America Politics Presidents

The President of My Twenties

Just after Obama was inaugurated in 2009, I wrote a reflection about George W. Bush’s place in my life as “the president of my youth.” I was a junior in college then, and had just voted for the first time. It was my first and only vote for Obama (I voted Libertarian in 2012), but the Obama presidency nevertheless will have spanned most of my twenties.

There’s no proof of this, but I assumed throughout the long 2008 primary campaign that Obama would win. Even when he was down double-digits to Clinton, I got the sense he would pull it out. With John McCain yoked to George W. Bush, whose approval ratings were in the 20s by the end of his administration, I knew he’d have a better chance than Clinton, whose unfavorables would be a liability in the general. (Which was confirmed eight years later.)

The 2008 election was unforgettable: “I inhaled frequently”, Obama winning Iowa, his Philadelphia speech, the “Obama’s an Arab” McCain rally lady, all the SNL skits, the economy crashing, and then Obama finally winning it. I didn’t go down to Grant Park for the victory rally like a lot of my fellow students; I watched the returns in my residence hall lounge, and realized as soon as California and Oregon came in that he had won. And it wasn’t even close.

Also unforgettable was the state of the economy when Obama entered office. *insert “freefall into abyss” emoji\* It’s usually true that presidents get too much blame when the economy is doing badly and too much credit when it is doing well, but the record shows how different the economy looks now compared to how it did then. I’ll leave it to the hacks and wonks to decide how much credit and blame Bush and Obama deserve for the state of their economies, but I’ll take the 2016 numbers over the 2008-09 ones any day.

The rest of Obama’s public record is widely available, thanks to the boom of social media and the ‘Net over the last decade and a half. His presidency was covered more than any other, and his persona was everywhere. Every moment I remember of him can be recalled on YouTube in an instant, sick burns and gaffes and all.

Looking back, many of these moments were in the context of bad news. For every White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech, there was an emotional statement after a gun massacre. For every car ride with Jerry Seinfeld, there was another emotional moment after a gun massacre. For every championship team welcome at the White House, there was another emotional statement after a gun massacre.

But I think the Obama I’ll remember is epitomized in this clip from a PBS town hall, answering a loaded question about gun control:

I imagine in his head he’s screaming “FOR THE MILLIONTH TIME I’M NOT TRYING TO TAKE YOUR GUNS”, but as usual, he takes a cerebral approach to a complicated issue, acknowledging the questioner’s concerns and offering a clear, thoughtful response. I happen to agree with him on this one, though that isn’t always the case. It’s his temperament and intellect that impress me. Ever aware of his position as the first black president—at once a role model and lightning rod—his self-discipline, calm demeanor, and introspective nature were noteworthy.

For some, his temperament was a liability: he was too cool, too wonky, too meek to be an effective president. But I’d venture it was a significant reason why “No Drama” Obama’s two terms were largely scandal-free compared to the Clinton, Bush, and (hooboy…) Trump White Houses. Certainly it got him into trouble at times, whether in his negotiations with Congress during the Obamacare fight or when navigating the imbroglios in the Middle East. But back in 2008, those qualities were immensely appealing compared to the impulsive Texan swagger of the Bush years that did so much damage at home and abroad. That contrast has once again become evident, given the borderline-unhinged personality of the incoming administration.

As with politics in general, it’ll be hard to fairly assess Obama’s administration for a while, until we can see from the bird’s-eye view how the ripples from his actions affected the water. In the meantime we are left to bob in the wake and decide whether we enjoyed the ride or just felt queasy. I could go down the line of consequential events that happened during his tenure and grade his performance, but I suspect every good thing would have its own but. He spearheaded the Affordable Care Act’s needed reform, but yike$. He drew down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but ISIS. He and Hillary took the high road against Trump in 2016, but lost.

So it goes at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the place where Obama nevertheless has remained by all appearances a loving father and husband, an avid reader, and an admirable public servant. Here at the dusk of one administration and the dawn of another, that is what I’ve been grateful for, and hope against hope to see in the future.

Books History Presidents Review

Rutherford B. Hazy (In History)

Rutherford B(eardly) Hayes.
Rutherford B(eardly) Hayes.

