This post has been updated.
President’s Day is an obvious day to think about what the legacy of the current president might be. President Obama cemented his place in history as the first African-American to be president of the United States, but that was done by virtue of his election in 2008. It’s harder to see what legacy he might have for his actual tenure in office.
Most presidential legacies are defined by victory in time of war, expansions of the federal government, territorial gains or pivotal periods in American history. Many presidents are defined by events outside of their control.
Undoubtedly, Obama has “Nobel Peace Prize winner” as part of his biography, even if that seems bewildering or comical at the present. The reasons other presidents have received Nobel Peace Prizes tend to be mostly forgotten. Just as his Nobel prize was said to be aspirational, his hallmark legislative achievement — the passage of Obamacare — is nowhere near being fully interpreted by regulators or health-care consumers and providers, much less by historians.
If you read Obama’s most recent State of the Union address, it’s filled with platitudes and legislative initiatives that are met mostly with a shrug by the public and more importantly, by Congress, so it’s hard to see what a lasting achievement might be ahead in his second term.
Perhaps Obama has punted. Read what Joe Klein, who is often sympathetic to the president, wrote in TIME magazine about “Obama aiming low, missing greatness.” Perhaps his legacy will be that he took us over the tipping point where more Americans expect something from the government than expect to be left alone by the government. But hopefully that will dissipate, depending on what Republicans can do to mitigate his actions, or what the next president will do to grow our economy. There’s certainly no chance that Obama will be associated with good times or a robust economy.
The exit from Afghanistan will probably be best remembered by what happens in the next few years after we leave, rather than by anything the president did to leave his mark on that country.
All partisanship aside, with the exception of breaking the barrier as the first African-American president, the Obama legacy seems pretty flat. I invite readers to chime in if I’ve missed something he’s done that they think will stand the test of time.