How Obama's Legacy Could Be Crafted

Reelection is key to Obama's favorability among historians and voters.

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If President Obama wants to be one of the most revered presidents of all time, he had better focus on his reelection. That's because a multiple-term presidency, followed by a win from the same party, is the big measure that history uses to judge presidents favorably, says Robert W. Merry, editor of The National Interest and author of a forthcoming book on how American voters and historians view their presidents. According to this year's Presidents' Day polls, Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt still rank the highest in contemporary history.

[Read about the 10 Worst Presidents.]

The two other standards that determine a president's favorability, says Merry, are high marks from historians, which tend to influence public opinion, and the degree to which the presidency set the country in a new direction. Reagan and Roosevelt are the only 20th-century presidents who meet all the criteria.

Harris Interactive, a polling company, points out that the two favorites reflect the country's partisan divide. Reagan is the Republican favorite, while Roosevelt is held in highest esteem by Democrats and independents.

While Obama doesn't fare too well in these rankings right now, Merry says it's not fair to compare a sitting president to historical figures. How Americans feel at the moment lacks "the dispassion that comes with time," he says.

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