James Fallows of the Atlantic has a 12,000 word piece that takes a thoughtful look at Barack Obama as the end of his first term approaches, comparing and contrasting him with his predecessors and trying to assess his strengths and weaknesses.
We judge presidents by the specific expectations they ask to be measured against: inspiration (Kennedy, Reagan, Obama), competence and experience (Eisenhower, the first George Bush), strategic cunning (Johnson, Nixon), integrity and personal probity (Carter), inclusiveness and empathy (Clinton), unshakable resolve (the second Bush). But eventually each is judged against his predecessors, a process that properly starts with a reminder that all begin their terms ill-equipped, in ways that hindsight tends to obscure.
The sobering realities of the modern White House are: All presidents are unsuited to office, and therefore all presidents fail in certain crucial aspects of the job. All betray their supporters and provoke bitter criticism from their own side at some point in their term. And all are mis-assessed while in office, for reasons that typically depend more on luck and historical accident than on factors within their control. These realities do not excuse Obama’s failings, but they do put his evolution in perspective.
Mr Fallows, who was Jimmy Carter’s head speech writer for a while, has seen presidencies succeed and fail.
A new president’s first term is usually an experiment in seeing which weak point will limit everything else he does. George W. Bush was disciplined and decisive but not sufficiently informed or inquisitive. Bill Clinton was informed and inquisitive but was nearly driven from office because he was not personally disciplined. George H. W. Bush was disciplined and informed but could not seem empathetic or visionary. Ronald Reagan was eloquent and decisive but less and less attentive to the analytic part of his job. You can take the list back a very long way. Many presidents who survive to a second term and thereby attain the ultimate in political success see their preexisting failings bear worse fruit. Impeachment for Bill Clinton, Iran-Contra for Ronald Reagan, impeachment and resignation for Richard Nixon, and so on.
Mr Fallows has several follow-up posts about some of the responses he has had to his analysis, here and here. He also intends to post some of his materials that didn’t find their way into the finished piece.
Whatever your opinion of Mr Obama, I think this article is worth reading.