I will admit that I am a fan and a critic of both Woodrow Wilson and Barack Obama. But I will also tell you that both will be remembered as great American Presidents. Mr. Wilson is already in the Top Ten in mostly every poll of American historians – just below names like Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, two Roosevelts, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Jackson. Heady company to be sure.
Like Mr. Obama, Woodrow Wilson was an academic, who would have been remembered for being one of the dominant political scientists and a President of Princeton University had he not become a politician. Lofty, eloquent, idealistic, a global visionary, he did not suffer fools. Shy and uncomfortable in private, he could become magical before large audiences. He is considered great because he at first “kept us out of war” before 1917, but later was the pivotal force that helped win World War I after 1917. His first two years in office represented two of only seven years that historians regard as years of major reform in the 20th Century. Under him, the Federal Trade Commission was established and child labor and deceptive business practices were finally outlawed.
But perhaps his greatest triumph was also his greatest failure – the desire to transcend nationalism and create a language for global democracy. His 14 Points were a universal declaration of the rights of people and his League of Nations was designed to debate and modulate passions without having to resort to war. These were noble while at the same time probably naïve and even foolhardy. He called for settling the Great War in much the same way as Abraham Lincoln called for “malice toward none and justice for all”. Mr. Wilson’s dream was expressed after the great European powers had already secretly carved up the world among themselves. The great idealist’s call to “the better angels of our nature” (another Lincolnian term) fell on the deaf ears of others who were already hell-bent on revenge. And the deaf ears were in Congress as well as his Republican foes were not going to accept an institution that did not assert American Exceptionalism and dominant power. Mr. Wilson was no compromiser – it was his way or the highway. He chose the highway, or at least the train, and suffered a debilitating stroke.
He is considered the most racist President in American history. He not only ignored the evil of lynching which had numbered thousands in the South during his terms in office, he issued an executive order segregating Washington, DC, and ordered the Harvard-trained civil rights leader William Monroe Trotter out of a White House meeting for protesting the President’s order segregating federal workers and because he had only appointed 9 African American officials – much less than his predecessor. Even his troubled successor Warren G. Harding condemned lynching and called for passage of legislation outlawing the horrid practice. Wilson received the strong support of Congress for the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 and 1918 which severely restricted civil liberties during World War II and encouraged his Attorney General to launch a series of purges of radicals – the Palmer Raids of 1919.
Mr. Obama, also an academic who has bordered on the preachy at times, is said to have been lacking in the ability to deal with his Congressional opposition. But, like Wilson, he has judiciously used his war powers – unlike George W. Bush – and brought the numbers of American lives lost in battle down dramatically. During his Presidency, an economic depression was averted and 16 million jobs were created, health care coverage was extended to over 20 million Americans, the lives and rights of gay and transgender Americans has improved substantially, a treaty postponing the Iranian capacity to develop nuclear weapons has been signed, as has a global treaty to limit carbon emissions. Equal pay for equal work for women has not arrived fully but has been signed into law and so has legislation to rein in the actions of predatory banks and Wall Street investor. Imperfect, to be sure, but a start.
History will ultimately judge how much the Congressional opposition to Mr. Obama was his own doing as opposed to simple ideological and partisan intransigence – but the idealist was certainly thwarted in his efforts to accomplish more. And, like Mr. Wilson, the 44th President was good enough to get himself re-elected but lose seats in Congress and a successor from his own party. Both our 28th and 44th Presidents left office with Americans in very bad moods. Questions will continue to linger over Mr. Obama’s use of drones to kill American citizens and innocent civilians. But while voters clearly abandoned Mr. Wilson in 1920, according to at least two polls – one by PPP and another by Bloomberg – Mr. Obama could have won a third term by double digits.
I am going to venture that historians will find room in the Top Ten for President Barack Obama. Like John F. Kennedy, he will be remembered for his idealism and eloquence and like Woodrow Wilson, his time in office will be memorialized for its dignity, its vision and for his grand accomplishments. Move over, Andrew Jackson.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the position of John Zogby Strategies. John Zogby Strategies is an independent consulting firm that does not endorse candidates.