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark across the west and spearheaded the Louisiana Purchase. But he did so in response to Napoleon and European geopolitics. Jefferson earned good grades. To assure peace after “the war to end all wars,” Woodrow Wilson pushed the establishment of the League of Nations following World War One, which America entered well into his prsidency. Congress balked. Ultimately, the League failed. Wilson’s reputation is spotty. Franklin D. Roosevelt took office during the Depression and did much to provide a safety net for Americans while pushing the economy towards recovery. FDR made mistakes along the way, but he’s idolized by many.
George H.W. Bush, with no legacy in mind, responded to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and ousted Iraqi forces in a 100-hour war. Then he withdrew American troops. His son George W. Bush responded to 9/11 with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The younger Mr. Bush, with little knowledge of the region, decided to remake the Middle East. History will not be kind.
Back to Barack Obama. Whatever he thought he might accomplish—health care reform being a massive item on his agenda—he entered the White House with the American economy unraveling. He responded by rescuing financial institutions “too big to fail.” For that, he’s been lauded and vilified. While time will offer new perspectives, I think his actions will establish a very positive legacy if one unplanned.
I’m baffled by people who believe that a president’s first concern should be his (and someday, her) legacy. All presidents can do is shoulder their burdens and meet challenges with their best efforts. The world mocks our plans, and history exercises its own judgement.
Have a great Fourth. And remember, you can purchase THE ODD PLIGHT OF ADONIS LICHT directly from me or at Amazon. If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too.
To respond, click on “comments” to the right just below the title of this post. Then go to the response space at the bottom of the post.