10/27/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Who Knows What Presidents Will Do?

By Stephen C. Rose

Presidents defy categorization by their decisions.

Which renders exceedingly silly the idea that it makes a real difference which party a President is in or, for that matter, how Presidents think of themselves. Presidential politics are a crap shoot, pure and simple.

Eisenhower warned against the military industrial complex more forcefully than any Democrat who followed him has done. He was a conservative Republican. Eisenhower also stood his ground when Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus tried to enforce school segregation in Little Rock.

John Kennedy gets a pass because of the assassination but it is generally conceded that he played a substantial part in exacerbating the Cold War by continual efforts to bring Cuba to its knees. Kennedy was an erudite liberal Democrat who, like Bill Clinton, had a personal testosterone problem.

Lyndon Johnson is credited with liberal measures but his most significant action was to lie to the American people and bring to their deaths more than 50,000 American soldiers because he had not the vision to understand that the Cold War was in itself a paper tiger by the time he took office. He was a Democrat. I have little doubt that he was also a war criminal who would qualify to be brought before the International Criminal Court. He may also have been a Texas criminal in league with folk like Malcolm Wallace.

Richard Nixon was deemed a crook and an arch-conservative Red-baiter, but he remade the globe by deciding to mend some fences with China. Oddly when Republicans do things that Democrats should do, no one complains.

Gerald Ford was a rock-ribbed conservative but ran what must go down as one of the most centrist and reconciling administrations in recent history. I always liked him because he did little or no harm.

Jimmy Carter was a liberal with a Christian conscience but he became hopelessly mired in politics that defined him not as liberal or conservative but as an ineffective and curiously narcissistic sort. Very, very concerned with himself and how he was perceived. Redeemed by post-Presidential good works.

Ronald Reagan was the most conservative of the bunch but he managed to cheer, if not bring about, the close of the Cold War which had been a charade for at least 12 years. Again, if a Democrat had done it, he would have been nailed to a tree.

George H.W. Bush was a conservative Republican CIA operative and his decisions, including a tax cut, were hard to distinguish as affecting much of anything. After four years, the electorate agreed.

Bill Clinton was hardly a great liberal when in office. His approaches to issues were calculated efforts to achieve small victories in the face of monolithic conservative opposition. His most memorable achievement was to do what conservatives all contend they want -- balance the budget. Conservatives should have loved him.

George W. Bush came to office as a conservative with an eye toward unity and turned into the compliant follower of a rabid group of reckless and often profiteering colleagues. His decisions reflected no particular ideology of liberalism or conservatism. They were plain stupid, bordering on evil. Even when he managed the small good deed, there were conditions that besmirched the outcomes.

The conclusion one can draw is that even when relatively decent folk, like Ford and Carter, are in the White House, they do not necessarily achieve much. When they do it is hardly reflective of their being a liberal or conservative, a Republican or Democrat.

When larger and more dangerous sorts like Nixon and Johnson and George W. Bush achieve highest office, they have huge impact but again it bears little relation to their liberal or conservative IDs.

I suppose one could say that Nixon caused national suffering with Watergate and its aftermath, but I never regarded Watergate as much more than a salutary reminder that we are a democracy that can actually function rather well if called to do so. I thought Watergate was wonderful, in terms of our response as a people, almost as good as our expulsion of LBJ from office when the man finally read the writing on the wall.

In the case of George W. Bush, his depredations included bankrupting the economy and saddling future generations with massive debt, hardly a conservative result.

Reagan and Nixon may turn out to have had the most impact in terms of China and the end of the Cold War. But all these events show is that the problems of the world change, and powers themselves ebb and flow.

Our national story may well be that we moved from being a great power to a declining power. And that we failed to learn that we could no longer fight wars as in the past and win.

When I support Barack Obama, it is not because I think he will enact his program any more than any other President ever enacted his program. (If one says Johnson was an exception, I say that the programs we laud that he passed have their own problems, and that the goals of the civil rights movement remain far, far from achieved.)

I support Barack Obama because he insists that there needs to be a change of heart in persons to create the basis for a viable polity, a national restoration. With that I fully agree.

Another president who came forward with that sort of conservatism was also from Illinois. And could also write a mean speech.

His name was Abraham Lincoln.