The post-election period has felt less like a long goodbye to Barack Obama than like an endless wake. On the right, the elation can be barely be concealed. The Weekly Standard, in its Jan. 16, 2017 issue, features a cartoon of the President frowning as he stuffs souvenirs of self-regard into moving boxes—a portrait, a bust with his Nobel medal draped around the neck—while his impatient successor peeks through the window, pointing at his watch.
On the left, dismay virtually chokes the atmosphere. A special issue of The Nation contains articles such as “Barack Obama Was Too Cool for the Press Room.” This weekend’s episode of Saturday Night Live featured Cecily Strong and Sasheer Zamata even serenading him with the 1967 hit, “To Sir, With Love.”
Eight years after his first inauguration, Obama has left the White House in much the same way that he entered: judged more for what he was or was not than for what he had done. It’s almost inevitable, considering the two Republicans bookending him in the Oval Office: both winners by virtue of the Electoral College rather than the popular vote, both outside the current of progressive opinion, and both derided in most corners of the foreign press as cocky and gauche Ugly Americans.
The Weight of Great Expectations
If Obama’s first two volumes of autobiography were titled Dreams of My Father and The Audacity of Hope, his next, if it just covers his first campaign and two years in the Oval Office, could be termed properly (if less originally) Great Expectations. During the 2008 primary season, MSNBC commentator Chris Mathews raised eyebrows by saying on air that he “felt this thrill going up my leg” when Obama spoke.
Foreigners also felt “this thrill”: he was voted the Nobel Peace Prize a mere nine months after taking office, before he’d had much of a chance to do anything. (It was the third time, following the selection of Jimmy Carter and Al Gore, that the Nobel committee gave the award to an American as a kind of thumb in the eye to George W. Bush.)
All this for a politician with a total of only three years in the national spotlight as a member of the U.S. Senate before he plunged into the Presidential race.
Obama himself encouraged these outsized hopes, as seen in the ambitious program outlined in his first inaugural address:
“We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We'll restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. All this we will do.”
I am being merely realistic, not disrespectful, when I say: No, we didn’t. Obama might have been better off in taking a leaf from the President to whom he was often compared in those heady days, John F. Kennedy, who cautioned, in his own inaugural address: “All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”
Had Obama employed a similarly measured tone, he might have not only curbed the disappointment of the most radical Democrats but might have gone some way to reassure conservatives and some independents that, unlike so many in his party, he would not push too far. But heroic rhetoric raises not just hope, but also disenchantment, fear and even contempt.
I saw the latter feeling on full display at a dinner among one of my high-school classmates two years into Obama’s first term, after another friend had spoken scornfully of George W. Bush. “So, I guess you think Obama is the one?” she shot back, in such a tone that “the one” might as well have been in quotes, italicized and capitalized. (Over the years, I soon found out, other conservatives had less ironic, more rancid nicknames for the President, including “Obamamessiah” and “Obummer.”)
Some readers might wonder about the headline for this post—why I offer Obama only two cheers rather than three. Others, such as the high-school classmate above, might scratch their heads about why I offer any cheers for him rather than, say, the back of my hand.
But ultimately, Obama will be assessed in the cold light of history, and judging him by the above extremes only replicates the polarization that has bedeviled this country for decades.
A Preliminary Verdict: A Good—Not Great or God-Awful—President
So, from where I stand, Obama will go down as a good President. Not a great or near-great one, but not a fair or failed one, either. He’ll probably won’t be regarded, as he long hoped, as a transformative President, which is the inevitable result of his work that amounted to rescue and recovery rather than reform. Yet, given the dire straits facing this country when he took office, that in itself is significant. Not every occupant of the Oval Office can claim to have left America a better place when his term is finished.
Decent, if slightly inflated, cases for Obama’s positive and extensive legacy have been made by New York Magazine contributor Jonathan Chait and by my former Congressman in New Jersey, Steve Rothman. Among other achievements, he:
*stanched the bleeding from the worst recession since the Depression, allowing the economy to grow again and halving the unemployment rate;
*pushed through bailouts that helped save the American auto industry;
*signed consumer financial protection legislation;
*established the United States as the leader in the struggle against climate change;
*signed the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act (2009), which designated more than 2 million acres as wilderness, created thousands of miles of recreational and historic trails, and protected more than 1,000 miles of rivers;
*ordered the operation that killed Osama bin Laden;
*wound down combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq;
*avoided plunging the United States into yet another war.
