Douglas Brinkley Calls Obama's Legacy 'Above-Average'

Amidst President Obama's sliding approval ratings, liberal historian Douglas Brinkley stood up for his "above-average" legacy on Monday's Hardball.

"I think he's an above-average president. I'd put him somewhere around what Bill Clinton was able to do," Brinkley insisted. He compared Obama's withdrawal from Iraq to Eisenhower getting the U.S. out of the Korean war, even though al Qaeda is clearly making a comeback in Iraq.

And what else did Brinkley say that Obama accomplished? "And I think he's opened the net with gay rights, to get more gay people involved in the Democratic Party, at least in American politics. And getting two women to the Supreme Court." That's it? Brinkley ignored the economy, ObamaCare, the failure of Healthcare.gov, Syria, and Libya, among other issues, yet Obama was "above-average" for the two accomplishments.

And Brinkley blamed part of Obama's failure on his own high standards: "I think his biggest failure is underestimating Congress, underestimating the blowback that he was going to get, maybe overselling himself in 2008, creating really high expectations that were almost impossible to live up to."

Below is a transcript of the segment:

MSNBC
HARDBALL
2/17/14
[7:50 p.m. EST]

CHRIS MATTHEWS: You look at the accomplishments, they come off the tongue. First African-American elected and re-elected, Affordable Care, killed bin Laden, stopped two wars, all the economic stuff coming out of the fiscal and financial crisis. How's he stacking up right now?

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: I think he's an above-average president. I'd put him somewhere around what Bill Clinton was able to do. Obviously, there are different kinds of accomplishments. And a little bit like Dwight Eisenhower, right? Eisenhower inherited the Korean war. It was unpopular. He got us out of Korea. You see Barack Obama getting out out of Iraq, getting us out of Afghanistan. And I think he's opened the net with gay rights, to get more gay people involved in the Democratic Party, at least in American politics. And getting two women to the Supreme Court. Not great, not near great, but above average at this point.

MATTHEWS: Biggest failure?

BRINKLEY: I think his biggest failure is underestimating Congress, underestimating the blowback that he was going to get, maybe overselling himself in 2008, creating really high expectations that were almost impossible to live up to.

(...)

SEAN WILENTZ, presidential historian: To an extraordinary degree, an unusual degree, I think that President Obama's legacy is going to depend on who his successor is. Look, his biggest things that he's gotten done, health care above all, getting the economy back on track. Those are very vulnerable. If he is succeeded by a Republican, ObamaCare is over, right? The economy, the legacies left behind on regulation and so forth, that's going to be gone too. So apart from being the first African-American president, which is historic, and no one can take that away from him, I think that his legacy is still up for grabs.

MATTHEWS: That's so fascinating. I read all the short, terse remarks by the historians, including you, and I thought that was great. Because it's something you can see as a verdict rather soon. Two years from now, two and a half years from now we'll know. And is this like George Bush, Sr.? His election in '88 was a valediction of Reagan? It gave him an added punch for his place in history. And if it had been Mike Dukakis pulling an upset, at the end there would have been an upset, Reagan wouldn't be Reagan today?

WILENTZ: Yeah, but I don't think that – perhaps. But I don't think that the election in 2016 is going to be quite like that. The fact is that Hillary Clinton comes at the – if she is the nominee, Hillary Clinton will be at a very different place than George Bush was as vice president. He got through. The problem for Bush was he was only going to be a one-termer because of divisions within the Republican Party.

MATTHEWS: Let me ask Douglas about this question. If you get a Clinton, I think Secretary Clinton is probably going to run. Who knows. I think she'll probably run if he runs. I have no basic information beyond that. If she wins, does Obama become a Clinton sandwich? I mean, he wanted to be a transformational president. He is simply transforming the country from one Clinton to another, one could argue cynically that the Clintons have won that battle. Your thoughts.

BRINKLEY: Well, yes. I think if Hillary Clinton wins, you're going to see Ronald Reagan and the Clintons as being sort of the seminal transformative characters of the second half of the 20th century. I agree with Sean's general thesis. It's so important, what ObamaCare means to the Obama legacy. And if a Republican's got in and that got thrown out, it won't look good for Barack Obama's presidency. However, Hillary has a really great chance. And remember, there is such a thing as an Obama Democrat. The African-American community has stayed behind him in historic numbers, 90 percent, 95 percent still behind him. He can help deliver some of that vote for Hillary Clinton in Ohio, Florida, Virginia and other states.

MATTHEWS: I agree with you, Douglas. If he holds on to the Obama core, in fact, if he holds on to the Obama vote, he just has to add some more working-class whites and maybe some more conservative other people, but basically he's got the election won. Let me ask you about where he can still do something great. Sean, professor. Maybe this is close to my heart. If he finds a way of avoiding a war, what I think will be a long-term war with Iran and Hezbollah, is that going to be his big one? Your thoughts.

WILENTZ: Yeah, I mean I think in foreign policy, if he can work out the Iranian situation, get a treaty there, that will be even more than Iraq and Afghanistan. That will be his biggest legacy in foreign policy. Apart from the bin Laden business. But that will be it, I think. That will be historic, and it will change things around for him. No question.

MATTHEWS: Douglas, your thought? Is that the big one, still waiting for him?

BRINKLEY: Yeah, but remember, he's also helped us understand the limits of American intervention abroad. You see Barack Obama in some ways like Jimmy Carter in foreign policy trying to keep us out of wars, and in the long run, that's going to be a big part of his legacy that we didn't have an Iraq debacle like we had with George W. Bush, during his presidency.
 

Matt Hadro
Matt Hadro
Matt Hadro was a News Analyst for the Media Research Center's News Analysis Division from 2010 through early 2014