Election Day is coming in 3 days. Whoever your candidate, whatever your position on issues, get out there and vote. It's an important election. It's your right and responsibility to be aware and to participate. If you don't quit bitching about the results.
Now, having said that, I float a proposition. I have a friend, affectionately known as Attorney Freedom for his propensity for right wing talk radio talking points. He's reached a point where he thinks Obama is likely to win and the Democrats pick up seats in Congress. He's worried about what that means for the US because he listens to the aforementioned talking heads, though he's expanded to TV and bloggers to further damage his brain. As a result he subscribes to such unfounded notions as Democrats being socialists, communists or environmental and social totalitarians. This got me to thinking. Not just about how W ranks as one of the worst presidents in US history (up there with Buchanan, Hoover, Grant and JQ Adams), but also about what a President Obama might mean for the US. Well, really, he asked me what Obama will do, but this got me to thinking about presidents in the latter half of the 20th century.
My proposition is that Bill Clinton, one of 4 Democrats elected president, was the best president in the second half of the 20th century. My criteria for that is to consider only the 8 years he was president and to consider the economic state of the country (which is really only marginally effected by the president), the country's position in the world, and the social condition of the population. Using those criteria, my three candidates for best president since 1950 are Eisenhower, Reagan and Clintion. Not only did each serve 2 complete terms, and were the only ones to do so in those 50 years, they each had strong economic times.
Eisenhower had the advantage of the post war industrial boom. Being the only industrial economy, other than Canada, that wasn't bombed into the stone age by WWII certainly gave us a leg up. Ike didn't really have anything to do with that, but he did institute the interstate highways that helped facilitate it further. He also continued the Truman policy of containment of the USSR, which meant working closely with our NATO allies. On the other hand, he had the communist witch hunts, a CIA that had a propensity for toppling freely elected governments if they weren't in our pocket, and a generally repressive society that was only seeing the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement. While Ike had some good points, and warning against the military industrial complex was certainly one of the high ones, his negatives of international adventurism (though clandestine) and rigid social stratification are big. Even his warning about the military industrial complex was only made as he was heading out the door. And the gift of the Bay of Pigs invasion plan that he left JFK was one hell of a booby prize.
Reagan brought a sunny outlook that had been missing for more than a decade, and the economy made a significant recovery from his first few years and the stagnation that had preceded him. He also worked closely with allies to contain the USSR and made it clear that containment would continue indefinitely when doubts had arisen due to the Vietnam debacle. He used the economic engine to outspend the USSR, essentially bankrupting the USSR. But he also used race to bait disaffected white voters with tales of welfare queens and none too subtle appeals to "state's rights". His AG, Ed Meese, conducted a war on the First Amendment with a policy centerpiece of prosecuting pornagraphy, which lead to the creation of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, conversely. His cozying up to the religious right created a tacit approval of violent tactics against abortion clinics and attempts to pack the Supreme Court with ideologues rather than jurists. He talked up tax cuts and smaller government, but he enlarged government spending and raised taxes. He did work with a Democratic congress and significantly revamped the income tax code, though.
Clinton had the luck of being president when the Cold War was over and the issue of terrorism, particularly Islamic terrorism, had not arisen. Nonetheless, he did work with US allies around the world to promote capitalism, free trade and generally open societies but didn't try to force it on anyone at the point of a gun. The incursion as peace keepers in Somalia was ill considered and a public relations disaster, not to mention a waste of the lives of the servicemen killed in Mogadishu. However, he learned that lesson and handled the Bosnia and Kosovo crises well. Economically, the US was in a boom period. Again, he didn't really have much to do with creating it, but he didn't hobble it, either. Socially, he wins hands down. Disparities between wealthy and poor were reduced. Ethnic divisions were significantly lessened, and real welfare reform helped thousands, if not millions, get off welfare and into productive occupations.
It's really luck to a large extent for presidents, but an ability to address the issues of the time effectively are equally important. W may have been a decent president if he'd been elected during Clinton's years, but he wasn't and he was the wrong man for the times he faced.
My ranking, then, for the presidents of the last 50 years of the 20th century are:
4) Truman (only 3 years as president in this time frame, but better than the rest of the candidates)
5) GHW Bush
The last three are hard to say who's worst. Johnson and Nixon had some really significant accomplishments, such as the Civil Rights Act and detente with China but got bogged down in quagmires of their own making. Carter had no leadership ability whatsoever. I suppose they're all really a tie for worst. Truman and Bush could easily be switched, too. They share the misfortune of being under appreciated when they were president but being recognized for their accomplishments later.
Now, go vote.