These achievements, it seems to me, are inarguable. But notice what I didn’t include on this: the Affordable Care Act (ACA), so widely regarded as his signature legislation that it is far better known as Obamacare, and the nuclear treaty with Iran.
It is simply too early at this point to predict the shape of American health care if Obamacare is junked, as the GOP (and Donald Trump) have threatened so long to do. If a replacement is made that embraces many of its basic principles (e.g., previous medical conditions can’t be an excuse to deny coverage), no harm will be done to Obama’s legacy. If nothing replaces it, however, no credit will accrue to his name.
As for the Iran nuclear pact: While it is true that no Republican has put forward a concrete plan to forestall the radical Islamic government’s nuclear designs, the Democrats have their own hard case in arguing the merits of the President’s treaty. If the Iranians find a way to circumvent the treaty, Democrats’ argument that at least the pact slowed them down may not ring true to much of America.
A Coalition Piece Goes Missing
The President headed a party convinced that demography was destiny, that the coalition first brought into being in the McGovern campaign of 1972—youth, feminists, minorities, and college-educated suburbanites—had now reached critical mass, beckoned to a golden electoral future by their mastery of social media. That meant they did not have to take seriously the viewpoint of blue-collar ethnic Catholics, for instance, who might have serious qualms about unrestricted access to abortion. Stigmatizing them as “anti-women” did nothing to incline such voters to the rest of the Democratic message.
Worse, by furthering the bipartisan consensus that developed around free trade in the last 30 years through the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Obama administration left much of the labor movement (including the AFL-CIO) wondering how their jobs would be protected. That increased their readiness to listen more closely to a candidate whose views, on this matter at least, purported to be close to theirs: Donald Trump.
For all his slipperiness with facts, Trump brought to the fore a matter understandably little acknowledged by those who extolled Obama’s employment record: the undercounting of those who dropped out of the workforce during the recession. Many of these workers ended up permanently sidelined because, over the age of 50, they were now considered unemployable. The failure to eliminate this rampant employer ageism—or otherwise ameliorate the plight of older workers—fed a narrative of federal disregard.
In neglecting the American Heartland, Obama and the candidate he endorsed to protect his legacy, Hillary Clinton, forgot a basic law of politics: Before reaching for the future, be sure you have a firm grasp on the present. That failure left the much-vaunted Electoral College “blue wall” in the Rust Belt fatally vulnerable, underlining the disaster of the party’s underrepresentation in state and local offices, something not seen since the 1920s.
(I’m not sure, even now, that many of the party faithful get it. Several weeks ago, a college friend listed 15 organizations worthy of contributions in the Age of Trump: the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the like. Noticeably missing: any group that would help with material or emotional assistance to those still suffering from the recession and its aftermath. That omission would only confirm the feelings of so many in the Heartland that their needs had been forgotten by the party that once had given America the New Deal. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party also seems obstinately intent on alienating potential allies, as shown by its cancellation of plans to allow pro-life feminists to act as official co-sponsors of this weekend’s Women’s March on Washington.)
A “D” on Policing the Financial Services Industry
Advocates for a high place for Obama among the Presidents point to his singing of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform bill. It is true that the bill featured a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
But early on, the President rejected an attempt to reverse, while he could summon a majority in Congress and a still-enthusiastic public, what had been one of the principal causes of the Global Financial Crisis: the 1999 Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act, which had eliminated the Depression Era’s Glass-Steagall Act’s separation of commercial and investment banking.
Moreover, with Attorneys General Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch opting for “deferred prosecution agreements,” in which the Department of Justice calls off investigation if a company makes operational changes, enforcement of existing law was lax. Not surprisingly, not one Wall Street executive has been held responsible for the massive financial services misconduct that resulted in all too many Americans losing their homes, or even being named in a civil or criminal action.
When Words Failed Him
For someone who rose to power because of his command of words, Obama did not use what Theodore Roosevelt called the Presidency’s “bully pulpit” enough to rally support for his legislation, as Ronald Reagan did. Though he had saved his 2008 Presidential campaign with an address that came to grips with the race baiting of his Chicago pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, he did not summon his oratory often enough while in office, as America’s racial cleavage widened.
Furthermore, for a politician of instinctive caution, some of Obama’s most significant policy mistakes resulted, oddly enough, from gaffes:
*"If you like your health care plan, you can keep it”—the President repeated that statement more than 30 times, enough for Politifact.com to term it “Lie of the Year” for 2013. Together with the initial disastrous online registration for the Affordable Care Act, it left a first impression of the program so terrible that many recipients would never see the virtues that later emerged from it.
