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The Carletonian

Who is good?

<ir="ltr" id="docs-internal-guid-085ad54f-0cf5-b399-4fd8-2ffd5af168db">Was Obama a good president? In setting about answering this question, more questions must be asked: What makes a president “good?” Is it a balanced budget and a growing economy? Is it the passage of significant legislation? Is it a shifting of the social order, eloquent rhetoric, a grand persona, victory in war… clean teeth? How much poverty can exist at the end of your presidency for you to still be considered good? How many people can die in wars or drop out of high school while you are in power? How many drone strikes and civilian deaths can you shrug off? How many businesses can fail? How many have to succeed?

When we ask if Obama has been a good president, we are really asking if he has been a better president than those who came before him. And when we compare presidents in this way, we are really comparing them on a scale of greatness, not goodness. As the writer and journalist, Richard Reeves, said in an interview for CNN: “Nobody remembers whether Abraham Lincoln or Franklin D. Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan balanced the budget. What we remember is the agony of the Civil War, the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the threat of nuclear war. The winding down of the Cold War.” While goodness is fundamentally a question of morality, greatness is fundamentally a question of visible achievement and emotional resonance. The greatness of FDR and Lincoln has something to do with their goodness; the contour of their successes were formed by moral decisions, but it is not the moral foundation of these individuals we react to (if it was, Jimmy Carter would be remembered as one of the greatest leaders in American history, not one of the greatest failures). In these debates, greatness is defined by a president’s ability to win the game that was set before them, and winning this game has very little to do with morality.

The truth is that I am far from qualified to judge Obama’s presidency on the scale of greatness – there are, no doubt, countless others who know more about this subject and can speak with far more authority. However, my mediocre credentials aside, I don’t believe any definitive answer to the question of Obama’s efficacy as president can be given. Presidents are constantly being reevaluated and demystified or mythologized by historians and political thinkers, and mostly to highly unproductive ends. Writing in New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait noted that “American historical memory is heavily inflected with sentiment. John F. Kennedy remains an iconic figure despite his negligible record. Ronald Reagan has won a legacy as the restorer of American hope and the winner of the Cold War, as if communism fell not as a result of its own dysfunction and four decades of Western containment but because no U.S. politician ever previously thought to tell the Soviets to tear down that wall.” Do we really know more about these figures because of the simplistic judgments offered up by academics and media pundits? Hardly. In fact, these evaluations invariably obscure the immense complexity of their presidencies and serve to discourage nuanced thought.

All of this is a very long-winded way of saying that finding an answer to this week’s Viewpoint prompt is beside the point; the point is that the question itself has something to say. The question of goodness is important, and though I am not sure I can answer it for Obama, I wonder if I can answer it for myself. The roles of president and student are similarly amorphous in nature, and both suffer from comparable challenges when it comes to the measurement of success. Are we good students because we study hard and write publishable papers? Are we good students because we volunteer in local schools, because we help people register to vote, because we meditate, play instruments, dance, paint, or turn off the lights when we leave a room? Or are we bad students because we drink excessively, and because sexual assault is far from uncommon on our campus? Because we remove ourselves from the needs of those less fortunate while we indulge in a selfish lifestyle of academic achievement? Are we successful if we graduate and write a great book, or make a lot of money on Wall Street, or dedicate our lives to nonprofit work? Are we successful if we never pay off our loans, if we don’t like our chosen profession, if we marry the wrong person, if we divorce; if we fail to find love, or if we fail to love?

I don’t have definitive answers to these questions, though I do have guesses as to what the answers might be for myself. Regardless of this ambiguity, or, actually, because of it, I think the question of goodness is worth pondering. It is worth pondering because it is a question without an answer. It is a question that demands thought, not resolution, and these are the kinds of questions that we need to grapple with because these are the types of questions that define a life. The same desire that would have us label Obama as good or bad drives the base rhetoric in our current election season, a season defined by false dichotomies used to distort reality for personal gain. To linger on the question of goodness is to actively challenge the reductive thinking that plagues our politics, and in this way, it is a form of protest.

So, was Obama a good president? A fairer and more pertinent question is: Have we been good citizens during his presidency, and, more to the point, are we good people?

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