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On the evening of the New Hampshire Primary in 2008, after he had come in a close second to the woman who would eventually become his 1st Secretary of State, then-Senator Barack Obama addressed a crowd of his supporters in Nashua to reassure them that sometimes second place is victory and that their drive and determination in bolstering his campaign would bear fruit. This was almost five and a half years ago, a time before the Great Recession, when we thought that the two seemingly endless wars, the erosion of our civil liberties and the greatest natural disaster was the worst of George W. Bush’s legacy to us. It was also the time when the limpid exhaustion of our faith in government was found by the Obama campaign and nursed back to health like a foundling rescued from some Dickensian hovel. Those selfsame Chicago streets that saw the blood of innocents splattered upon them by Daley’s thugs back in ’68 had given us a new candidate who brought with him a Kennedy-esque sense of mission and purpose.

Then-candidate Obama speaking at a rally in Nashua after the 2008 New Hampshire Primary

In January of 2008, we cried out for something to latch on to that could make us believe that this time would be different—that this time our voices wouldn’t sputter out into the gloam of the American experiment. Barack Obama knew how we felt and he rose to glory on a wave of hope and change, focus grouping his way to the Presidency of the United States of America. He knew what we wanted and he gave accordingly, which is why in the wee hours of that New Hampshire morning, he turned to his faithful and told them, “We’ve been asked to pause for a reality check. We’ve been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope,” pausing just long enough to let the siren’s song of that replenishing word sink in, before continuing, “But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.” And so, in lockstep with that quintessentially American narrative that conflates possibility with reality and glorifies the exception at the expense of the rule, Obama tapped into our need to believe that a man or woman egocentric enough to run for President would also be selfless enough to sacrifice his political capital for the welfare of his people. The first time around, we believed him because he was the agent of change we’d all been waiting for. The second time around, we believed him because we couldn’t bear the thought of believing anything else.

Considering that they were both lanky, oratorically gifted Senators from Illinois, I suppose the comparisons between Obama and Abraham Lincoln, were inevitable. Even before the Iowa Caucuses had officially set off the race for the Democratic nomination in 2008, prominent historians and pundits were already comparing the two men. The fact that Obama has frequently voiced his admiration of the Illinois Rail-Splitter and used one of his bibles in each of his inaugurals probably didn’t help matters either, but I think it’s safe to say that someone as historically conscious as President Obama certainly aspires to be remembered in the same class of Commanders in Chief as Lincoln. The only problem is that, after a full term and change in office, Lincoln has actually come off looking more like Ulysses S. Grant.

Now, when I say that Obama’s presidency has born a great many similarities to Grant’s, I don’t mean it in terms of the leadership styles or policies, nor do I mean it as an insult. As a native Ohioan, I have soft spot for U.S. Grant on account of his being arguably the greatest President to ever come out of The Buckeye State, a distinction that is both a legitimate and a backhanded compliment. Ohio can claim that it holds the record for having the most Presidents born within its borders than any other state in the union, but it can’t really say that any of them were that great at the job(1). What this adds up to is that Grant was a top-flight leader in a sub-par subsection of Presidential history, but was pretty much the definition of mediocrity when you include everybody else. On Nate Silver’s recent meta-analysis of Presidential rankings, Ulysses S. Grant came as close to the statistical middle of the pack as you get, checking in as the 23rd best President in our nation’s history(2). He doesn’t fair as well in the rarified air reserved for two-term Presidents, but he isn’t scraping the bottom by any means either. Grant ranks 16th among the 19 US Presidents to have served two terms, but he manages to avoid inclusion in the triumvirate of shame down at the bottom of the list, which consists of Calvin Coolidge (27th), Richard Nixon (29th), and George W. Bush (38th).

Advertisement for President Grant’s reelection campaign in 1872

Ultimately, Ulysses S. Grant was a competent President who showed flashes of greatness and occasions for disgrace in equal measure. After a mercifully brief and oppressive interlude with Andrew Johnson after Lincoln’s death, Grant reestablished the federal government’s commitment to civil rights by passing the 15th Amendment, protecting African American suffrage, signing The Civil Rights Act of 1875 and using a combination of legislation and military force to break up the nascent development of the Ku Klux Klan. At the same time, Grant oversaw one of the most corrupt administrations in US history, a dubious distinction that is evidenced by an alarming 11 scandals in the federal government over his eight years in office. Granted, none of the scandals directly involved Grant in any way, but they were indicative of a larger culture of nepotism and under-the-table activity that would cast a pall over some of his accomplishments.

