History usually waits a few years or even decades before passing judgment on a sitting President to gain some objectivity although I didn’t spare any of that for the previous inhabitant of the White House (a topic for another time perhaps). By the metric I used yesterday, most people would consider President Obama to be a progressive liberal. The conservative right is convinced that he is a socialist or worse. Without going into the definition of that term, suffice to say that I would disagree with that conclusion. I think Obama has been fairly centrist; at times to his detriment.
So let’s compare him to past Presidential performance. And see how he stacks up. First we have to establish just which previous Presidents were progressive and/or liberal. Generally speaking, these tended to be Democrats; though this is not necessarily the case: Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt being obvious exceptions. Secondly, I am only going to focus on Presidents from Abraham Lincoln forward since presidential parties and politics weren’t as neatly defined prior to that (although James K. Polk and Andrew Jackson were two popular Democratic Presidents the other parties were the Whigs or Dem-Repubs). This was during the Federalist Period, or roughly the 19th century.* Thirdly, I’m using a scholarly series of surveys begun in 1948 by historian Authur Schlesinger of Harvard University. Other polls are included over the years and… well you can look at them for yourself and draw some conclusions. Here is the Wiki link for that study (among others):
At first glance, it’s obvious that Honest Abe is the most popular President of all time. The thirteenth amendment (emancipation proclamation) alone would qualify him as progressive but he also had to deal with keeping the nation unified during our greatest internal struggle. It’s interesting to note that Lincoln was the first Republican President and instrumental in founding the Party. He was previously a Whig but became Republican because the Whig party was imploding upon itself and falling out of favour (sound familiar?).
There was a complete defection from the Democratic Party to the Republicans when Lincoln took office mostly due to the fact that many Democrats went to the Confederacy. There were still several surviving Whigs as well. This would be their swansong; however as they would disappear after the War. **
The next two presiding popular Presidents resided over the industrial revolution and the rise of the oil, rail, and steel robber barons giving us Monopolies like Rockefeller, and Carnegie. This was an era of corporations seizing as much political power as possible to maximize profits (sound familiar?). The Republicans dominated congress for the entire second half of the 19th century. So I don’t think you could consider either President progressive.
Grover Cleveland was such a darling of the fiscal conservatives it’s a mystery to me why he was even a Democrat. William McKinley; a Republican, ran on a prosperity platform that catered to the big industries. McKinley also presided over the Spanish American War and a really big subsequent land grab including Puerto Rico, Guam, Hawaii, and the Philippines. He was most certainly not progressive. His second Vice-President, on the other hand, was.
Upon McKinley’s assassination by an ‘anarchist’ Polish immigrant factory worker dismayed over the chasm between the rich elites and the working class, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt (Republican) took office. Incidentally, there was a small resurgence of a third party in Congress leading up to McKinley’s assassination culminating in Roosevelt’s failed Bull Moose Party. ** A clear indication of political upheaval.
Roosevelt had not always been progressive but being an avid outdoorsman, he forged a strong friendship with John Muir. I think his discussions with Muir changed Roosevelt into the progressive most people regard him as today. He led the ‘Progressive Movement’ in Congress and also formed, ironically, the ‘Conservation Movement’ (conservative has a different meaning to us environmental types). He set about regulating industry under the ‘Square Deal’, creating National Forests and Parks, spearheaded the Panama Canal, and negotiated and end to the Russo-Japanese war. He got a Nobel Prize for that; the first President to do so. There’s a reason for his likeness being chiseled in granite on a mountain in South Dakota beyond President Coolidge’s insistence that Republicans get equal billing.
So Republicans are 2-0 in the progressive President department. Republicans held both houses of Congress during this time. But that was about to change.
Enter Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Where to start? Governor of New Jersey, President of Princeton University, PhD, Nobel Prize winner, established League of Nations (fought bitterly by Republicans in Congress), Federal Reserve, Progressive income tax, Federal Trade Commission Act, Clayton Anti-trust Act; oh; and all while whipping the Kaiser’s butt in WWI. Wilson is probably the litmus test for progressive. And considered one of this nations greatest Presidents (and overachievers).
By the start of WWI both houses had gone Democratic along with the President; which explains the impressive resume of President Wilson.
