The Best “Worst” President: What the Right Gets Wrong About Barack Obama By Mark Hannah; Illustrations by Bob Staake Dey
Street Books 336 pp.
By Jim Swearingen
When Gutzon Borglum sculpted his favorite Presidents on a South Dakota mountain he included the father of our country; the nation’s first, best political philosopher; the architect of American global power; and the savior of the Union. If you look at the face of Mt. Rushmore, you will see that alongside Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Lincoln, there is room for one more — and in his new book The Best “Worst” President Mark Hannah makes a compelling case that the next President carved into this American pantheon should be Barack Obama.
Hannah, a cable news pundit, teacher, and veteran of the Obama and John Kerry presidential campaigns, has written a sweeping rejoinder to conservative indictments of Obama’s policies to, as he says, “dispel, but not disparage” those opinions. Many of those views are so divorced from reality, however, that even Hannah’s polite rebuttals can sound bitingly satiric. With facetious chapter titles like The Economy Destroyer, The Freedom Wrecker, and The Appeaser of Enemies to describe a President who held off financial ruin, bolstered gay civil rights, and killed Osama bin Laden (along with hundreds of other self-proclaimed enemies of the U.S.), Hannah cannot help but ridicule Obama’s detractors with sheer logic.
Hannah consciously wrote this treatment as a handbook for defenders of the Obama legacy to use against less informed attackers. Taking up virtually every memorable Republican trope, he has compiled the facts and presented the case for the defense. His verdict: Barack Obama belongs is among the most consequential ever to hold the office.
Hannah’s narrative is accompanied by illustrations by Bob Staake, which lampoon the political characterizations of the President’s personality: Obama as Hitler; Obama as Lenin; Obama as a contemptuous Kevorkian pulling the plug on Uncle Sam’s life support and as a miscreant Dutch boy poking—instead of plugging—holes in an oil pipeline that snakes through a field of windmills. Staake’s trenchant artwork previews each of Hannah’s chapters, and taken together they humorously debunk every conservative superstition that Hannah tees up.
While covering Obama’s major triumphs — including Obamacare, middle-class tax cuts, and the major bank and auto maker rescues — The Best “Worst” President also delves into some of the President’s less trumpeted successes. These include Cash for Clunkers, which took 70,000 less fuel efficient cars off the road and helped jumpstart the auto industry at its most vulnerable moment, and modernizing our strategic nuclear defense capability, including retiring aging warheads.
Hannah also notes that Obama’s personal comportment in office has been laudable, and far superior to many of his predecessors — notably his immediate one. While the George W. Bush Administration conducted itself as a strutting, testosterone-addled band of gun-slingers, Obama brings the studious patience of a samurai to global conflicts.
Economic sanctions and diplomacy may not be as sexy as military invasions, but Obama’s use of them in his dealings with Iran, North Korea, and Russia has resulted in a couple of nuclear arms deals, a severe blow to Vladimir Putin’s self-lauded economy, and a cessation of meddling in the Ukraine. As Hannah points out, had the W administration not suspended talks with North Korea, Obama’s efforts might have resulted in another trade of sanctions for nuclear disarmament there, as well.
Facts and data do not feed the base as much as alarmism and platitudes. Nevertheless, this President makes a habit of studying issues in search of workable, and politically viable, solutions. Hannah cites one particularly timely example that debunks a bombastic charge leveled at the President by the 2016 Republican nominee. Although Obama has been criticized for abandoning phrases like “war on terror” and “radical Islamic terrorists,” no less a reliable source than Osama bin Laden himself lamented—in documents collected at his Abbottabad compound—that the Obama administration had abandoned using such polarizing language, which had helped him to recruit Al Qaeda operatives.
Hannah also helps to illuminate one of the most perplexing aspects of conservative hatred for Obama. Many of this President’s greatest accomplishments are ones that should be popular with the Republican rank-and-file: expansion of national health care through market mechanisms, aggressive attacks on radical terrorists, reduction of the federal deficit by two-thirds. These policy accomplishments have led liberals to criticize Obama from the left — yet many Republicans have been no less critical.
Though the charge that Obama’s critics are racially motivated is a harsh one—and Hannah makes it sparingly—there are few explanations left when Obama has done such a tremendous job of furthering so many formerly Republican causes. Perhaps the most telling of Staake’s illustrations is the drawing of Obama as the intrusive black outsider, window peeping in on an American Gothic—the unwelcome, out-of-place Other that darkens our door.
Like great Presidents before him, Obama has moved the country forward by taking a quintessentially American approach toward our challenges. The President, in Hannah’s analysis, has embraced an optimism that sees the perilous conditions of the moment as fleeting and surmountable. Hannah eloquently argues in his conclusion that the “hopey, changey” approach of a community organizer, as Sarah Palin characterized Obama’s mentality, was exactly what this fractured nation needed at a pivotal juncture in its history.
The shredded remnants of the Grand Old Party, stubbornly interpreting politics with the one-dimensionality of an old cowboy movie, are telling us to be afraid and defensively intolerant. As others rant and rail, encouraging us to feed our anger and give in to our hate, Obama continues to call us to the better angels of our political nature. And that is what gets Presidents immortalized in granite.
Jim Swearingen is a Minneapolis-based writer.