President Obama may be in be final months of his presidency or just nearing the end of his first term. If you asked conservatives to name the worst thing Obama has done in his presidency, many would say Obamacare or the debt. Some might say the deterioration in the U.S.-Israel relationship or the Libya debacle. But these things can be ameliorated by future presidents and lawmakers. There are some things however that are not so easily erased, and in the long term may be far more detrimental to the United States and the West.
On the negative side of the ledger, any accounting of Obama’s presidency must start with Iran. Short of military action or regime collapse, Iran is likely soon to have nuclear weapons capability. Obama wasted 18 months at the onset of his presidency on “engagement,” snubbed the Green Movement, dragged his feet on sanctions, talked down the military option and failed to isolate Iran diplomatically (it recently held a multi-national United Nations conference). Either Obama or the next president will be handed a predicament, accept a nuclear-armed Iran or engage or support military action that will have serious consequences for the region and the West. Jimmy Carter’s ineptitude and projection of weakness (because he lost the presidency) was promptly counterbalanced by Ronald Reagan’s assertion of American power. But a nuclear bomb and the closing of the window on the best chance in decades for Iranian regime change are, if not forever, the long-term legacy of Obama’s misguided foreign policy.
Second, Obama has set a dangerous precedent with regard to executive power. In unilaterally altering major legislation (welfare reform, immigration) he has crossed a threshold that future presidents are likely to step over as well. If he can unilaterally decide not to enforce certain immigration laws future presidents can essentially ignore parts of tax, regulatory or civil rights statutes they don’t like. It is a recipe for serious damage to our constitutional system of checks and balances.
Third, the mass murder in Syria, the extent of which is yet to be known, will be a permanent stain on Obama’s record. For the tens of thousands of dead Syrians and their families, the president’s inaction suggests “never again” now needs a footnote “except when an election is at stake” or “except when a U.S. president is intent on blending into the woodwork at the U.N..” As the war has dragged on, jihadist fighters have seeped into the country and now pose a long term threat to Syria and the region. Bashar al-Assad’s resilience has emboldened and will continue to affect the calculus of his closest allies in Tehran.
Now the president is not without successes. On the positive side of the ledger Obama deserves credit for building on the legacy of President George W. Bush in the war on jihadist terror (although Obama won't call it that). He utilized intelligence extracted by the Bush administration to track down and eventually assassinate Osama bin Laden, enhanced the drone program, utilized Bush’s military tribunal system rather than civil courts, kept Gitmo open (albeit at the insistence of Congress), and kept the Patriot Act in place. In doing so, he cemented Bush’s legacy and created a bipartisan consensus on the tools for fighting jihadists.
Second, Obama did extend the Bush tax cuts in 2010, even if it was not his preference. In doing so he prevented even greater damage to the economy and cemented conservative dogma on low taxes. To the extent the public now understands the deleterious effect of raising taxes in a weak economy, fiscal conservatives can thank Obama for repudiating decades of liberal talking points.
Finally, in a foreign policy strewn with errors, misjudgments and moral lapses, our approach to Burma has, at least for now, born fruit. Adhering to sanctions changed the cost benefit analysis of the regime and has helped open the way to some reforms. How lasting and extensive these are remain to be seen, but at least in one corner of the world Obama confirmed that a judicious use of carrots and sticks can promote human rights and democratic reforms.