The Roaring 20’s would belong to the Republicans. Three lackluster Presidents with majorities in both houses who would do little except…drive the economic car into the ditch (sensing a pattern yet?). Oh, and cut everybody off from drinking alcohol. Smart move conservative values guys. How’d that work on your crime rates and popularity?
And it may have been the first thing that Franklin Delano Roosevelt did that endeared him to Americans. He bought them a beer when he repealed prohibition. Anheuser-Busch sent their team of Clydesdales to the White House with a case of Budweiser.
Roosevelt helped guide us through the great depression. He launched the ‘New Deal’, Created the Securities and Exchange Commission to further regulate financial institutions to keep something like this from happening again (hmmmm, where have we heard that before?), started the FDIC to insure against such disasters happening to banks, created the Civilian Conservation Corps to build infrastructure projects across the nation and put people to work (hmmmm, where have we heard that before?). Oh, and all the while kicking Nazi butt and saving the world from imperial domination. Did I mention he was a Democrat?
Congress flipped dramatically Democratic during this period. In fact the 75th Congress had 333 D to 89 R in the House and 75 D to 15 R in the Senate (that’s over 75% since we only had 96 Senators at the time); the largest disparity ever.** This was mostly due to deep recession of 1936-37 blamed on the continued Republican obstruction of Roosevelt’s agenda.
What followed was a period of highly regarded Presidents; all Democrats save Eisenhower. Congress did flip back to the Republicans briefly (likely due to Harry Truman’s unpopularity).*** History has regarded Truman much more amenably. His unpopularity also helped elect Republican Dwight Eisenhower.
But probably one of the most transformative progressive Presidents of our time was Ike’s successor, Democrat John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Kennedy will be remembered for launching us towards the moon, beginning to address the civil rights that had languished for over one hundred years since Lincoln, Saving Berlin from communist rule, Pulitzer Prize winning author, establishing the Peace Corps. Oh, and all the while winning a game of chicken with the Russians over nuclear proliferation in our back yard.
Congress flipped again and would remain in Democratic hands for a generation; the House until 1994 and the Senate until 1980 when Ronald Reagan began the great Republican resurgence.***
Unfortunately, Kennedy, like Lincoln, paid the ultimate political price for being a progressive but it paved the way for another progressive Democratic President, Lyndon Baines Johnson. LBJ would finish what JFK started with civil rights (with more than a little help from Dr. King) and pass the Civil Rights Act knowing full well that it would cost him politically. You may recall his famous prognostication about losing the south for a generation. He also set in motion the groundwork for Environmental Protections that Republicans are fighting to this day. Johnson unfortunately had to wear the albatross of Vietnam around his neck.
What followed Johnson was a repeat of the last half of the nineteenth Century; a string of Republican Presidents who either went down in flames (Nixon) or caused the biggest fundamental shift in government ever (Reagan). It has taken a whole generation to fix what Reagan broke. And we’re not out of the woods yet.
I’m won’t comment on Clinton because I don’t think there has been enough history or scholarly introspection yet. As previously noted, however I do believe George W. Bush may rank right down there with James Buchanan as one of the worst Presidents in American History. I don’t really need a lot of hindsight for that call.
So what does this mean for our current President? In almost every instant in the 20th century, it was a transformative Democratic President who had to clean up a mess left behind by a Republican administration. Obama is no different. Will he seek a second term? Who knows? Would he win a second term? Probably. It likely depends on how effective the propaganda arm of the Republican Party (FOX) spins the message.
There were two progressive Republican Presidents in Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. And I suspect there was a fundamental shift in what we consider Republican values after Roosevelt. The rest of the transformative, progressives have all been Democrats. Wilson, FDR, JFK, LBJ, and now, BHO. Obama has done more in his two years than most any other Republican placeholder, save Reagan. He, like other influential progressive Presidents, knew it would cost him political capital yet he made choices that were necessary for the country and not so much for his career. That’s what we need in leaders. People who do what is needed and not what is politically expedient. And the Republicans know it. They fear Obama not because of his popularity, but because they know he is that transformative President that represents a threat to the way things have always been done. We sent him to Washington to change the way things get done in there. And he is doing just that. He is our President and this is how Democracy, with a capital ‘D’ works.
All Presidential trivia courtesy Wikipedia