PoliGraph: Obama campaign manager’s claim misses

Jim Messina, President Barack Obama’s campaign manager, was in Minnesota last week, raising cash and trying to get students excited about this year’s election.

At Macalester College in St. Paul, Messina argued that Obama did quite a bit during the first two years of his administration. Even a leading presidential historian said so, Messina claimed.

“The historian Doris Kearns Goodwin just said that the president got more done in the first two years than any president since Roosevelt,” Messina said. “Can you imagine what he can get done if you give him four more years?”

Messina’s statement is overblown – even by Obama and Goodwin’s standards.

The Evidence

Messina didn’t make clear whether he was talking about Theodore or Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But given that Obama is frequently compared to F.D.R. because of the economic challenges both men faced in office, and because F.D.R was more recently in the White House, it appears Messina was referring to the latter president.

Obama’s advocates point out that he was able to overhaul the healthcare system, pass stimulus legislation, repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, enact new financial rules, and start pulling combat troops out of Iraq within his first two years in office, among other things.

In an October 2010 Rolling Stone article, Obama earned praise from Goodwin, Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley for his early accomplishments.

When compared to the two Democratic presidents before him, “when you look at what will last in history… Obama has more notches on the presidential belt,” Goodwin told Rolling Stone.

For their part, Ornstein and Brinkley pointed out that Obama’s accomplishments in his first two years were among the most impressive, but that it didn’t surpass that of F.D.R’s or Lyndon B. Johnson’s.

Indeed, Johnson’s first two years were particularly productive. After he was sworn into office on Nov. 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy died, he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the Voting Rights Act of 1965; the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which laid the groundwork for our current immigration system; the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which provides funding for public schools; and Medicare and Medicaid.

Even Obama appears to agree with Brinkley and Ornstein’s assessment.

“I would put our legislative and foreign policy accomplishments in our first two years against any president — with the possible exceptions of Johnson, F.D.R., and Lincoln — just in terms of what we’ve gotten done in modern history,” Obama said during a December 2012 interview with “60 Minutes.”

Meanwhile, PoliGraph did not find evidence of Goodwin saying that Obama got more done in his first two years in office since Roosevelt. (She did not respond to e-mail inquiries.)

In fact, Goodwin reacted to Obama’s “60 Minutes” comments by saying that it’s too soon to judge Obama’s legacy.

“None of that is being absorbed right now because people are not happy with the economy,” she said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “So it’s almost going to have to wait five, 10 years for people to look back and see those accomplishments,” she said.

She added that Harry Truman, Roosevelt’s successor, should be considered among the most successful presidents for the Marshall Plan, NATO and the desegregation of the Army.

The Verdict

While leading presidential historians, including Goodwin, have praised Obama’s record so far, Messina’s claim is off-base for several reasons.

First, PoliGraph could find no evidence that Goodwin believes Obama’s two-year record was a good as F.D.R’s. In fact, Goodwin said it’s too soon to tell if he belongs in the ranks of F.D.R, Johnson or Truman.

Even Obama seems to side with Goodwin on this one, saying that he’s done a lot – but not as much as at least a few of his predecessors.

For misquoting a leading presidential historian and for overstating Obama’s record, Messina’s claim leans toward false.


CBS This Morning, Presidents Day: A look at Obama so far, with Doris Kearns Goodwin and Douglas Brinkley, Feb. 20, 2011

The Atlantic, Obama, Explained, by James Fallows, March 2012

Rolling Stone, The Case for Obama, by Tim Dickinson, October 2010

The Brookings Institution, President Barack Obama’s First Two Years: Policy Accomplishments, Political Difficulties, Nov. 4, 2010

The Charlie Rose Show, Roundtable on Presidential Leadership, Feb. 20, 2012

Obama and ‘the fourth-best president’ in context, By Jonathan Capehart, Dec. 21, 2011

Morning Joe, Roundtable with Doris Kearns Goodwin, Dec. 21, 2011

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, History of Medicare and Medicaid, accessed Feb. 22, 23, 2012

Email exchange, Kristin Sosanie, spokeswoman, Obama for America – Minnesota, Feb.

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