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White House hedges on ‘4th-best’ president claim

Amid ridicule, claim pulled back

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Facing widespread ridicule for President Obama's description of himself as at least the fourth-best president in history, the White House on Wednesday tried to qualify his assessment as based in part on the "volume" of his achievements.

"Voters will judge it, and historians will judge it, in terms of where it fits in terms of American history in its relative success or greatness," presidential spokesman Jay Carney said of Mr. Obama's presidency. "That's not what he was talking about."

The president's comments that provoked such a reaction were part of an interview that he gave to Steve Kroft of "60 Minutes," but they appeared only in outtakes on the newsmagazine's website. Asked by Mr. Kroft to reflect on his presidency to date, Mr. Obama replied:

"The issue here is not going be a list of accomplishments. As you said yourself, Steve, you know, I would put our legislative and foreign-policy accomplishments in our first two years against any president - with the possible exceptions of Johnson, FDR and Lincoln - just in terms of what we've gotten done in modern history. But, you know, but when it comes to the economy, we've got a lot more work to do."

Some people observed that Mr. Obama left out George Washington.

Critics accused Mr. Obama of exhibiting everything from vanity to illusions of grandeur.

"Perhaps President Obama has been taking history lessons at the knee of Newt Gingrich," the Wall Street Journal editorialized. "Ego aside - or super duper ego aside - Mr. Obama's claims are instructive because they explicitly reject any connection between his 'accomplishments' and the economy that Americans elected him to fix."

A blogger for Comedy Central said Mr. Obama is "getting a Newt-sized head."

Quipped Stephen Hess, presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution, "Since most of life is ranked win-place-show, I can't recall anyone ever claiming 4th-best."

Mr. Carney tried to clarify the president's comments Wednesday, but the more he did, the more it sounded as though Mr. Obama really does think he is the fourth-best president.

"It was within the context of the substance and volume of what has happened in the face of enormous challenges in these past nearly three years," Mr. Carney said. "This was not a comparison of success to other - presidencies, except in this - the significance and substance and size of the legislative accomplishments."

When a reporter asked whether Mr. Obama was aided by historians in reaching his judgment, the president's spokesman said no, but added that Mr. Obama is "a well-read individual" and "reads voraciously in office."

"He was talking about ... he came into office, and working with Congress, facing enormous challenges for this country: an economy in free fall, the real threat of a global depression, two wars and enormous challenges elsewhere in foreign affairs," Mr. Carney said. "And you know, he, with Congress, took action to deal with them. That's what the times demanded."

He cited a list of "big things" that Mr. Obama achieved with Congress: Wall Street reform, the auto-industry bailout, the economic-stimulus plan and the health care law. Mr. Carney also listed ending the war in Iraq, beginning a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and "taking the fight to al Qaeda."

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