Presidential Report Card, Parts I-V

I got this idea completely out of the blue, just bored on a Saturday morning. I’m up in CT housesitting my little brother. If I had my awesome new guitar with me I’d practice some arpeggios and stuff (the ‘rents have a guitar here but it is vastly inferior and currently out of tune).

Anywho, for a while I’ve wanted to do some objective, non-partisan political analysis. In my mind, the first step for me is to divulge my poltical leanings, which I’ll attempt to do in four sentences:

– I recently registered as a Democrat and voted for Obama.
– I tend to sympathize with libertarians on economic issues, but I don’t necessarily oppose government spending for potentially lucrative investments (e.g. I did not support the bank bailouts, but I liked aspects of the obama stimulus package).
– On social/international issues, the democrats are actually too far “right” for me at times, whereas limited government advocates tend to have more profound views on issues like legalization of drugs and non-intervention in foreign affairs.
– I am currently frustrated with third-party candidates who claim that the two major parties are “the same” yet fail to have a realistic gameplan for getting elected and enacting change.

Now that I’ve told you all that, why should you care? Well, no reason really. Just the fact that the remainder of this posting could be biased, as I will have written it.

If there are four things in the world that pisses me off, they are: Dane Cook, Coldplay, the Electric Slide, and political commentators who claim to be neutral and unbiased when they are clearly not. I’m looking in your general direction, Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly.

"The spin stops here."
''The spin stops here.''

No it doesn’t. But if you replace “spin” with “coherent thought” you could be on to something.
"I'm not a liberal, I'm an American."
''I'm not a liberal, I'm an American.''

Unfortunately for us, you’re both. But just as before, we can correct the erroneous statement by substituting “liberal” with “reputable journalist” and “American” with “jackass”.

Long story short, I expect people to disagree with my presidential performance evaluations. But don’t get on your high horse and contend that my analysis is biased, yet there is some alternative analysis that should be universally accepted. Everyone is a biased, partisan ideologue in my book, including me.

Remember to file this one under work-in-progress. Frankly I don’t have as much historical political (or even current political) knowledge as I should, although really no one does. What I do have is a good bullshit detector to see past conventional wisdom, which tends to over weigh things like “Abe Lincoln freed the slaves” or “Gerry Ford fell down a lot” when evaluating presidents. So please provide any insight or constructive criticism, and I’ll definitely take it into account (especially for the ones I left blank).

1. George Washington (No party)
They didn’t put him on the dollar for nothing. For whatever reason, G-dubs is remembered more for beating down the redcoats than any of his Presidential achievements. Poppycock. For one thing, the decisive victory of the Revolutionary War was won by Benedict Arnold, while Washington’s troops were simultaneously losing the Battle of Brandywine to notorious British blunderer William Howe.

In contrast, Washington’s presidency was a rousing success, highlighted by numerous influential decisions and a legacy of fair-minded leadership. The list of federal entities created by Geroge Washington’s initiatives includes: the dollar, the US Mint, the National Bank, the District of Columbia, the US Navy, the Supreme Court, and the four major cabinet positions (Secretary of State/Treasury/Defense and Attorney General).

Historians such as Leonard D. White and Guy Who Edits Wikipedia describe Washington as, “an excellent delegator and judge of talent and character,” and “systematic, orderly, energetic, solicitous of the opinion of others but decisive, intent upon general goals and the consistency of particular actions with them.” Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796 warned future generations about the dangers of political parties and foreign alliances. Of course, future generations responded, “sure, whatever George” and here we are today.

The only area of criticism is that the federal entities established by Washington created a legacy of solving problems with more government. I believe it was a prudent strategy at the time, but one that has led to an unnecessary amount of bureaucracy today. Grade: A

2. John Adams (Federalist)
Like Sam Bowie, Darko Milicic, and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, John Adams was sort of a letdown at #2. Adams had a reputation as being somewhat tactless, and this manifested itself when his criticism of the French Revolution eventually led to the XYZ Affair and Quasi-War in 1798. More troubling to me were the absurdly unconstitutional Alien and Sedition Acts which sought to place limits on immigration and free speech for political reasons. In contrast with Washington, Adams seemed to be almost an advocate of partisan politics. Grade: C

3. Thomas Jefferson (Democrat-Republican)
With the landmark Marbury v Madison case of 1803, instigated by Jefferson’s refusal to honor Adams’s Supreme Court appointments, the Supreme Court was given the power to declare laws and decisions unconstitutional. Surely, this has had some positive results over the years.

The problem here is that the Supreme Court is filled with people who consider themselves Democrats and Republicans–this makes no sense to me. The Supreme Court should uphold the law while making every effort to separate their political leanings from their decision. Jefferson realized this as well:

You seem … to consider the judges as the ultimate arbiters of all constitutional questions; a very dangerous doctrine indeed, and one which would place us under the despotism of an oligarchy. Our judges are as honest as other men, and not more so. They have, with others, the same passions for party, for power, and the privilege of their corps…. Their power [is] the more dangerous as they are in office for life, and not responsible, as the other functionaries are, to the elective control. The Constitution has erected no such single tribunal, knowing that to whatever hands confided, with the corruptions of time and party, its members would become despots. It has more wisely made all the departments co-equal and co-sovereign within themselves

Well, judicial review is here to stay. If Jefferson had reservations, he ought to have done something about it. As you can see, these decisions made during our country’s infancy have had a profound impact today.

Overall, Jefferson was a very staunch defender of the constitution. He voided the Alien and Sedition Acts of Adams, and he spoke a great deal about the importance of individual liberties, rebellion, and states’ rights. To me, that makes him possibly the most quotable president ever, but not necessarily the most effective. He also founded the Democratic party, for better or worse. Grade: A-

4. James Madison (Democrat-Republican)
Madison opposed the creation of a National Bank, but he renewed its charter in order to finance the War of 1812. This was one of the earlier instances in American history of politicians veering from their principles for dubious reasons. In this case, the War of 1812 was a silly conflict between the United States and Britain that resulted in no territorial gains, (although it did provide a backdrop for Francis Scott Key to compose the Star-Spangled Banner).

Otherwise, Madison maintained a conservative approach to government spending. One of his final acts as president was vetoing a bill for “internal improvements”, such as roads, bridges, and canals. His reasoning was based on states’ rights: that federal legislation should be limited to infrastructure that would, “bind more closely together the various parts of our extended confederacy,” according to him.

The Federal Government’s defense of States’ rights, advocated in particular by Jefferson and Madison, seems to have faded away over the years. Today’s Democratic party would do well to remember their roots. Grade: B+

5. James Monroe (Democrat-Republican)
Monroe essentially continued the economic legacy of Jefferson/Madison, but where he is most remembered is foreign policy. The Monroe Doctrine has been criticized by many as a justification for United States’ hegomony. Professor Noam Chomsky argues, “The Monroe Doctrine, which the US was not powerful enough to implement at the time, stated that the US would become the dominant force in this hemisphere.”

Although I believe this interpretation is valid, the doctrine was written in the context of the colonial era. It certainly dismisses the sovereignty of native tribal civilizations, but one could argue that the same is true of the United States Constitution. To me this is a very deep argument–how do we recognize the sovereignty of civilizations without political borders? It is somewhat less relevant today, although not completely moot.

But Monroe certainly erred on the side of aggression here. His policy towards Native Americans was also somewhat bellicose, although not to the extent of many of his successors. Grade: B-

Uh, I’m kinda lazy, so I’m gonna leave the rest for later… In the mean time, here’s a song about some of them:


2 thoughts on “Presidential Report Card, Parts I-V

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