Obama’s Preference: Ethically Correct, Historically Impossible

“I’d rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president,” President Obama told Diane Sawyer. That is the right attitude, unquestionably. It correctly places responsibility over popularity, accountability over expediency, courage and conviction over cowardice, and generally endorses ethics and duty over unethical considerations.

The statement is admirable, but interestingly, almost completely unrealistic. For historically it has proven virtually impossible for a one-term President to be good, or even successful.

All of the highest-ranked presidents—Washington, Lincoln, Jackson, both Roosevelts, Truman,  Reagan…Wilson, if you’re a historian who’s not bothered by his blatant racism and responsibility for World War II—served more than one term, though Truman and Teddy Roosevelt did not quite serve two terms, having achieved their first though the death of their predecessor. Almost all of the lowest-ranked—Buchanan, Pierce, Harding, Carter, Andrew Johnson, Fillmore, Van Buren, Benjamin Harrison, Garfield, Hayes, Arthur, John Quincy Adams—served one term or less. J.F.K. is usually ranked highly despite only three years in office, but that is something of an Elvis effect, reflecting his potential and tragic assassination rather than concrete accomplishments.

There is, in fact, only one U.S. President who could accurately be Obama’s model of a “good one-term president,” and that is the peculiar James K. Polk, who achieved all of his stated goals after becoming Chief Executive, retired after one term in office, and promptly died. Even he was arguably more successful than good, starting a divisive war with Mexico to nab its territory, and exacerbating the conflict over slavery while making sure that the United States finally stretched from “sea to shining sea.”

We should all cheer the President’s ethical determination to lead according to what he thinks is best for the country, regardless of what it does to his re-election chances. History tells us, however, that if he is a good president, he will be a two-term president, and if he only serves one term, it will be because he wasn’t good enough.

4 thoughts on “Obama’s Preference: Ethically Correct, Historically Impossible

    • You’ll have to read the political opinion blogs for that; it’s not my topic. I have opinions on that like anyone else, but the site is about ethics. Tempting as it is to get off track, I try to resist, and no, I don’t always succeed.

  1. Is it just me, or is there a bit of amphibole going on here. Among other things, “Good” can mean “ethical” or “effective”, at least in the context I see in your comments. President Obama’s statement seems to be using the former meaning, but your commentary seems to be using the latter.

    For example, my memory of former President Carter’s administration is that he was, and is, an ethical man, but possibly not as effective as he could be. The inclusion of his name amongst those of other presumably ineffective presidents may be true, but is it relevent to judging President Obama’s assertion?

    Isn’t your analysis an apples and oranges comparison?

    • I think it’s just you. President Obama’s contrast was between “good” and “mediocre,” which I think settled the issue. Both refer to effectiveness, and success, however it is measured, rather than virtue. I’d say the vast majority of U.S. Presidents were “good” men. Some who were not especially good men were great or very well-regarded presidents (Jefferson, FDR, Wilson, JFK and Andrew Jackson lead my character flaw list) and some of the very best men, such as Adams, Pierce, Grant, McKinley, Carter, George H.W. Bush, Ford and especially Hoover, were failures as leaders. If Obama meant good this way, his statement is close to meaningless.

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