President Barack Obama’s greatest achievement remains his 2008 election. It is not his only accomplishment, but what seemed like major first term advances (Obamacare, the killing of Osama bin Laden) are now seen in a different perspective. Health-care costs are rising and Obamacare remains unpopular and fraught with implementation problems. The resurgence of al-Qaeda throughout North Africa is arguably a more important development than the assassination of bin Laden.
Meanwhile, we’ve had the longest period of anemic growth and high unemployment since the Great Depression; we are awash in debt; and we have frittered away gains in Iraq by a premature departure, leaving Iran more influential than when Obama took office. Obama has not stopped the Iranian nuclear program. He has done nothing while the greatest bloodbath of the 21st century, the mass murder of 60,000 or more Syrians, occurred.
Obama’s quest for greatness that derives from something more than simply being the first African American president is thwarted on the domestic front by his own desire to wage a petty partisan war against his opponents. Trying to break the back of the opposition and forcing them to appear intransigent is the stuff of a ward pol in Chicago; it does not lead to achievements nor make a mark in the presidential history books. Obama’s domestic agenda is also hobbled by an intellectual disconnect: David Axelrod said on Sunday, sure, the president wants to do more pro-growth things. But the measures he favors, such as even more taxes on the rich (heck, why just not confiscate it all and end the suspense?), have nothing to do with spurring private sector growth. If domestic spending were the key, we’d be at full employment and 4 percent growth by now.
On the international front Obama again seeks greatness. A New York Times report is revealing: “As Mr. Obama begins his second term, aides and confidants say he is acutely aware that his ambitious agenda to restore America’s influence and image in the world stalled almost as soon as the prize was awarded. But the president has indicated that he plans to return to his original agenda, though he has hinted it may be in a different, less overtly ambitious way.” One however does not increase American influence, accomplish international objectives and reset events by bugging out of wars too hastily, appointing cabinet officials still mired in Vietnam Syndrome and hollowing out our armed forces. Apparently Obama wants personal greatness without projecting U.S. power and influence. Good luck with that.
What would lift him into the ranks of better presidents? (Right now on the merits he is certainly not as successful as Presidents George H.W. Bush, who presided over the end of the Cold War and won the First Gulf War, or Bill Clinton, who few would argue is in the top ten presidents). It is not going to come from universal background checks on gun sales. (That may be worth doing but it does not confer greatness.) Four things come to mind.
First and foremost, destroying Iran’s nuclear weapons capability and/or regime change in Tehran would be huge. It would eliminate the greatest peril to the United States since the Cold War. It would remake the Middle East. Conversely, allowing the mullahs to get the bomb would be a catastrophe for our own national security, for the Middle East and, yes, for Obama’s legacy.
Second, as Nixon went to China, Obama refashioning our entitlement programs would be a monumental achievement. Unfortunately, a series of tax hikes on the rich, one continuing resolution after another and trillions more in debt won’t cut it for the history books. A breakthrough on entitlements would require Obama to accept the tax hikes he already pulled out of the House and turn to, if you will, making entitlements as progressive as our income tax.
Third, achieving energy independence would be historic. As a bonus, the flourishing of domestic energy development would help jump start the economy. America’s independence from Middle East oil would, in conjunction with decapitating the Iranian nuclear program, transform the region and our national security strategy.
And finally, a comprehensive immigration reform plan in which border control, workplace verification and a path to citizenship for the 11 to 12 million illegal immigrants would be a huge accomplishment. This requires, of course, compromise and a desire to make a deal rather than to have the GOP reject a deal. It requires the subordination of politics to good policy.
Today’s proceedings seem underwhelming in part because Obama is already president (quite literally since he was actually sworn in yesterday). It is also the case that the president hasn’t given a truly good speech since the Arizona memorial. Expectations and interest are therefore low. But it is also the case that Obama has helped devalue his own words by governing not as someone pursuing greatness but as someone spurred by partisan animosity. Despite his sycophants’ claims to the contrary, Ronald Reagan he is not.