Marching onward in my quest to read a biography of every U.S. president, I finally made it through Ari Hoogenboom’s  Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President. I confess to having held the same vague notions of Hayes that Hoogenboom writes he’s commonly known for: that he won the disputed 1876 presidential election, ending Reconstruction, and that he was just another forgettable (yet unforgettably bearded) president who fell through the cracks between Abraham Lincoln and the twentieth century.

But Rud, as he was known, is a perfect exemplar of the purpose of my biblio-presidential journey: to fill in the gaps of my U.S. history knowledge and give the lesser-known figures a fairer shake than high school textbooks give them. In the end I found Hayes to be a fascinating figure, whose presidency was as bland as his pre- and post-presidency years were compelling.

Hayes was raised in Ohio by a widowed mother and a strong-willed sister who both felt very protective of him. When twentysomething Rud was in Boston attending Harvard Law School, both women would constantly needle him about studying and finding a woman. I’m sure he was glad he took his time looking for a mate because the woman he married, Lucy Webb (the first First Lady to graduate from college), helped sway him away from his social-issue indifference toward support for abolition, temperance, and Christianity (though he could only latch onto very liberal Christian orthodoxy).

His newfound moralism continued into the Civil War, which he entered as a major in the Ohio 23rd infantry (fighting alongside future president William McKinley, who was a private in the 23rd, and James Garfield, a brigadier general and another eventual POTUS). In the Battle of South Mountain, Hayes led a charge and got shot in the left arm, fracturing his bone, but in a total Teddy Roosevelt move he stanched the wound and continued on in battle, eventually getting stranded between the lines. Seeing the end, he left notes for his family with wounded Confederate soldier nearby, only to be scooped up by his troops and brought to the hospital. Later in the war, Hayes earned plaudits from General Ulysses Grant that Hayes would brag about for the rest of his life: “His conduct on the field was marked by conspicuous gallantry as well as the display of qualities of a higher order than that of mere personal daring.”

After the war, Rud served in Congress and then as Ohio governor for two non-consecutive terms, the later of which he parlayed into the Republican nomination for president in 1876. Support of the 14th and 15th amendments and reform of the civil service/appointments system were Rud’s bread and butter during the campaign, which culminated in the “Compromise of 1877,” a.k.a. the most controversial election before 2000. The compromise boiled down to this: If Hayes were awarded the disputed presidency, he would agree to remove all remaining federal troops from the former Confederacy, thereby abandoning the fledgling Republican state governments in the South to the reemergent (erstwhile Confederate) Democrats. In exchange, the Democrats wouldn’t violently storm the inauguration in protest. Some deal. However, Hayes and the Republicans chose the presidency over the already withering GOP governments in the South and have earned scorn for ending Reconstruction ever since.

Rud’s presidency continued on, mostly filled with drama over Hayes’ attempted reform of how political appointments were dolled out — Hayes: The president should make appointments instead of Congress! Congress: No. — and more drama over returning to the gold standard, in addition to the drama over the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. (Two fun bits of trivia: Lucy Hayes hosted the first White House Easter Egg Roll in 1878 after Congress banished it from the Capitol grounds, and Rud hosted the 30-year-old Thomas Edison and his new phonograph.) But why the flippancy over Hayes’ single term? Because what he did after it was way more interesting.

In a nod to the third act of John Quincy Adams’ storied career, Hayes unleashed his very progressive views on race, education, and big business and became social justice crusader way before it was trendy. Among other things, he advocated for universal education as a means to ensure the suffrage and advancement of the recently freed yet woefully unsupported slaves. He served on the National Prison Reform Association board with the young New York state assemblyman Teddy Roosevelt and railed against  income disparity and the plight of the poor that corrupt monopolies exacerbated. He was a trustee of Ohio State University (a school he helped to found as Ohio governor) and endorsed the 24-year-old W.E.B. DuBois for an educational scholarship.

Judged strictly on his presidential tenure, Hayes doesn’t inspire much praise. He came about during a time when the party bosses held as much if not more political power and  control than the presidents did. I don’t think all forgotten presidents deserve to have their low reputation reconsidered (I’m coming for you, John Tyler), but viewed holistically I’d say Hayes deserves more than the middling (and slowly dropping) rank he often gets.