Saturday, January 9, 2010

My Favorite Presidents

Teddy Roosevelt is my favorite US president, for a number of reasons. Thomas Jefferson's #2 - again, for a number of reasons. Then it gets fuzzier: Lincoln, Truman - they were good guys. But in the modern era, my favorite was Ronald Reagan. And I'm thinking that Barack Obama may turn out to be the best President since Reagan. O my God! Do you hear all my liberal friends freaking out for saying that about Reagan? And all my conservative friends forming a lynch mob for saying that about Obama? That's OK - neither group is exactly known for being able to look at things objectively. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't do so....

They say Ronald Reagan was mentally weak and lacked intellectual curiosity - glib and flashy on the outside but with little substance behind the facade; the original "Teflon" President. It was his administration that led us down the path of huge government debt and allowed the rich to extend their wealth to ridiculous levels, always at the expense of average Americans. Ronald Reagan and his policies were a disaster for the country, with negative ramifications that will impact Americans for many years yet to come - the liberals will assure you.

Well, as with most things that are commonly accepted as the truth, there's something behind these sentiments. But also like most other conventional wisdoms, there's more wrong than right with these assertions. I think it's pretty clear that Ronald Reagan was not one of our brightest Presidents. Yet it's also true that the world is absolutely full of really bright people who are big failures, while many of the greatest leaders and doers weren't brainiacs, but merely people who had vision, worked hard, persevered, etc.

Jimmy Carter comes to mind. Carter was surely one of our brightest Presidents. I'm NOT going to call him a failure, because he was a really good man who tried to do good things. But his Presidency WAS a dismal failure; he was the wrong man with the wrong ideas for the time. Reagan, on the other hand, may not have been the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he had big ideas, ideas that were right for the times. "Perk up America! We're a great country and we're coming back! Big government? The problem, not the solution! Communism? You're evil, we're going to end you!" Simplistic, jingoistic, perhaps, but right for the times, and effective! So what that he didn't care much for the details, and left them to his staff? Isn't that what a good leader is supposed to do?

Reagan took over an America suffering from debilitating stagflation - a combination of high unemployment and high inflation. That stagflation was compounded by a deep sense of national funk, "malaise" was the word used back then, and stuck in a 40-year old Cold War. But by the end of his presidency, inflation was virtually non-existent, unemployment was nearing multi-decade lows, the stock market was zooming, and the USSR was on it's last legs. Reagan's critics counter that these things weren't all his doing, and that's true. But his footprint is clearly evident in all of these positive results, at least to those who understand what really happened at the time and who have an open mind.

Yes, federal deficits soared during his administration. Worse yet was the mindset, often traced to his administration, that "deficits don't matter", a way of thinking that was sorely abused by the Bush, Jr. administration. Yet as spelled out in my earlier essay "Income Inequality in America", these deficits were only partly Reagan's fault, with an equal or greater fault lying with the Democratic Congress of the time. Additionally, it should be pointed out that the main area for increased federal spending, per Reagan, was for national defense. I like to think, and you're welcome to disagree if you wish, that ending the Cold War was well worth the deficits he caused in that regard. Economists point out how the end-of-the-Cold-War "dividend" was responsible for a lot of the 1990s and early 2000s prosperity, so no - on a cost/benefit analysis, I don't feel that bad about Reagan's big defense spending. And the truth is: guys like Bush went way off the deep end with their deficit spending. That's NOT the kind of thing Reagan would have approved of by any means, IMO.

Then there's Obama. My right-wing friends are convinced he's a full-on Communist, committed to destroying the Constitution, taking away all our guns, and turning over control of the country to the United Nations. Seriously - that's what these guys believe! It doesn't matter that health care in the US is an absolute disaster, that we've clearly needed to make major changes - that require federal involvement - for many years. It doesn't matter that European nations pay HALF of what we do (per person) for health care, and yet Europeans live longer and have fewer health problems than Americans. It doesn't matter because Obama's a socialist and wants to destroy the American way of life with his health care plan! These people, the ones who say this stuff, are on crack! Do you hear me? CRACK!!!

As far as gun control (and the other things the right-wing is acting rabidly about), I just don't see it. I mean, look - I'm a big time gun rights advocate; I've got lots of guns and use them regularly. But I don't see Obama doing anything more than other centrist-liberals have done over the years. Yeah, he's trying to push through a few things I don't really like, but honestly - the end of the world? I just don't think so.

What I think about the guy is that he's really, really smart. Not just book smart, but street smart, politically smart, common-sense smart, and other kinds of good smart. Part of all his smarts is that he knows where everybody's coming from and is willing to try to work with that. I see Barack Obama as a reasonable centrist, not the ultra-liberal as the rabid right tries to paint him. He seems to me like the kind of guy who really listens to people with opinions that differ from his own, and then honestly try to accommodate their points of view. A lot of you may think I'm naive for that, but obviously I don't think that's the case.

Obama's got a tough job; perhaps the toughest job in the world. His popularity ratings are down, along with the economy and problems in Afghanistan. But those aren't really things of his doing; they're things he inherited from prior administrations. Americans can be real idiots in some ways. The guy comes in to some horrific problems, everybody knows it's going to take a long time to fix them. He makes some good policy moves, there's signs of progress, but the American people don't care. A year later and the problems aren't all gone yet? Well hell, "Obama's a failure! Get rid of the bum!" It's embarrassing, really, to hear people forget the context in which Obama has to govern, and say stuff like that.

But it's early in Obama's presidency. Maybe he will turn out to be a liberal, a bum, an inexperienced darkie (what - you don't think there's any racism behind some of those who dislike him?) taking us down the road to communism. But I think he shows greatness, and I think (hope) that he'll turn out to be a real keeper.
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