Editor's note: The following column first appeared in The Hill newspaper and on TheHill.com.
Historians usually look to various factors when they rate U.S. presidents.
The consensus top tier-rated, Mt. Rushmore-type recognition as nation’s top-ranked presidents by historians, in a class by themselves, are usually, Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, and both Roosevelts (FDR and TR). My analysis is that each of them are included in everyone’s top tier list because they satisfy three-out-of-four or all four of these historical facts: 1) unique circumstances making a major impact on the nation’s history (e.g., Washington and Jefferson as framers and setting important precedents for the presidency for future generations); 2) successfully addressing one or more major national crises (Lincoln/the Civil War and FDR/the Great Depression and World War II); 3) having significant positive impacts on economic/social changes or in foreign policy; and 4) enhancing the powers and effectiveness of the presidency and the future of their political parties.
In the second tier of presidential ranks, per most historians, those who satisfy several of these criteria, could include James Monroe, James Polk, William McKinley, Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton.
Reagan deserves special recognition for his impact on strengthening the Republican Party, the credibility of conservative government, and a determined foreign policy that led, even indirectly, to the unraveling of the Soviet Union. Bill Clinton is surely there because of he delivered one of the most successful economic performances of any president, in inheriting a $300 billion budget deficit and a weak economy and departing after two terms with 23 million new jobs gained while balancing the budget and leaving a budget surplus (working with a Republican Congress to do the latter) – justifiably leaving him with a 65 percent approval public rating, a record for a second-term president.
So, what about President Obama?
In my judgment, there is little doubt that future historians will rank him high in this second tier.
First is the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Whether you like the legislation or not, whether the Republicans repeal it or not, that won’t change the fact that for the first time in U.S. history, an American president was able to lead the enactment of guaranteed access to health care for all Americans as a fundamental right of citizenship.
Second is Mr. Obama’s leadership in digging the country out of an economic Great Recession comparable to the Great Depression faced by FDR. Mr. Obama must share credit not only with the Democratic-controlled Congress for enacting the $700 + billion stimulus bill, but also, with Republicans and President George W. Bush for maintaining liquidity for average Americans – i.e., access to their bank accounts and restoration of credit -- through unpopular subsidies to banks to avoid massive bankruptcies in the banking industry.
Third and certainly the one fact that all future historians will note is the fact that Barack Obama helped mitigate America’s moral stain of slavery and Jim Crow by his historic election as the nation’s first African American president.
No matter what your ideology or party affiliation; no matter whether you agree or disagree with his policies at home or abroad; no matter what – Barack Obama will go down in history for the major, unforgettable moment in U.S. history, when he stood at the Capitol on Jan. 20, 2009, and took the oath of office, and thus, finally at long last proved that America could at least partially overcome the shame of its racist past.
As the author of this column, called “Purple Nation,” for the last eight years, I am especially grateful to President Obama for inspiring that title. He did so when I first heard his inspiring words during his unforgettable 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote speech – words we need to remember now more than ever in light of who is about to be inaugurated to succeed Mr. Obama:
“There is not a liberal America and a conservative America – there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America – there is the United States of America.”
Thank you, President Obama. May God bless you and your family in the months and years ahead.
And one final personal note: Thank you and the First Lady for all you did to help my long-time friend, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Lanny Davis is a regular weekly columnist for The Hill. In 1996-98, Davis served as special counsel to President Bill Clinton. He attended Yale Law School with Hillary Clinton in 1969-70 and has remained friends with her ever since. He is the author of the book, "Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping With Crises in Business, Politics, and Life," (Simon & Schuster March 2013). Follow him on Twitter at @LannyDavis.