There they go again. The good professors at Quinnipiac University -- a college that no one can find on a map but which apparently is very good at ice hockey and taking polls -- just released another one of its surveys. This one ranked the best and worst presidents since World War II, about as far back as any folks around nowadays can remember (you know what they say: If you remember the Crash of '29, you weren't really there, man). The results have been getting a lot of play on the news.
Most of the attention has focused on the landslide winner -- and the landslide loser.
One of them is a president who raised taxes almost every year of his presidency (some 11 times in all), increased the size of the federal government, presided over an era of mushrooming debt, saw unemployment top 10 percent during his presidency, made secret deals with a terrorist regime, "cut and run" from another foreign engagement after American casualties, offered amnesty to undocumented immigrants, signed the paperwork to outlaw torture, and nearly gave away America's nuclear dominance at a summit meeting.
The other one is the "worst American president" since World War II -- Barack Obama.
Yes, despite all the flaws listed above, Ronald Reagan (you can't see, but I'm crossing myself right now, just like Jon Stewart would) was the runaway victor, with 35 percent calling him the greatest president of the last 69 years, far ahead of No. 2 (Bill Clinton) and No. 3 (JFK.)
Obama was named the worst president by 33 percent (almost identical to Reagan's "best" numbers...heh, interesting -- more on that in a second). Look, I've been clear about a number of flaws in Obama and in his presidency. On the policy front, he's operated the least transparent presidency since Nixon; he's kowtowed to the national security apparatus and continued or worsened some of the worst policies that began under Bush/Cheney, including expanding unwarranted spying and an unaccountable drone assassination program. The scandalous operation of the Veterans Administration is a black mark on his record as a manager. On a personal level, I think his aloof and standoffish style is a big reason why his approval numbers are in the tank. It wouldn't hurt if he picked up the phone and at least pretended to be friendly with someone in Congress every once in a while.
On the other hand, Obama wasn't the guy who started or escalated a war under bogus pretenses -- that was two different presidents, LBJ and Bush the Younger. Obama wasn't the guy who ran an illegal spying, dirty tricks and worse operation from the Oval Office and used the CIA and the FBI to over it up -- that was Richard Nixon. Obama didn't let Wall Street run wild and then watch the world's economy crash and burn -- that was George W. Bush (wasn't he here before?). Putting aside other presidential actions that were also pretty bad (Reagan's Iran-contra scandal leaps to mind) I don't know how you place POTUS 44 anywhere among that rogue's gallery of presidential portraits.
We can't fully judge Obama's presidency until it's over, of course, but so far there's been no recession under his watch, the stock market has risen over 100 percent, unemployment has steadily declined (albeit not as quickly as you or I would like), the federal budget deficit has been cut in half, the U.S. military misadventures abroad are winding down (well, they were), the rate of Americans without health insurance has plunged, and the rights of gay Americans have expanded in ways that are historic. That may not make him the best president. But it's a record that lacks the obvious hallmarks of someone you would call the worst -- recession, rising employment, out of control spending, reckless wars, or high crimes in the Oval Office.
Polls like this Quinnipiac survey really tell us nothing about the presidents. In 2014, not many (myself included) remember the president who could make a solid case for the best record in the post-war era....a Republican, Dwight Eisenhower. Ike was a general who knew the horrors of war and kept America out of them, warning famously about the dangers of the military-industrial complex. He was far from perfect -- his CIA ran wild from Guatemala to the Congo to Iran, the latter with devastating long-term consequences -- but Ike also built the interstate highway system (can you imagine Congress passing that today?) and showed solid if slow judgment to defuse a crisis in Little Rock.
But that record only got Eisenhower named by 5 percent -- partly because so few remember him and partly Democrats think "Republican" while Republicans think "not Reagan." But mainly because no one is blaring his praises from your TV set...
...on a network like the Fox News Channel.
Yes, the crosstabs for the Quinnipiac poll showed that the 35 percent picking Reagan as the best president and the 33 percent picking Obama as the worst are for the most part the same people -- white older conservatives, the demographic of folks who are sitting on their couch watching hours of Fox News when they're not driving around in their SUVs listening to Rush Limbaugh.They are so proud to groupthink as "dittoheads," just like their dittohead political leaders who are afraid in a debate to name anyone else beside Ronaldus Magnus -- even Republican Abraham Lincoln, for God's sake! -- as their favorite president.
As I laid out in detail in my book "Tear Down This Myth" a few years back, Reagan's popularity is very much the product of a calculated PR campaign by insiders -- the same lobbyists and craven political leaders who spend the rest of their day trying to tear down Obama. The Quinnipaic poll tells us absolutely nothing about presidents -- and everything about the power of propaganda in an electronic age.
And the poll is silly for another reason. Name almost every American president and I'll tell you why he was great and why he was was terrible. FDR? Passed the New Deal and stood up to Axis aggression, yet he put innocent Japanese-Americans in camps and wanted to pack the Supreme Court. Lincoln? Won the Civil War, while suspending the writ of habeas corpus. LBJ? How much time do you have? All presidents are humans -- with good qualities and with deep flaws. The only thing that is truly perfect is our neverending quest to bend the moral arc of the universe in the right direction. That transcends the man -- and eventually the woman -- who occupies the White House. Stories like this Quinnipiac survey are just a distraction -- and not an especially helpful one.