03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Too Soon To Tell? Judging A President's Progress

The New York Review of Books

Huffington Post: At the anniversary of the election of Barack Obama, we're taking a close look at how he's done and what his administration has accomplished. In the midst of the current news swirl around whether or not health care reform, Afghanistan, Iraq and other issues have been moving along at a swift enough pace, and whether or not candidate Obama would approve of President Obama, The Huffington Post, along with The New York Review of Books, thought it might be instructive to see how past presidents have been judged early in their tenures. Included are book reviews on the early days of Carter, George W. Bush, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy. Is it fair to ask so soon of a President, "What have you done yet?" Let us know what you think.

Abraham Lincoln

Two Speeches on Race
By Garry Wills

In his prose, Obama of necessity lagged far behind the resplendent Lincoln. But what is of lasting interest is their similar strategy for meeting the charge of extremism. Both argued against the politics of fear. Neither denied the darker aspects of our history, yet they held out hope for what Lincoln called here the better "lights of current experience"--what he would later call the "better angels of our nature." Each looked for larger patterns under the surface bitternesses of their day. Each forged a moral position that rose above the occasions for their speaking. Read More

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

FDR & the Depression: The Big Debate
By Benjamin M. Friedman

How to assess Roosevelt's actions beginning in March 1933--and, in parallel, Hoover's policies during the nearly four years of the downturn--has long posed a challenge to economists and historians hostile to government action. From that viewpoint, Hoover's reluctance to undertake government initiatives should be seen as admirable. But didn't it allow the downturn to become the depression? The economy recovered under Roosevelt; but the legacy of large-scale government remains anathema, both for the interference in the workings of private business and for the assumption of public responsibility for citizens' personal welfare, whether in housing or old-age pensions. Read More

Ronald Reagan

Know Thy President
By Nicholas von Hoffman

Somewhere along the line [Reagan] came to believe he wasn't the archetypal, irritable conservative with gas in his gut pressing to escape out of both ends. No, he would be the new FDR, the president he and his admirers seem to mention the most. He would make his party the party of the masses, and Democrats the party of the elite, a word these New Conservatives toss around with the same hauteur the New Left rowdies of a few years ago did. Van der Linden quotes Reagan saying, "The new Republican party I envision will not, and cannot, be limited to the country club-Big Business image is burdened with.... It is going to have to have room for the men and women in the factories...." Read More

Jimmy Carter
Reading the Carter Riddle
By Garry Wills

When people say Carter is reckless in talking about human rights around the world, they have to remember that he trod a narrow line in the South, talking about black rights when he knew he could do very little about them--and perhaps when he did less than he might have done. He is not a dreamy idealist in this field. He knows how a Southerner can preach and preach, yet go for years to a segregated church. He brings something new to our executive politics yet old in the world of Congress. I wrote in these pages, three years ago, that the Democrat's best hope for a new presidential candidate would be some younger Sam Ervin. We may have just such a person on our hands--pious but pragmatic, maneuvering between homilies, always touching down, Antaeus-like, for strength at his backwoods base. Read More

George W. Bush

Eyeless in Iraq
By Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

Still, why did Mr. Bush and his close advisers decide to go to war against Iraq? I don't think he went to war in order to gratify the Halliburton Company or to please Israel or to avenge the attempted assassination of his father. He is a president who exults in big ideas. "I will seize the opportunity to achieve big goals," he told Bob Woodward. I suspect that he dreams of making his place in history by converting the Arab world to representative democracy. Read More

John F. Kennedy

To the Whitehouse
By Dwight MacDonald

I cannot let pass, however, a sentence on page 17: "While the Executive should wield all his powers under the constitution with energy, he should not be able to abrogate the constitution except in face of war, revolution or economic chaos." True that the sainted Lincoln did suspend habeas corpus and when the Chief Justice of the United States freed a Southern sympathizer on the ground he had been illegally arrested, kept the prisoner in jail nonetheless, observing, "Justice Tawney has made his ruling. Now let him enforce it"--an aside all too reminiscent of Stalin's famous query as to how many divisions the Pope commanded. Also true that Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt cut a few corners in wartime--and why is it always the great liberal presidents who do these things? Maybe because they have good consciences, supplied by intellectuals like Mr. Schlesinger. But even a liberal Northern Democrat might be given pause by the above formulation; he might think these wartime abrogations of the constitution were shameful and against his principles; he might remember that, except for Lincoln, no president, even in wartime, has openly "abrogated the constitution," although our author takes it as a matter of course; and he might also remember that no president so far has abrogated the constitution on the plea of "economic chaos," and wonder why Schlesinger should give away in advance, nay even suggest, such an invasion of our constitutional rights. In fact, he might have disturbing thoughts about Heroic Leadership and about the part played by liberalistic ideologues like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in justifying such illiberal, not to say unconstitutional, tactics even before the Heroic Leaders themselves have attempted them. Read More