Over the past week or so, the Obama Administration has come under tremendous scrutiny for their association with or involvement in the IRS’s targeting of Tea Party groups and the Department of Justice’s seizure of AP phone records, scrutiny which is not unreasonable. Unlike the GOP’s obsessive-compulsive witch hunt concerning the attack in Benghazi, both of these incidents warrant the public’s outrage and should be remedied in a just and timely matter. No matter how severely you dislike a given group or how much you are appalled by the widespread misuse of the non-profit label for tax purposes, it is still unconscionable to pinpoint a specific ideology for IRS scrutiny while refraining from cranking up the heat on everyone else. Likewise, it’s not constitutional for an administration to steal phone records for more than 20 separate lines from a major news source and neuter the 1st amendment in the process.

“Hold on now, I’m nowhere near as bad a the last guy. Perspective, please.”

All of that being said, these scandals aren’t earth shattering. The IRS has been used as a political tool for decades and government has tried to encroach on the rights of the press for as long as there has been one. Anyone describing President Obama’s actions as Nixonian needs to sit down and breathe into a brown paper bag until the vein in their foreheads stops throbbing uncontrollably. When Obama starts trying to break into Republican National Headquarters, secretly bugs everything that happens in the Oval Office and gets so knock-down, drag-out drunk that he can’t talk to David Cameron and deal with a crisis in the middle east, then you can call the man Nixonian.

At this point in his presidency, Barack Obama hasn’t been bad enough to be considered a failure, but he hasn’t been good enough to be labeled a success. 2016 is a long ways away, but if his first term mirrors his second term, then he won’t escape the confines of mediocrity that he so desperately wants to avoid. During the Bush years, I remember telling folks that all I really wanted from my next President is someone who wouldn’t embarrass America on the international stage, someone who possesses competence, and someone who doesn’t make things worse. By and large, President Obama has met these expectations, but I’m not satisfied. I suppose it’s because the Bush years were like being in an abusive relationship that you desperately wanted to get out of, but you didn’t know how, and the Obama years have been like dating somebody who never answers your calls and has the sexual proficiency of a bag of Grape Nuts. When you’re with the abusive partner who makes your life a living hell, you’d give anything just to be with somebody who wasn’t that attentive and bad in bed. But, once you’ve gotten out of the awful relationship and have your life back, you realize that you don’t want a romantically challenged and often absent partner either. Candidate Obama promised us the world. He made us believe that he could transform Washington DC and make it work for the people instead having it work people over. However, President Obama has taken the hope and the change that he campaigned on and turned it into dour acceptance and stasis. We were led to believe we were getting Lincoln and we got Grant. We got average.


1. Of the 8 Ohio-born Presidents, 3 died in office during their 1st term (William Henry Harrison, James A. Garfield and Warren G. Harding), 1 died during his 2nd term in office (William McKinley), 1 won The White House without winning the popular vote (Rutherford B. Hayes), 1 left virtually no historical footprint, and 2 are remembered more for positions they held outside of The White House (Ulysses S. Grant and William Howard Taft).

2. For what it’s worth, George H.W. Bush was ranked as the 22nd best POTUS in history, securing his place (for now) with Grant as our Nation’s most average President.

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Comment Preferences

  •  All that just to get in a dig on the AP (7+ / 0-)

    semi-scandal?  The one you call "unconstitutional" but is most definitely not?

    Really, not worth reading at all.

    "The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason." - Thomas Paine

    by shrike on Sat May 18, 2013 at 02:36:07 PM PDT

  •  meh (26+ / 0-)

    first president in forever to pass healthcare reform, averted a depression, ended the Iraq War, ending the Afghanistan War, OBL dead, made the tax code substantially more progressive, carbon emissions plummeting, alternative energy showing impressive growth, deficit plummeting, economy slowly but surely on the mend, did more for LBGT than all prior presidents combined, started no new wars... and, just as importantly IMO, has been a really classy guy with a really classy family.  He's an excellent role model. I'm cynical about politicians but I find Obama to be a genuine man of integrity.  

    Obama aint perfect but I think sometimes we get too bogged down in the details and fail to see the larger picture.  Obama has had some extremely important successes, and he will go down as a very good president.    

    •  There are things in Obama's legacy (3+ / 0-)

      to criticize, legitimately. In this comment you do a pretty decent job of the glass-is-half-full (where it was not only empty, but bone-dry before).

      It's here they got the range/ and the machinery for change/ and it's here they got the spiritual thirst. --Leonard Cohen

      by karmsy on Sat May 18, 2013 at 03:26:15 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  LBJ's Medicare more Consequential than... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      the President's HCR.

