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Obama's second term: What history says to expect

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Greenberg agrees. The intense focus on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is relatively recent. "If you were a reporter in the 19th century, you didn't go over to the White House," he says. "You went to the Senate gallery."

Focusing too closely on what chief executives get through Congress can lead to misconceptions about modern presidents, too. Legislation is only one of their tools. Others include federal agencies, executive orders, appointments, and judicial nominations. Hoffman and Greenberg cite both Reagan and Clinton as success stories.

"You hear people saying [Clinton] squandered his second term," says Greenberg. "He did a lot. Not through legislation. But that's a narrow view of what presidents do." He cites one example: Clinton's executive orders protecting more wilderness areas from development "than any president since Teddy Roosevelt."

"Meanwhile," Greenberg adds, "budget deficits gave way to surpluses, the economy enjoyed its longest continuous expansion [in history], and poverty rates plummeted."

It's important to disentangle ideology from the questions of success and failure. Unlike basketball, in which success means getting the most points, success to a Democrat – like passing health reform – can mean abysmal failure to a Republican, and vice versa.

The two sides disagree not just on worth but facts. Greenberg, not a Reagan admirer, praises Reagan's greatest second-term achievement – his partnership with Russia's Mikhail Gorbachev to peacefully end the cold war.

" 'Star wars' had nothing to do with it," he says, rebutting the idea that Reagan cowed Gorbachev into submission by pushing a strategic defense shield. "Russia couldn't maintain client states. Reagan was not cynical about Gorbachev. His overtures in the second term revived a hopeful spirit."

Sharply disagreeing about the importance of star wars is Clark Judge, a former speechwriter and aide to both Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

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