Photographer: Yoichi Okamoto/LBJ Library & Museum via Bloomberg
Photographer: Yoichi Okamoto/LBJ Library & Museum via Bloomberg

Last week, I chimed in on the debate liberals have been having about President Lyndon Johnson. I explained why it’s hard to separate the good from the bad. Now I'm finding the debate increasingly frustrating. Here's why:

The most important thing to establish in any assessment of a president is what he actually did in office, not whether the events that occurred while he was in the White House were good or bad.

With Johnson, for example, we first need to answer questions about his responsibility for Vietnam (a lot, though there are many moving parts) and about his responsibility for important Great Society legislation (some, though Congress and outside interest groups were the major players on many bills). Only then can we get into the question of whether those bills were good enough to outweigh the war.

And Kevin Drum is right: It’s a mug’s game to insist on a single grade for any president. I prefer to focus on demonstrated presidenting skills anyway, but I understand (and share) the urge to judge presidents based on policy outcomes.

Repeat: The starting point in evaluating presidents always is the question of what the individual accomplished. Not what the government did. Not what the nation did. Not what the world did.

To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Bernstein at Jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net