THE BLOG

Presidents Day Woes: It's History, Not the Horse Race, That Matters

02/17/2014 10:39 am ET | Updated Apr 19, 2014

Today, Barack Obama will observe his sixth Presidents Day in the White House. In some ways, it will be his most difficult. With liberal-leaning outlets running frequent diagnostics on how to "save" the Obama legacy, and right-leaning outlets salivating at the possibility of its ruin, nearly everyone seems to agree that the president faces a critical turning point. From the troubled rollout of the Affordable Care Act to a stalled legislative agenda, 2013 was not kind to the president.

But Obama can take comfort in knowing that he's not the first occupant of the Executive Mansion whose legacy was written off prematurely. Abraham Lincoln, for one, had little cause to celebrate his birthday one hundred and fifty years ago. Presiding over a broken nation that was about to enter its fourth year of civil war, he faced a bitter re-election fight that many political professionals doubted he could win. Worse still, it seemed possible that his sole historical legacy would be the dissolution of the Union.

Even many fellow Republicans dismissed Lincoln as a failed president, agreeing with one prominent senator that the administration was "a disgrace from the very beginning to every one who had any thing to do with bringing it into power." Charles Sumner, the radical anti-slavery leader, fumed that the nation needed "a president with brains; one who can make a plan and carry it out." Blaming Lincoln for four years of military stalemate and for a series of political blunders that cost his party dearly in the 1862 mid-term elections, many agreed with Massachusetts Governor John Andrew that the president was "essentially lacking in the quality of leadership."

Years later, Lincoln's young White House aide, John Hay, speculated that had the president "died in the days of doubt and gloom which preceded his reelection," rather than in the final weeks of war, as the Union moved to secure its great victory, he would likely have been remembered as a failed president. But that's not how it happened. Today, Americans consistently rank Lincoln as one of the greatest presidents -- a sage military and political leader who saved the Union, oversaw the dismantling of slavery, and forged a modern nation state.

As we commemorate Presidents Day, a federal holiday honoring the 43 men who have served as commander-in-chief, it's worth remembering John Hay's observation.

Even in Lincoln's era, which saw telegraph cables, railroad tracks and cylindrical printing presses dramatically shorten the time that it took news to travel from one side of the country to the other (and then to appear in the nation's growing stable of daily and weekly newspapers), political professionals and journalists sometimes confused today's conventional wisdom for tomorrow's historical judgment.

Had history's clock stopped ticking in February 1952, Harry Truman's approval rating, according to Gallup, would have remained frozen for all time at 22 percent. Bogged down by war in Korea, a bitter debate over the domestic threat of Communism, and lingering resistance to key components of the New Deal state, Truman spent his last months in office a wildly unpopular president. History remembers him far differently.

Fast forward to early 1983, when Gallup reported that only 35 percent of Americans approved of Ronald Reagan's job performance, a dramatic decline since the president's near-death just two years earlier. Temporarily weighted down by high unemployment and interest rates, Reagan's public standing improved markedly over the next several years, and today he is commonly ranked among the greats.

Like Lincoln, every president is ultimately judged for the entirety of his record. With three years left in office, Obama could very well exit public life a popular president, best known for eliminating Osama bin Laden, cutting the unemployment rate sharply, ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and achieving the long-held liberal dream of universal access to health care. Or, events at home and abroad could turn against him.

Just as history judges presidents by the totality of their time in office, presidents and their close confidantes have historically played a role in managing their legacy. Though Lincoln was cut down by an assassin's bullet, his son, Robert, carefully managed his father's historical image. Choking off access to the president's official papers until 1947, he allowed only two men -- John Hay and John Nicolay, his father's White House secretaries -- to consult and draw upon the vast presidential archive. The result of this collaboration, a ten-volume biography that was widely serialized throughout the 1880s, gave rise to an enduring image of Lincoln as a sage political tactician and astute military strategist.

Today, presidents play an even more active role in managing their legacies. Since Franklin Roosevelt laid plans for an archive and museum at Hyde Park, every president has turned to trusted political advisors to fashion research facilities and programming that influence the direction and tenor of scholarly research. Most former presidents build on their popularity after leaving office. Some of this resurgence owes to the passing of time and natural rhythms of memory. But we shouldn't discount the active hand that former presidents play in shaping this process.

So let the pundits and political cognoscenti guess away. History tells us that it takes a long time for presidential legacies to become established wisdom. And even when they do, there's inevitably a hungry crowd of young revisionists waiting in the next room.