It’s natural that at this point in his presidency people have started talking about President Obama’s legacy, a topic that takes on particular poignancy in view of the presidential election result. Of course, history may well have a different verdict from anything we have to say at this point in time, but it is still useful to attempt a preliminary assessment of Obama’s legacy, if only to clarify our own views as to what we would hope to see happen in the political future.
Since I am going to be quite critical of Obama’s presidency, I want to state at the outset that I have always seen him as an extraordinary public figure with few peers among his predecessors in the attributes of intellect, temperament and character that we would seek in a president: a super-sharp and curious intellect, a consistently thoughtful and judicious approach to decision-making, and an evident moral compass. The contrast with his predecessor, and even more with his successor, could hardly be more stark, but there is no need to compare Obama to those two extreme characters to appreciate his many admirable qualities.
Inarguably, the Obama presidency accomplished a great deal. According to The Nation’s Eric Alterman, Obama was
…the most consequential liberal president since Franklin Roosevelt.* It’s not only passing health-care reform, saving the economy and the auto industry, and rationalizing relations with Cuba and Iran. It’s that he did so while leaving the country with a 4.6 percent unemployment rate, a 3.9 percent wage-growth rate, and one of the longest-lasting economic expansions on record. Then there’s the tone he set. As a rhetorician, he was a peer to FDR and John F. Kennedy. As an executive, he presided over eight years without a hint of genuine scandal. And he did all this while facing a nihilist opposition….”
Alterman’s Nation colleague Katha Pollitt is no less enthusiastic:
I miss him already. Say what you like, President Barack Hussein Obama is supremely intelligent, witty, humane, reasonable, elegant, a great writer, a model father, a good husband, a decent human being. He has empathy and humor. He is sane and calm. He gave us eight years free of scandal and drama: no interns, no corruption, no jobs handed out to outrageously unqualified people (a hallmark of the George W. Bush years—remember “Heckuva job, Brownie”?). Although it’s unfashionable these days to care about dignity and decorum—we’re all vulgarians now, living inside a perpetual reality-TV show— Obama brought seriousness and purpose to an office that had been a kingdom of dimwittery and darkness for eight years. He acted as if knowing what you’re talking about actually mattered.”
For a more exhaustive compilation of President Obama’s accomplishments, you can look through this list from the Washington Monthly.
I don’t have any real quarrel with most of the foregoing. And yet, I am a glass half-empty guy when I contemplate Obama’s presidency. I can’t help thinking of the missed opportunities, the might-have-beens and the failures that make it impossible for me to see in this very impressive man a great president. Coming to office in the midst of an economic crisis of historic magnitude, he had an unprecedented opportunity to re-make American politics. My complaint isn’t that he failed to do so; it’s that he didn’t even really try.
Yes, Obama has had to deal with a tremendous continuing obstacle in the form of a fanatical partisan opposition that was determined from day one to destroy his presidency. But an obdurately obstructionist opposition could have been an opportunity as much as an impediment. It was an opportunity for the President to forcefully articulate a clear and consistent alternative to the Republicans’ reactionary ideology. An alternative that stresses the need for active government to manage the ills of capitalism. Popular distrust of government has been mounting for decades, but Obama’s first acts in the White House were to use “big government” to save the county from the economic abyss. That was an opportunity to make the case to the American people that far from being the bugaboo excoriated by the Republicans, active government is essential to creating a more decent society. It was an opportunity to draw a sharp distinction between the Republicans’ neanderthal economics, which serve the interests of the donor class, and an alternative economics that serves the common good while seeking to level a playing field that is tilted toward the interests of the affluent. But sharpening political differences isn’t Obama’s style. He would rather extend an olive branch to his adversaries even while they are determined to wage war.
An early opportunity to highlight partisan differences arrived in mid-2010, when it had become fairly clear that the economic recovery was flagging. A supplementary stimulus bill passed the House of Representatives in the summer, but Harry Reid declined to bring it up in the Senate, knowing that it would be killed by a GOP filibuster. Reid would certainly have made the effort had Obama pushed him. Then, after the bill failed, the Democrats could have gone to the mid-term electorate with the argument that the only thing standing the way of a more vigorous economic recovery was the Republicans. Not having made the effort, the Democrats couldn’t make that argument and suffered a crushing defeat in the 2010 elections, a defeat that crippled any chance for significant progressive legislation for the rest of Obama’s presidency.
After 2010, Obama rhetorically legitimated the Republicans’ insistent demands for budget cuts—exactly the wrong prescription for an economy that needed more stimulus. I can never forgive him for saying—on more than one occasion—that government needed to tighten its belt, that it needed to stay within its means “just like a family.” Obama surely knew enough Macroeconomics 101 to know that those statements were nonsense. They were cowardly, dishonest pandering to popular economic ignorance. They also gratuitously validated conservative economic ideology, recalling Bill Clinton’s infamous “the era of big government is over.” When Obama did reach a budget cutting agreement with the Republicans in 2011, he could have said, “This deal will make the economy worse, but it’s the best I could do, given the Republicans’ hold on Congress and their insistence on what I regard as badly wrongheaded policies.” Instead, he praised the deal as an unprecedentedly courageous act of budget discipline. That is not the rhetoric of a progressive champion. Note that I’m not objecting to the compromise itself—it may well have been unavoidable. But he didn’t have to say that he liked it.
Possibly Obama’s most egregious concession to Republican ideology occurred on a most unlikely occasion—his disastrous first debate with Mitt Romney. On Social Security, Obama started out by saying that he didn’t think the differences between him and the governor were that great. Unfortunately, he was speaking the truth—Obama had offered up cuts in Social Security in his search for a grand budget compromise with the Republicans. But Social Security is a signature Democratic program—probably the best issue for the Dems to make the case that they are defenders of working people against the avarice and heartlessness motivating Republican economics. Instead, at a uniquely opportune moment to emphasize his differences with the opposition (what’s a presidential debate for, after all?), he tried to minimize them.
In sum, Obama’s great rhetorical skills could have been put to much more effective use in the progressive cause. He could have emulated FDR, who welcomed the hatred of the economic royalists. Instead, he spent much of his presidency in a futile effort to emulate Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser. Even Obama’s greatest fans must realistically concede that even with all his policy accomplishments, politically speaking his presidency has not been very successful. Yes, he did manage to get re-elected.# His party however, has fared badly. Considering Congress and the governorships and state legislatures, the Democrats are in their worst overall position since the 1920s. And, of course, Obama’s chosen successor failed to win the White House. It is curious to me that in all the debates about why the election turned out the way it did, no one ever seems to point a finger at Obama. Clinton is often accused of having failed to communicate a clear, positive message, but it was Obama, after all, who had led the Democratic Party for the preceding 8 years. If people didn’t understand what the Democrats stood for in November 2016, doesn’t Obama bear some responsibility for that?
Again, I am very appreciative of the fact that this country has been a better place with Obama in the White House, and it will be significantly worse after he leaves. But I think it is too easy to admire the man and his accomplishments while overlooking his shortcomings. Sorry to deliver that sour message.
As you might suspect, I also have a glass half empty perspective on Obama’s foreign policies. That will be for a future post.
* I’m not sure about this. LBJ may still deserve that distinction based on the civil rights acts and Medicare alone.
# But, notably, he is the only president in our history who won a second term by a diminished margin from his first election. (This doesn’t count Lincoln and Wilson, who first won office against split oppositions in multi-party contests.)