It is far too early to render final judgment on the Obama presidency. All the chatter about his “legacy” overlooks two obvious realities. The significance of President Obama will depend heavily on events that have not yet happened (for starters, the fate of the Iranian nuclear deal) and comparisons, for better or worse, with his successor. Still, it’s possible to make some tentative observations.
As I’ve written before, the administration’s greatest achievement was, in its first year, stabilizing a collapsing economy and arguably avoiding a second Great Depression. Even now, only eight years after the event, many people forget the crash’s horrific nature. Unemployment was increasing by roughly 700,000 to 800,000 job losses a month. No one knew when the downward spiral would stop.
In this turbulence, Obama was a model of calm and confidence. The policies he embraced — various economic stimulus packages, support for the Federal Reserve, the rescue of the auto industry, the shoring up of the banking system — were what the economy needed, though they were not perfect in every detail. Although the subsequent recovery was disappointing, it’s not clear that anyone else would have accomplished more.
If Obama had done nothing else, rescuing the economy would ensure a successful presidency. But he did do other things, and we shouldn’t forget the historic significance of having an African American as the nation’s leader.
Still, his broader record is mixed. I think he will get credit for Obamacare, regardless of how Donald Trump and the Republicans modify it. The argument will be made, accurately I think, that the expansion of insurance coverage to roughly 20 million Americans would never have occurred if Obama hadn’t put it at the top of his agenda.
This does not mean that promoting Obamacare was uniformly wise. It did not solve the problem of high health-care costs, and it aggravated political polarization. It also seems a product of personal ambition, reflecting Obama’s desire to be remembered as the liberal president who finally achieved universal coverage. In reality, even after the 20 million, there were an estimated 28 million uncovered Americans in 2016, says the National Center for Health Statistics.
Some of Obama’s biggest setbacks were widely shared. One was coming to grips with an aging society. As I’ve repeatedly written, the growing population of older people is distorting government priorities, because Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid (which covers nursing home care) increasingly dominate the federal budget, squeezing other programs and enlarging budget deficits.
Obama never dealt aggressively with this problem, because doing so would have offended his liberal political base. His failure made it impossible to secure major concessions from Republicans on raising taxes. Similar failures plagued immigration policy and climate change. Facing political paralysis, Obama resorted to executive orders and regulations. Many will probably be revoked in a Trump administration.
What Obama lacked was the ability to inspire fear as well as respect, and this also helps explain why his foreign policy often fell short — Syria being the best but not the only example. Few presidents have worshiped their words more than Obama. To take one example: His farewell speech last week ran 50 minutes; the average for seven other post-World War II presidents was 18 minutes, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Not only did he worship his words, but he assigned them more power than they possessed. At times, he seemed to treat the White House as a graduate-school seminar where he was the smartest guy in the room and, therefore, deserved to prevail. At news conferences, he gave long, convoluted responses full of subtleties that may have impressed political and media elites but didn’t do much to shift public opinion.
Our government has turned into a quasi-parliamentary system. Controversial proposals are supported and opposed mainly, or exclusively, by one party or the other. This is a bad development. It strengthens fringes in both parties, who hold veto power. It discourages compromise and encourages stalemate. The legislation it produces is often acceptable to partisans but less so to the wider middle class, undermining public faith in government.
The question historians need to ask is whether Obama contributed to this dysfunctional system or was victimized by it. He was unable to construct a working relationship with congressional Republicans. Was this because, as the White House has contended, Republicans had been unmovable from partisan positions? Or was Obama complicit, because his own partisan constraints left little maneuvering room? Maybe both.
In this era of snap judgments, a true verdict on Obama is years away.
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