      CO2 emissions are plunging thanks to fracking, and I applaud the President for enabling 4 dollars per BTU natural gas.

      One area for improvement is the median wage, which has decreased during his tenure.

      Perhaps he should propose an increase of 3K in the Earned Income Tax Credit, applicable to all workers earning under 100K per year.

      What will the President's legacy be?

      Too soon to tell.  President Clinton presided over the creation of 22M net jobs an a substantial increase in the median wage.

      If the President does sign off on a grand bargain that cuts Social Security, I can't see how he would be ranked above Clinton.

      Learn about Centrist Economics, learn about Robert Rubin's Hamilton Project.

      by PatriciaVa on Sat May 18, 2013 at 04:09:35 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Consider the Disasters Brought Onto Us By 2010 (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Mr Robert, Geenius at Wrok

    that epic fail deserves to be factored into any assessment. The only chance Obama ever had at doing serious good for the country went out the window with his and the party's motivational failures culminating in the election.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Sat May 18, 2013 at 03:06:13 PM PDT

    •  We should all just go back to bed, (0+ / 0-)

      and forget about it, is what you're saying?

      The only chance Obama ever had at doing serious good for the country went out the window with his and the party's motivational failures culminating in the election.
      If you're attempting historical analysis, such global, fatalistic language isn't responsible.

      It's here they got the range/ and the machinery for change/ and it's here they got the spiritual thirst. --Leonard Cohen

      by karmsy on Sat May 18, 2013 at 03:29:49 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Well, seeing that 2010 (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        karmsy, Geenius at Wrok, hardhatmama

        Produced the gridlock we've seen since, the constant debt ceiling battles, sequestration, the offering of chained CPI that was apparently some sort of pre-concession, and any number of other problems that will make 2014 even tougher for Democrats than it would have been otherwise, it's difficult not to acknowledge those mid-terms were a turning point.

        It's been nothing but MISERY since 2010. Yes, Republicans take much of the blame, but Democrats share some of it, too.

        Enabling Republican trolling hasn't gotten them to stop doing it, it's encouraged them to do it more.

        Somebody has to do something, and it's just incredibly pathetic that it has to be us.
        ~ Jerry Garcia

        by DeadHead on Sat May 18, 2013 at 03:47:38 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  No argument to anything you've said (0+ / 0-)

          but there's a qualitative difference between discouraging, fatalistic language (which the commenter above often uses), and a perspective that, while realistic about serious challenges we face, encourages action and involvement.

          It's here they got the range/ and the machinery for change/ and it's here they got the spiritual thirst. --Leonard Cohen

          by karmsy on Sat May 18, 2013 at 05:14:08 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  Over 430 filibusters. The most obstructed (17+ / 0-)

    president in history. In fact, Republican obstruction is so bad, its more filibuster than all president since Grant combined. And despite all that obstruction, the unemployment rate is down to 2008 levels, the deficit is being cut at a rate faster than it did since WWll and tax rates are lower since 1950. Please read Yessir88 above again for some other accomplishment. I would add some, but what we've said should be enough.

    We have a republican congress so obstructive, it borders on treason and yet each time there's a dairy criticizing his performance, they like the MSM totally left out for 4 1/2 years, the history making obstruction and what President Obama has done despite it.

    •  He could have called up Harry Reid (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      WisePiper, Geenius at Wrok, ybruti

      and asked him to change the Senate rules. It is a problem he allowed to continue. He has no one to blame for Senate obstruction other then himself.

      That being said there are many things I consider to be a failure of this administration and a let down of what I once considered had the possibility of being one of the best presidencies in American history - but this diary goes through all this meta crap and fails to list the serious abuses that would actually constitute getting upset about.

      Continuation of Bush Era Policies: Check
      Crack down on Occupy: Check
      Continuation of Domestic Wireless & rise of surveillance state: Check
      Capitulation to Republicans over ACA: Check
      Capitulation to Republicans over Budget: Check
      Adopting Republican Policies: Check
      Offering Social Security & Pursuing a "Grand Betrayal": Check
      Continuation of the war on drugs: Check
      Not prosecuting a single Bush Era Criminal: Check
      Not prosecuting a single Banker: Check
      Drones: Check
      Whistleblower prosecution: Check
      Unprecedented use of the espionage act: Check

      All these are things that one could rightly say would lend to the disappointment that liberals feel with Obama. That you chose to pick the IRS scandal and other nonsense underminds the central thesis of your piece.  

