In short, when judging Obama’s record so far, conservatives measure him against their fears, liberals against their hopes, and the rest of us against our pocketbooks. But if you measure Obama against other presidents—arguably the more relevant yardstick—a couple of things come to light. Speaking again in terms of sheer tonnage, Obama has gotten more done than any president since LBJ. But the effects of some of those achievements have yet to be felt by most Americans, often by design. Here, too, Obama is in good historical company.
The greatest achievements of some of our most admired presidents were often unrecognized during their years in office, and in many cases could only be appreciated with the passing of time. When FDR created Social Security in 1935, the program offered meager benefits that were delayed for years, excluded domestic workers and other heavily black professions (a necessary compromise to win southern votes), and was widely panned by liberals as a watered-down sellout. Only in subsequent decades, as benefits were raised and expanded, did Social Security become the country’s most beloved government program. Roosevelt’s first proposal for a GI Bill for returning World War II veterans was also relatively stingy, and while its benefits grew as it moved through Congress, its aim remained focused on keeping returning veterans from flooding the labor market. Only later was it apparent that the program was fueling the growth of America’s first mass middle class. When Harry Truman took office at the dawn of the Cold War, he chose the policy of containment over a more aggressive “rollback” of communism, and then he built the institutions to carry it out. He left office with a 32 percent public approval rating. Only decades later would it become clear that he made the right choice.