By Dr. Jennifer Mercieca
On October 3, Republican Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy was ousted by his own party, becoming the only Speaker in American history to be vacated from the office. That was the same day former president Donald Trump was gagged by New York Judge Arthur Engoron for making threats on his social media account against Engoron’s clerk. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden steadfastly worked hard for the American people, including announcing a big Medicare drug price reduction plan on October 3 and a $9 billion student loan forgiveness package on October 4, two policy achievements that should save Americans both old and young big money on their monthly expenses.
But you didn’t hear much about Biden’s successes for the American people, did you? To repeat a funny/not-funny meme: “McCarthy was vacated and Trump was gagged, why that’s bad news for Joe Biden.”
While the Republican Party uses the chaos and outrage spectacle to dominate our public sphere, Biden’s presidential achievements receive little attention. That’s the goal of the chaos and outrage spectacle, of course, to dominate and control the public conversation and, in turn, the public’s perception of reality. Unfortunately, it works.
Here is a fact: Biden’s presidency has been highly successful, perhaps one the most successful in American history. According to how historians and political scientists think about presidential power, Biden will likely be remembered as one of our nation’s “great” presidents. Will he be re-elected? I can’t say (and no one else can either), but whether he serves a second term or not won’t determine how history judges his time in office.
Historians and political scientists (and all Americans) are regularly asked to rank the presidents. The first poll was conducted in 1948 by historian Arthur M. Schlesinger and published in Life Magazine. Schlesinger was an advocate for a stronger Executive Branch and his polls helped to shape how Americans thought about presidential power. “The great Presidents were strong Presidents,” he wrote in 1948, “Each of them magnified the executive branch at the expense of the other branches of the government.”
The presidency was to be powerful, which made sense in a world defined by the president's ability to destroy humanity by launching nuclear war. And the president was to be a hero. “The heroic leader has the Promethean responsibility to affirm human freedom against the supposed inevitabilities of history,” historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., explained in 1963. Prometheus stole fire from the Gods—we’re not talking about a little bit of responsibility; we're talking about a lot of responsibility.
The presidents’ responsibility was to protect and defend the Constitution and maintain a stable nation and stable foreign alliances. According to historian Sean Wilentz the “great” presidents were “presented with arduous, at times seemingly impossible circumstances,” but even given those crises, “they rallied the nation, governed brilliantly and left the republic more secure than when they entered office.”
Three presidents routinely sit at the top of the presidential rankings: Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. They each guided the nation through its greatest crises—Civil War, the nation’s Founding, and the Great Depression—so it’s no surprise that we remember them fondly.
But there have been other crises in our nation’s history. What happened to those presidents?
Those are our “failure” presidents. The ones who failed to right the ship of state and set the nation back on course in the aftermath of crisis—or, worse, caused the national crisis themselves. Historians regularly rate Warren G. Harding, James Buchanan, and Herbert Hoover as calamitous failure presidents who did not avert crisis.
Typically, a president who follows a "calamitous leader" (like FDR followed Hoover or Lincoln followed Buchanan) has the chance to be remembered as "great." We've certainly had crises over the last few presidencies--9/11, the 2008 global financial collapse, a worldwide pandemic and financial slump, climate catastrophes, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Those crises created the opportunity to demonstrate presidential greatness for George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden.
It’s too soon to tell for sure, but at this point in history Bush and Trump are both ranked near the bottom (Trump has been ranked in one of the bottom three spots in the four rankings done since 2016) while Obama and Biden are ranked much higher (Obama’s average ranking places him about 12th).
Trump will absolutely be remembered by history as a calamitous failure of a president who left the nation worse off than he found it. Trump’s record is distinguished only for his failures: Twice impeached for high crimes in office, his catastrophic pandemic response, his threats toward and diminution of our foreign alliances and American soft power, his gutting of government functions, his unfunded tax cuts which ran up an additional $7.8 trillion in national debt, and he’s the only president in our nation’s history who prevented the peaceful transfer of power.
That means Biden is a leader who is governing during "stormy times," one who is following a "calamitous failure" of a president. If the nation survives, Biden likely will be credited with heroically saving it. He has the chance to be remembered within the heroic frame, as a great president (he’s currently ranked 19th in the only survey done since he took office).
Now, does Biden deserve to be remembered heroically? It's hard to see within the noise of the daily chaos and outrage spectacle, but Biden has done solid work to rebuild our foreign alliances and American soft-power. His domestic agenda is packaged as “Build Back Better” and it’s an ambitious plan to fund protecting the environment, rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure, and investing in US science and manufacturing in ways that should protect jobs and the environment. He's supported families and worker’s rights, and the economy (based on jobs numbers) has literally never been better.
There are still problems, but the general tenor of his presidency is as a rebuilder (of alliances, the economy, democracy, and infrastructure) and as a problem solver—the opposite of calamitous. Are all of our nation’s problems solved? Absolutely not, but he’s accomplished a lot to avert the calamities caused by Trump’s presidential failures.
My guess is that history will remember the Biden presidency fondly. He may even be "great" someday. If this isn't the story that you're hearing about Biden's presidency--then ask yourself why isn't it? It’s likely, because of clicks and algorithms, that accurate, undramatic assessments are more challenging to find, but it’s essential we find them. It’s equally imperative that we consider what we are consuming and ask are you giving your valuable attention to the chaos and outrage spectacle?