According to a new Quinnipiac University poll, a plurality of voters believe Barack Obama is the worst president since World War II. The poll also found that 45 percent of voters believe the United States would have been better off if Mitt Romney was managing our plutocracy. Let’s concede that living under any president is going to be a bit of a downer, and so the ones freshest in our memories are liable to be thought of as the worst – Obama and George W Bush, in this case. That’s not to say those aren’t two strong contenders, they are, but since the numbers are split along partisan lines let’s give it a few years.
What is worth noting now, though, is that the two most conservative presidents Americans have lived under since World War II remain dependably popular with voters. And not just in this poll. Contemporary Republicans always overwhelming chose Reagan, whose conservative message changed American politics for decades. And the top choice for Democrats, in this poll and others, is Bill Clinton, who, despite bringing some big liberal ideas, earthy debauchery and all manner of corruption to the Oval Office, presided over a thriving economy, declared the era of big government over and signed more consequential conservative legislative than any president since – and perhaps, anyone before him.
Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Defense of Marriage Act.
General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
Bills deregulating the financial (including the repeal of Glass–Steagall) and telecommunications industries.
North American Free Trade Agreement.
Spending. During an era of economic expansion, federal spending under Bill Clinton averaged 19.8 percent of GDP (falling as low 18.3 percent at one point). In contrast, President Obama’s spending has averaged around 24 percent of GDP during the worst recovery in American history, the highest average since FDR was trying to win World War II.
Obviously, not all of the policies above are equally impressive to all conservatives, and certainly Clinton, unlike Obama, often felt compelled to engage in compromise with the House GOP. Without rendering judgment about policy, you could ask: would any of these items be tolerable to today’s Democratic Party in any form today? It seems unlikely. So considering this history, Obama’s recent assertion that if Republicans didn’t “back” to the center they would never win the presidency again, seems to be based on some faulty evidence. The GOP may never win again, and this may well be an ideological problem, but if they moved back to the traditional “center” they’d be pretty lonely. The center is always shifting, of course, but the idea that conservatives have gone off the rails while Democrats have remained stubbornly grounded in moderation isn’t supported by history. These days, after all, conservatives are busy (poorly) defending the Clinton Administration’s legacy. This isn’t particularly constructive for the GOP, but it’s certainly not as radical as you’ve been led to believe. We love Bill Clinton, right?
It should be noted that the third most favored president is John F. Kennedy, with 15 percent of the vote. He, it has been argued by Ira Stoll and others, was also predominantly a conservative. Whether this is true or not, there are many presidents liberals would be more ideologically comfortable admiring: Nixon (Environmental Protection Agency, Consumer Protection Agency and support for universal health insurance) and Eisenhower (infrastructure spending) and Truman (original Fair Deal) and Bush I (taxes, war done right), but we still idealize Kennedy for obvious reasons. A few years back, a Gallup poll actually ranked Kennedy fourth when Americans were asked to name the greatest president of all time. Kennedy absurdly came in ahead of George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson.
But not better than Ronald Reagan or Abraham Lincoln. Or, for that matter, Bill Clinton.