I’ve thought for some time that the Obama administration could look better in the rearview mirror of history than it does in the bumpy ride of the day to day. That may still turn out to be correct.
Yet events of the past few months — specifically, the rise of the Islamic State and the accompanying specter of a renewed terror threat to the United States — have raised the alarming prospect of a legacy even more dismal than suggested by the current grim poll numbers.
The rosier view of the historical prospects of the 44th president involves the early achievements of the first term, combined with the muscular executive actions — actions taken and actions perhaps to come — of the second.
Obama inherited an economy in free fall and, within the limits of the politically possible, did what he could to contain the damage and to prevent a recurrence (the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation).
In the public mind, these are either failures or forgotten — not surprising, given the weak and sluggish recovery. Certainly, the response was less than perfect: To take one example, the administration did not respond robustly enough to stabilize the housing market and stem the tide of foreclosures. Yet, as economic analyses have shown and history should reflect, the administration was effective in blunting the worst effects of the Great Recession.
Next, at least to his, and his party’s, short-term political peril, Obama seized the fleeting moment to enact health-care reform, setting the stage for the twin achievements of expanding coverage to millions of uninsured Americans and slowing the relentless growth of health-care costs.
Whether this unfinished enterprise will succeed, and will be viewed as a success, in the longer term remains unclear. But polls and dreary midterm prospects notwithstanding, the initial results suggest achievements on both fronts. More Americans have reliable insurance, and the trajectory of health-care cost increases has noticeably slowed.
No doubt, important items remain unaddressed, whether because of Republican obstructionism (immigration reform and action on climate change) or a combination of partisan politics and presidential timidity (entitlement reform and Obama’s promise to end presidential can-kicking top this list, along with the intertwined task of bringing the federal debt to a sustainable level).
Historians’ reviews of Obama’s predictably disappointing second term will hinge in part on his effectiveness in implementing — and keeping in place — executive actions. The two main second-term events will be immigration (how Obama makes good on his promise to take executive action) and, even more significant for the long term, climate change (the Environmental Protection Agency’s pending proposal to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants).
Especially given the excitement that greeted Obama’s election, this has been a disappointing presidency. Even given the venomous recalcitrance of his opposition, Obama has failed to summon the country and to cajole (or bludgeon) Congress to his side. In the broader sweep of history, however, the legacy achievements may outweigh those lapses and the parade of faux scandals, from Solyndra to Benghazi to the Internal Revenue Service.
But the biggest disappointment, and the biggest threat both to his legacy and the nation’s security, has come in the foreign policy arena. Certainly, the current conglomeration of global crises — from Ukraine to Syria to Iraq — cannot fairly be blamed on Obama. The geopolitical and sectarian tensions that sparked them precede him and will long outlast his presidency.
And yet it is impossible not to wonder whether a more experienced hand in the Oval Office might have done a better job trying to manage this difficult situation. The what-ifs are legion: What if Obama hadn’t been so eager to remove the last U.S. troops from Iraq and had secured an agreement to keep some in place? What if Obama had armed the more moderate Syrian rebels? Would the Islamic State have grown into what Obama, after the beheading of journalist James Foley, described as “this cancer”?
This will remain unknowable. What’s known is this: The central focus of Obama’s remaining time in office must be figuring out how to eradicate this menace. Foley’s beheading was a savage act, but the real threat is not to Americans abroad — it’s that the Islamic State, seeking to prove its bona fides, will orchestrate attacks on the homeland.
Obama won the election by promising to extricate the United States from wars. If he instead leaves office with the country in more danger than it was eight years earlier, the rest of the legacy will be for naught.