With no time to catch his breath, Mr. Obama designed and won approval for a stimulus bill that slowed job loss and helped restore confidence. He engineered a rescue of the auto industry. The steady experts he put in charge of economic policy, notably Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, navigated between the Democratic Party’s left, which urged populist measures that would have been expensive and ineffectual, and an obstructionist Republican Party, which at times seemed content to inflict great harm on the country. The industrial-policy element of the recovery plan, favoring high-speed rail where it’s not needed and electric cars that consumers won’t buy, wasted a lot of money. But on balance the administration, working with the Federal Reserve, succeeded in its core mission. The rebound of the Dow Jones Industrial Average from 6,626 in March 2009 to above 13,000 today is no comfort to the many Americans who remain unemployed or poorer than before the crisis. But it reflects a recovery of the faith upon which every economy depends.
Mr. Obama’s second signal accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, will go a long way when fully implemented toward ending the scandal of 45 million Americans being without health insurance. It also could slow the unaffordable rise in health-care costs, though it is hardly a full answer to that challenge.
Mr. Obama advanced the leading civil-rights struggle of the day when he ended the military’s discrimination against gay men and lesbians and declared his support for same-sex marriage. He took an important step against climate change by promulgating, and persuading industry to support, ambitious fuel-economy standards for cars and trucks.
Mr. Obama continued Mr. Bush’s generous campaign against HIV/AIDS, especially in Africa. He prodded states toward useful reforms in teacher accountability and school choice. Though he failed to champion immigration reform, his Justice Department stood up to the worst harassment of immigrants in Republican-governed states such as Arizona and Alabama. He peppered his Cabinet with leaders of substance, including Hillary Rodham Clinton at State and Arne Duncan at Education, and he nominated and won confirmation for two well-qualified Supreme Court justices.
OVERSEAS, TOO, there were successes and failures. Mr. Obama’s administration vigorously pursued al-Qaeda and tracked down its leader, Osama bin Laden. He supported a popular uprising against Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi. He recognized the importance of bolstering allies in Asia against Chinese bullying, and he opened trade talks with Asian nations intended to encourage an alternative to China’s state-sponsored, often corrupt capitalism.
On the other hand, he was hesitant and inconstant in responding to the two greatest and most unexpected foreign-policy opportunities of his presidency: the pro-democracy uprising in Iran in 2009 and the Arab Spring two years later. Mr. Obama kept the United States on the sidelines as Syria plunged into civil war, costing more than 30,000 lives — most of them civilians — and breeding extremism that may destabilize a half-dozen countries. By not securing a presence in Iraq after ending the U.S. military mission, he failed to capitalize on America’s decade-long commitment to that nation, and his ambivalence regarding Afghanistan — sending more troops, but with artificial deadlines and no clear commitment to their success — promises trouble in coming years.