The “legacy thing” may be harder than Barack Obama imagines. Beginning his second term, Obama has a focused, though unstated, agenda: to achieve presidential greatness in the eyes of historians and Americans. In this, he will almost certainly fail. He is already a historic president as the first African American to be elected, but there is a chasm between being historic and being great.
Presidents are ultimately judged not by their total record, or by their ability to enact their agendas, or by their popularity. They are judged by whether they get a few very big decisions right or wrong. Lyndon Johnson is mostly remembered for failure in Vietnam; it overshadows the passage of two landmark civil rights bills and approval of Medicare and Medicaid. Richard Nixon is not celebrated for creating the Environmental Protection Agency, expanding food stamps or opening talks with China; Watergate dwarfs all.
These appraisals are made while a president is in office and, more definitively, after he’s left. Does a president’s performance stand the test of time based on what happens later? Did his policies advance or retard the nation’s well-being? Were they wise or simply expedient? Depending on the answers, much else can be forgiven or forgotten, as Robert Merry shows in his engaging book “Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.”