Only in recent months, when he was willing to make it his personal issue and to spend significantly from his store of political capital, was President Obama able to achieve victory in the bitter congressional battle over health care reform.
Presidential greatness is combining policy and politics to win significant victories that have a major impact on the trajectory of national life. Such victories--which upset the status quo--only occur when a president takes political risks and is willing to incur short-term unpopularity with significant segments of the electorate.
There have been two great Democrat presidents since FDR--Harry Truman and LBJ. Both came to office through the death of a president; both could have run for a second elected term; both declined to do so because they were extremely unpopular; but, part of their unpopularity was due to courageous decisions which required large expenditure of personal capital and which changed the course of history.
Truman, now considered by historians as one of our most momentous presidents, has an astounding list of major decisions by his name: the dropping of the atomic bomb; the formation of the UN and NATO; the adoption of the Marshall Plan; the formulation of the Truman Doctrine and the strategy of "containing" the Soviet Union; a willingness to oppose Communist aggression in North Korea (and to fire General Douglas MacArthur); the issuance of executive orders desegregating the Armed Forces, the civil service and government contracting; recognition of the state of Israel; and promotion of the Fair Deal (which was only a mixed success but which expanded social security, the minimum wage and federal housing support).
To be sure, Truman's unpopularity was also due to scandals, a war weary nation and vicious debates about who lost China. But his historical standing today is owed, in no small part, to his political courage and willingness to use up the political capital of the presidency on issues of major import.
Similarly, LBJ was one of our greatest domestic presidents. Under his leadership from 1964-66, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Medicare, Medicaid, the War on Poverty and a path-breaking elementary and secondary education act. Johnson had the courage to spend political capital on great tasks even though he, of all people, knew that his initiatives, especially on race, would split the Roosevelt coalition, drive away Southern whites, weaken the Democratic Party and put his own reelection in jeopardy. After Lincoln, Johnson is considered the president who did the most to overcome the nation's shameful history of slavery and racial discrimination and to advance the ideal of racial justice.
To be sure, Johnson's unpopularity also stemmed, in important part, from his prosecution of an increasingly divisive war in South Vietnam and from a complex, domineering personality that his oleaginous rhetoric could not conceal. Yet, his place in history is secure because of courageous domestic decisions which weakened him politically.
By contrast, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, the other two Democratic presidents prior to President Obama, are unlikely (even in light of more even-handed views of historians a generation from now) to enter the pantheon of greatness.
President Carter's fundamental problem, oddly enough, was that he recklessly spent presidential capital in his first year in office--on reforming water projects, energy reform, welfare reform and numerous other initiatives--with limited or no success. By the end of 1977, his apolitical approach, and his serial failures, had dramatically diminished his reputation in Washington and seriously eroded his popularity in the nation. And he could never recover from his naive policy profligacy as the nation's economy began to suffer from the lethal combination of high inflation and high interest rates.
By contrast, President Clinton tried one major domestic initiative early in his administration--health care--and, after being defeated on that, was either on the defensive or advanced a minimalist, safe agenda. With the Republican take-over of Congress in 1994, Clinton had to fight a rear guard action until the 1996 election. Then the Lewinski scandal and impeachment consumed much of the administration's energy, and Dick Morris's "triangulation" meant that Clinton took few significant political risks. Never has there been a president with as much political and policy talent, who presided over a booming economy (due, only in small part, to public policy) but whose major accomplishments were so slender. I always felt that it was a badge of dishonor for Clinton to leave office with a high approval rating for the reasons I have tried to develop here: no great deeds are possible for a president without a willingness to risk political standing.
The saga of President Obama is but 14 months old. It is too soon to tell whether health care reform will be a policy success in implementation and a long-term political success (like Medicare) as it changes a health care system bristling with problems. And, of course, it is far, far too soon to make any meaningful judgments about his tenure.
But, after a first year of aloofness from the political fray of health care, Obama's willingness, since the Massachusetts senatorial election to push his chips on the table, take a huge political gamble, and win a major legislative victory (with uncertain short-term political consequences) echoes decisions of his great Democratic predecessors, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson.
Ben Heineman Jr. is is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, in Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and at the Harvard Law School's Program on Corporate Governance. He is the author of High Performance With High Integrity.