*ISIS was “the JV” of terrorists compared with al-Qaeda. In an interview with David Remnick of The New Yorker, Obama tried to tamp down fears about ISIS: “The analogy we use around here sometimes…is if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant. I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.” The remark was, viewed most charitably, tone-deaf. But it fed suspicions that Obama did not view with sufficient seriousness a group with its own unique operational structure, as well as enough “reach” to take over whole swaths of Syria.
* The use of chemical weapons or their transfer to terrorist groups in Syria would cross a “red line for us” and might spark a U.S. military response. Statesmen have learned, over the years, not to threaten force unless they are prepared to back it up. Obama’s caution about another Mideast quagmire was understandable, even admirable. But, when he backed away, it took the pressure off Syrian President Bashar Assad and opened a vacuum that Vladimir Putin sought to fill. The humanitarian crisis spilled beyond that nation, with refugees flooding Europe and fanning far-right sentiment there.
The Era of Bad Feeling Begins
Two hundred years ago this year, the collapse of the Federalists as an electoral force and a new President’s good-will tour ushered in a two-term “Era of Good Feeling” under President James Monroe. Less than a week into this new administration, it’s safe to say that a similar tide of popular sentiment is not about to begin in America.
Somehow, it seems appropriate that, in this age of falsehoods, now reaching its climax, another one is being perpetrated. It is more pernicious than the fake news swallowed by so much of the electorate because it is being voiced by the more respected portion of the Republican Party—officeholders like Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, or commentators like Ben Shapiro or Peter Behrens. It goes like this: It’s not our fault that Trump rose to power; it’s Barack Obama’s.
This canard cannot be allowed to continue. The responsibility for the next four—maybe eight—years lies squarely with the Republican Party, not Obama. It starts with the blatant obstructionism that blocked passage of even routine budget bills these past few years, let alone more complicated legislation, and continued up through the shameful refusal even to hold a vote on the Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland. All of this fed a feeling on the part of much of the electorate that the system was so broken that no conventional politician could fix it.
The shame of the Republicans continued with the refusal to display even the simplest civility of hearing him out during a speech before Congress, a courtesy accorded to every other President in living memory. Instead, Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted “You lie!” (Democrats were only able to pass a formal rebuke of him because they controlled the House of Representatives at that point.)
The Best Measure of Obama: Character
“Character matters; leadership descends from character,” goes one of the most famous quotes from Rush Limbaugh. Then the talk-radio host went on to undercut his message several times over: first, in his own personal life (four marriages, three divorces); then, in his full-throated endorsement of the newly inaugurated “serial philanderer,” “sniveling coward,” “bully” and “pathological liar” (Ted Cruz’s words, Faithful Reader, not mine—though, truth be told, this may be the only thing I ever agree with the senator on).
In an irony that drove Limbaugh and the far right to utter distraction, the best confirmation of his statement came from the President they could never stop hating. In contrast to Bill Clinton and (let’s be bipartisan here, shall we?) Rudy Guiliani, Newt Gingrich, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mark Sanford, and David Vitter, not to mention Trump, Obama has been faithful to his wife. Instead of repeating the mistake of his family by abandoning his children at a vulnerable age, he has made time for Sasha and Malia.
Accused of being a crypto-Islamist, Obama revealed his true religious instinct by following Christ’s injunction to turn the other cheek. At times almost too cool for school, “No Drama Obama” trusted in the power of reason to make his case. Subject to one execrable attack after another by much of the GOP (whose leaders consistently looked the other way), he consistently concentrated on the task at hand, and—unlike Trump—never showed the slightest vindictiveness.
Class—not material riches, but maturity, grace, and elemental decency—tells. The late occupant of the Oval Office understood that and behaved accordingly, to the credit of him and those who elected him; the present occupant never has and, despite vows to act “Presidential,” still doesn’t, to his discredit and that of the voters who gave him the most consequential office in the world.
I do not think that Obama will rank among the all-time great Presidents—not only did the GOP constrain him, but, unlike FDR, he did not do anywhere near enough to reform Wall Street. That said, unlike just about every other President of the last 40 years, his administration was untouched by scandal; he was a role model as a faithful husband and thoughtful father; he acted cautiously; and he conducted himself with a dignity that, before long in the Trump administration, even many of his critics, such as former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan and Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance, are already acknowledging. In the current poisoned political environment, that makes him an adult, maybe even a giant.