I'm imagining the candidates are not revived from the dead with their full history in tact per se, and that we are supposed to envision them as they were at the time of their presidencies, but implanted on today's world and with an eye toward how the public overall viewed their presidencies (as if they hypothetically had each served one term and so had some "history" to look at as a guide about them). So each president is "as is" from their own presidencies, in a weird reality where they aren't updated to our time but are also not exactly stuck in their own 100 percent, either.
It would come down to a handful of final contenders:
The oratory skill, political savvy, key policy interests, public perception, and personal charm of these candidates dwarfs all other contenders. Most of the early presidents are disqualified due to worldviews that accepted slavery and a view of the country strongly influenced by the early years when it was smaller and easier to conceive of strong state powers and unregulated capitalism. The one among them who would do the best would be Thomas Jefferson, but in the end, I think a lot of his views would be too problematic for the modern world.
So, let's look at the four candidates I chose as the finalists ...
I think JFK would be similar to Obama in many ways, but more hawkish on foreign policy and would benefit greatly from his instincts and charm. However, his chronic adultery and shady connections would probably hurt him, as today's political and media climate would unearth those things and cost him too much to win.
I think that in 2012, Reagan's age (assuming he was hypothetically the same age as when he was first elected president) would be a factor against him. And his open embrace of trickle-down economics in that overt form would likewise hurt his chances, since for the most part, the concept has been rejected by most of the public nowadays (which is why conservatives no longer sell it by that name or with such plain language that's so honest about what it really is). On the other hand, his charm and positive attitude, and his undeniably very clear vision of what sort of country he wants this to be would be powerful motivators in today's climate. But Reagan would, I feel, be overshadowed by another candidate who by comparison renders Reagan a shadow of what true power of personality and vision looks like. And that candidate is ...
FDR stands above all others, as a visionary and a true leader who personifies what it means to be "president of the United States" in an idealized sense. When he took office, much of the nation expected him to declare a dictatorship—indeed, much of the media openly endorsed the idea of Roosevelt announcing on Inauguration Day that he was taking full dictatorial powers over the country and ending the experiment of democracy. Luckily, he decided against such extreme moves, which is just one of many examples of why he looms tall over all other presidents. He was a visionary, ahead of his time, and one of the few presidents we've had who obviously cared deeply about the suffering and needs of the average person. I believe that contrary to the claims of those who might think he is too liberal to get elected in the modern world, his honesty and plainspoken blunt assessments of the nation's needs and the character (or lack thereof) of his opponents would serve him well. There is only one other candidate with the brilliance of mind, intense charisma in the truest sense of the word, and statesmanlike sensibilities mixed with keen political instincts who could challenge FDR, bringing us to ...
Bill Clinton. I've written about Clinton before in great detail, regarding his charisma and the scope of his intellect. His charisma and intelligence are matched only by his mastery of the art of politics, making him the most formidable candidate on this list. I am speaking of Clinton the former president here, and he is the only president I can think of whose personal failings and affairs would still seem to ultimately fall short of being enough to stop his rise to victory. I think it would be a contest between Clinton and FDR, and that in the end, Clinton's nuanced grasp of history and policy would win the day by a hair. I realize some will contest this based on Clinton's failure to garner 50 percent of the popular vote in either of his elections, but I think that has to be seen in the context of the Perot campaign's impact (which mostly hurt Clinton, contrary to all the myth-telling by those who claim Perot stole Bush/Dole votes). Clinton at his best, particularly by the end of his second term and after, had become an almost perfect president by most objective standards, I think. I say this despite my significant disappointments and strong objections to many of his policies, mind you. But at the end of the day, when we line up all of the presidents, Clinton seems to be a master incomparable to any others save FDR. And Clinton would have the advantage of seeming less economically liberal than FDR, making him appear more fiscally moderate (or even conservative, really).
But since I'd give Clinton a win by only a slim margin, I might wake up tomorrow and think that FDR would actually take the victory after all. So I'll have to say it's about a tie between FDR and Clinton, with Clinton my presumed winner by Electoral College standards, as of right now. I'd not argue much with those who think FDR would win, though.
More questions on 2012 U.S. Presidential Election:
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