      President Obama would have been a republican in the 1980's & 1990's. Go figure.

      by Tool on Sat May 18, 2013 at 04:28:39 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  "Unemployment is down to 2008 levels" (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      In other words, he's managed to get us back to where we were at near the Bush administration. That's damning with faint praise.

      I may have some words of praise for the president who gets unemployment down to 1998 levels. Though even those were artificially high, thanks to the policies of Alan Greenspan.

      "The great lie of democracy, its essential paradox, is that democracy is the first to be sacrificed when its security is at risk. Every state is totalitarian at heart; there are no ends to the cruelty it will go to to protect itself." -- Ian McDonald

      by Geenius at Wrok on Sat May 18, 2013 at 06:57:03 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  GOP...Get Obama out Party. n/t (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      second gen
  •  Mao was asked once (11+ / 0-)

    whether he thought the French Revolution was a success. He answered "It's too soon to tell".

    American presidents don't get quite that much leeway, but I'd say the first of the bunch to treat LGBT Americans as equals deserves more than average.

    Fuck me, it's a leprechaun.

    by MBNYC on Sat May 18, 2013 at 03:20:25 PM PDT

  •  The passage of ACA for the first time in about 70 (3+ / 0-)

    to 100 years, whether we got what we wanted on the first bill, deserves more than average. What the congress got and what we didn't have before it, was the right by congress to continue reforming health care like every bills for the unforeseen future. If ACA hadn't passed, we would be at least 100 years behind.

  •  But Obama is an EXCELLENT 1980s Republican. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    What we need is a Democrat in the White House.

    by expatjourno on Sat May 18, 2013 at 03:53:51 PM PDT

  •  There is no evidence (7+ / 0-)

    of the involvement of the Obama administration in the IRS scandal.
    And now we're finding out that of the 300 501c4 applications that were given extra scrutiny, only 72 of them were groups with "tea party" in their name, 11 were "9/12" groups, and 13 were" patriot" groups.

    “If the targeting wasn’t targeting, if the targeting wasn’t based on philosophy, how come only conservatives got snagged?” Roskam confidently asked.

    “They didn’t, sir,” Miller responded. “Organizations of all walks and all persuasions were pulled in. That’s shown by the fact that only 70 of the 300 organizations were tea party organizations, of the ones that were looked at by TIGTA [Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration].”

    Roskam angrily cut off Miller and asserted his statement was at odds with the inspector general’s testimony, then ended his questioning.

    But Treasury inspector general J. Russell George testified during the hearing that no evidence indicated the additional review of the 300 groups was politically or ideologically motivated. He blamed the incident on mismanagement.

    “We are not a nation that says ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ We are a nation that says ‘out of many, we are one.’” -Barack Obama

    by skohayes on Sat May 18, 2013 at 03:58:04 PM PDT

  •  And.....He Was Handed Such A Good Deal (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Lost and Found, Yasuragi, jan4insight

    An economic crisis, a disastrous housing market, two wars, terrorists, a whooper of a national debt, skyrocketing healthcosts, & obstructionist Republicans.

    What?  This is all he's accomplished?  How dare he!

  •  Chirp chirp chirp chirp chirp chirp (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    VickiL, jan4insight, doroma
  •  Speaking of average... n/t (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Tool, jan4insight

    Democracy, if done properly, is rude, messy, and loud

    by allensl on Sat May 18, 2013 at 05:33:12 PM PDT

  •  I wonder what you'd be saying if (0+ / 0-)

    Obama didn't run.  Chances are that Hillary wouldn't have won and we'd have McCain.

    The religious fanatics didn't buy the republican party because it was virtuous, they bought it because it was for sale

    by nupstateny on Sat May 18, 2013 at 06:28:29 PM PDT

  •  Unless he was a dictator (0+ / 0-)

    President Obama has done a good job considering what he is up against.  Truth is, if he was a dictator he might get more done but we don't have that kind of system here.  He will be seen as a good President.  Had he had a Democratic Congress, he would have gotten a lot more done.  As for Lincoln, wasn't there a Civil War going on during his time?  Weren't thousands killed?  Our President has ended wars.  And what about health care?  President Obama has been better than most and yes, he does care about the middle class.  But all Presidents have to work within the system of the corporate state.  Just think how frustrating it must be.  As for the scandals, they are a distraction.  We should be focusing on real problems, such as the disparity of wealth, poverty, closing Gitmo, building roads and bridges, raising minimum wage, education, etc.  This IRA thing, while not good, didn't kill anyone (like so many of wars do).  Once again, overblown and distractions.  Let's get back to focusing on what matters.

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