President Obama’s Muslim and community-organizing backgrounds were both traditions that had almost nothing to do with what we once understood to be Western civilization, with its unique American gloss…

barack obamaIn the sweepstakes for which of our presidents was the worst, the usual candidates are James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, and Warren Harding. When William Jefferson Clinton left office, I wrote an opinionated piece in which I maintained that not only was Clinton the worst man ever to be president, but he was also the worst president. Subsequent popular lore seems to have decided that, even if both are true, we can’t be judgmental. Our modern culture has no “objective” standards to make such rash distinctions.

Sometime after that piece of Schall dicta, I had lunch with the late Joseph Sobran, a man of unusually definite views. I told him of my view. He listened patiently. After a bit, he replied: “Worst man, yes; but not the worst president.” Naturally, I bit and asked about the worst. And unsurprisingly, if you knew Sobran’s mind, the worst turned out to be “Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.” I could only laugh.

But Sobran’s sober view was based on the abuse of presidential powers that he saw initiated by these two presidents. They bypassed Congress. Eventually, they were backed by the Supreme Court, creating what we now call the “living constitution.” This latter, not the written one, is what allows a president like Mr. Obama, with his much overused pen, to issue decrees and executive orders of almost any kind.

With these decrees, he has made our military into social engineering agencies, not fighting cadres. When these arbitrary directives did not work, the presidential option of not enforcing selective existing laws that fell under his responsibility proved remarkably effective in undermining the culture.

Almost everyone today, including Mr. Obama himself, has offered some “evaluation” of his presidency. Kevin Williamson remarked that Mr. Obama thought that the job of the president was “to make speeches.” George Will said that Mr. Obama was the most loquacious president we ever had. The trouble was that he really did not have much to say. Victor Davis Hanson looked at the areas in which serious world problems existed. Mr. Obama neglected many of these and made others worse.

From the first time I saw Mr. Obama, his First Inaugural, I said to myself, “This is a classical tyrant” and wrote an article to that effect. Now, a classical “tyrant” is not some brutal beast. Rather, he is popular, suave, smooth-talking, and ruled only by his own musings. He arises in a democracy when its citizenry have largely lost touch with natural being.

Mr. Obama’s notion of America was that into which he wanted to change it. The America of the Founders or the tradition did not much interest him. Indeed, this America was what had to be changed to make the world safe for the America that he was out to re-found, one that looked pretty much like himself. And, to give him credit, he succeeded in many ways. His Muslim and community organizing backgrounds were both traditions that had almost nothing to do with what we once understood to be Western civilization, with its unique American gloss.

Much will be written of the Obama legacy. He will no doubt quickly sign a lucrative contract to produce a book explaining the glory of these past eight years, awful as they were. While most folks have understood that things were falling apart at the most basic levels, Mr. Obama, in his own mind, saw them progressing from one success to another. He flew over it but he never really saw America. His basic character was pretty accurately described by Plato and Aristotle. Like Mr. Clinton, he probably would have been elected for a third and fourth term were it not for the reaction to, yes, Franklin Roosevelt and the two-term limitation.

I will pass over his religious views. His is a popular leftism that identifies religion as politics. Catholics were slow to recognize the efforts Mr. Obama made to identify religion and positive law. No leeway was left. Religion could not stand in the way of social “progress.” Who could have imagined even a decade ago that the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion traditions would be under fire for holding back the social engineering that Mr. Obama and his friends foisted on the country’s embassies, laws, military, healthcare, medicine, schools, environment, and even in the food we can’t eat.

But is there nothing good that this still relatively young man accomplished? The comedian Jack Benny was once famously confronted by a robber who insistently demanded, “Your money, or your life!” To which Benny replied, “I’m thinking! I’m thinking!” Mr. Obama has made it necessary for us to recall a whole order of being that was relentlessly overturned step by logical step. Do I think that this countrywide recollection is taking place? “I’m thinking! I’m thinking!”

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay was originally published at The Catholic Thing and is republished here with gracious permission. 

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8 replies to this post
  1. No, the worst (in my lifetime anyway) would be Lyndon Johnson. Mainly because of the disaster that was the Vietnam War, but also because of his “Great Society” which vastly increased the size and cost of government while dooming millions of Americans to a lifetime of government dependency.

    • If there is anyone to blame for the Vietnam war it is JFK who likely had President Ngo Dinh Diem assassinated weeks before JFK was assassinated himself. An act that created a power vacuum in Vietnam resulting in a spiral into chaos.

      The irony is, not only was President Diem a strong leader,he was also an RC.

  2. Obama was no historian, proclaiming to an Egyptian audience that Andalusia represented the height of Islamic tolerance.

    A great work on this topic that would bring Obama to Earth is the The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain by North Western scholar Dario Fernandez-Morera.

  3. Obama, in my opinion, is the worst. His dereliction of duty and incompetence has emboldened our enemies and frightened our allies. Our allies no longer trust us and our enemies no longer fear us. Obama’s incompetence has caused the formation of ISIS, his need to retain power, while not occupying the White House, is scary, and his desire to criticize his successor, even after he is long gone, is unprecedented. Obama’s last few weeks have been a far cry from a “lame duck.” He wants his failed legacy to continue long after he is gone and after the vast majority voted against a “third term” of Obama and his agenda. Obama continues to want to let people into this country who will never be able to be fully and completely vetted. He wants to completely clear out Gitmo, he wants more refugees to enter this country, and he has shortened the sentences and pardoned those who are unrepentant terrorists. I was not born during the Johnson administration but history does not speak positively about him. Johnson’s racist rhetoric, implementation of the “Great Society,” and the Vietnam War are just a few of what I feel are Johnson’s failures. Obama is the worst, then Johnson, then Carter. While LBJ was not a great president, at least he was not as dangerous as this man. January 20, 2017 has been a long time coming for me and millions of others. I have to work that day but will DVR the inauguration.

  4. For myself, I am relatively unconcerned to discover “whose on worst”.
    The real problem comes at the end of the first paragraph: “Our modern culture has no “objective” standards…”
    I cannot recount the number of over-credentialed and under-educated persons to whom I have mentioned the necessity for a Good Society to attend to “the Good, the True, and the Beautiful”, and who have returned blank stares.
    So long as American society continues to crank out illiterate barbarians from our colleges, so long will we continue to decline. (And, yes, that’s only one of our problems.)

  5. Definitely Obama is the worst of my lifetime. Obamacare, the SCOTUS dimwits he’s picked, the disastrous foreign policy, and a stagnant economy. I can’t think of a positive and the negatives are not just bad but really awful.

  6. Fr. Schall’s categories are more sublime than most. President Obama, it turns out, was not even an effective “Classical tyrant.” He ruled, insofar as he did, by “a phone and a pen,” and most of the damage he did with those mighty instruments can be easily undone. As for the usual measurements of best and worst presidents, he got done nothing that he desired to do. Even his great legacy, The Affordable Health Care Act, will soon be gone. As it turns out, the one thing for which he will ALWAYS be remembered is that he was, literally, the first African-American President. Literally, because his father was African and his mother American, and it is very doubtful that will ever happen again. There will be other presidents of color, but none who are truly African American. This in itself is a great accomplishment, and represents the fulfillment of a major change in American History. But it has nothing to do with being a best or worst president. Measured in the usual ways, he was certainly one of the poorer ones.

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