An Evaluation Of The Obama Presidency: Implications for Understanding Our Times (Part One of Two)

by John Stafford

INTRODUCTION

Now that the nation has completed its political transition from Light (Obama) to Darkness (Trump), I have decided to offer an evaluation of the Obama Presidency.  I am doing this for two reasons.  First, I believe there is value to reviewing the achievements of what I consider to be an uncommonly successful presidency (which is the focus of this article).  Second, I believe that reflecting on the Obama presidency yields important insight into the emergence of Trump (which will be the subject of my next article).

I begin with the obvious caveats.  Although my academic training is in history and I am a student of public policy, I am neither a professional historian nor a public policy expert, and thus am not qualified to write this article.  In addition, any meaningful evaluation of Obama will be written in the future, not several weeks after the end of his presidency; and it will require hundreds of pages of analysis, not a mere summary as contained herein.  In short, I am the wrong person writing at the wrong time and in the wrong forum.  Undeterred, I proceed due to what I consider to be the importance of the endeavor.

There are three sections:  a graded evaluation of Obama’s performance in 20 discrete areas; a discussion of several key meta-narratives of the Obama presidency; and a final assessment.

The writing style will be succinct, which is necessary to maintain brevity while evaluating a plethora of policy initiatives, but unfortunately, does not allow for a robust discussion of highly controversial actions.  The grading scale is traditional, with a C being average.

EVALUATION OF OBAMA IN 20 AREAS

  • Foreign Policy — Philosophy. Grade:  B

A major Obama foreign policy achievement was the de-escalation of the War on Terror.  Obama jettisoned the absurd “Global War on Terror” and “Axis-of-Evil” paradigms; instead insisting that the United States was not at war with Islam.  The “Pivot to Asia,” reflecting the belief that the U.S. will not be able to democratize the Middle East, and that the impetus to do so will have to come from the region itself; acknowledgement of the inexorable ascendance of China; the ongoing nuclear weapon dilemma posed by North Korea; and domestic political change in Japan; was also appropriate.

Obama’s broader legacy in the Middle East, however, is ambiguous.  Obama diminished the U.S. role in the region, but this came with significant costs.  According to analyst Michael J. Boyle, these include the increased Russian role in the region, an expanded Saudi Arabian versus Iranian sectarian competition for regional hegemony, and lessened prospects for a two-state solution.  Boyle writes:  “He [Obama] wanted to avoid costly entanglements in the region in order to respond to shifts in the global balance of power that he rightly saw as more important.  Instead, he left the United States too deeply enmeshed in the region’s politics to withdraw but too removed to make much of a difference.  The great drama of the Middle East, with all of its political and religious convulsions, was not one in which Washington could relegate itself to being only a bit player.”1

Many have commented critically on the emergence of a new, less liberal international order under Obama, driven by the rise of China and a re-emergent Russia.  I see Obama’s legacy in this area in a more favorable light.  Importantly, Obama served to restore the international image and credibility of the United States, which had been seriously damaged under Bush II.  He also supported the institutions of the liberal order – rhetorically via advocacy for national self-determination, democracy, inclusionary politics, the rule of law, etc.; but also substantively via support for the UN, the EU, NATO, etc.  Obama understood the overreach of Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis (that after the fall of the USSR, western capitalism and democracy would emerge as globally dominant), and instead acknowledged the unavoidable reality of a new, multi-polar world order.2 Finally, Obama’s inherent conservativism regarding military engagement was invaluable, given the reckless approach (with its devastating consequences) of his predecessor.

There were also major foreign policy philosophy weaknesses under Obama.  Many analysts have commented on the absence of a clear and coherent Obama foreign policy doctrine.  In addition, Obama’s foreign policy was characterized at times by naivete, as evidenced by his 2009 Cairo speech promising a new beginning in relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world, and his initial reluctance to appreciate the magnitude of the threat of ISIS, to whom he referred to as, “…masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks and twisted souls plotting in apartments and garages.” Finally, Obama has accelerated the onset of the drone era in international warfare.  Boyle observes: “Through the steady expansion of drone usage, the Obama administration has undermined the sovereign right of noninterference that traditionally accompanied the possession of territory…This has inculcated an acceptance among the American people that the U.S. government has the right to strike anywhere in the world it sees as a threat.  This lowered threshold for the use of force creates precedents that America’s enemies – and indeed its new president – may exploit.”3

  • Foreign Policy – Specific Situations. Grade:  B-

Under Obama, the U.S. located and killed the primary architect of 9/11, Osama Bin Laden, as well as other Al-Qaeda operatives.  His efforts to reduce involvement in Iraq (albeit perhaps prematurely) were appropriate.  The Iran nuclear deal is a pragmatic temporary solution to a difficult dilemma.  I also believe that Obama’s approach to Israel has been appropriate – emphasizing unwavering U.S. commitment to Israel; but concurrently advocating for a two-state solution, and therefore arguing against actions (e.g., continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem) that erode its long-term prospects.  Consequently, Obama’s decision to not veto UN Resolution 2334 (calling for a halt to settlement expansion) was appropriate.

Obama’s normalization of bilateral relations with Cuba was a significant achievement.  He also handled the Crimea/Ukraine situation effectively, avoiding military conflict while implementing sanctions against Russia and providing limited support for the Ukraine military; and demonstrating resolve against further Russian westward expansion via enlarged support for NATO, Poland (via deployment of U.S. tanks) and the Baltic nations.  He also made small (sometimes symbolic) contributions to relations with a number of other countries, from Japan (including the Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor visits) to Vietnam to Kenya.

However, there have been a number of situations where Obama’s record is problematic.  Obama’s Afghanistan policy was somewhat schizophrenic, with a period of intense focus and troop surge followed shortly thereafter by vastly diminished emphasis and troop reduction, contributing to highly uncertain prospects going forward.  The attempted “reset” of relations with Russia was obviously a failure.  The administration was also plagued by equivocation during the Arab Spring.  Obama began with his grandiloquent May, 2011 speech: “We have the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator…America must use all our influence to encourage reform in the region…we need to speak honestly about the principles that we believe in – with friend and foe alike.”4 This was followed by equivocation in Egypt regarding decisions to support Mubarak, Morsi and el-Sissi.  The U.S. intervention in Libya was plagued by lack of viable long-term strategy, and has unleashed chaos in the country.  In Bahrain, Obama initially insisted that the U.S. would stand up for Shiite majority rights against repression from the Sunni administration, but this amounted to essentially nothing, prompting Foreign Policy Magazine’s article, “How Obama Caved on Bahrain.”5 Syrian policy was also ineffective, characterized again by the lack of a viable plan and indecisiveness – a pusillanimous approach that contributed to the tragic massacre in Aleppo, the endurance of the savage Assad, and increased Russian, Iranian and Turkish influence in the country.  The Economist, in observation of these phenomena, refers to “…America’s new irrelevance” in Syria.6 The Obama administration has also been ineffective in both North Korea, with the U.S. doctrine of “strategic patience,” and in the crisis in Darfur, during which Obama devolved from the use of powerful rhetoric to tactical neglect.

  • Military Strategy/National Security/Civil Liberties. Grade:  C

The Obama administration made strides in ending many of the appalling detention and interrogation practices of the prior administration.  These successes were tempered by Obama’s prolonged inability to close Guantanamo.  Moreover, there remain major concerns about invasive data gathering and surveillance practices.

More concerning is Obama’s support for a major upgrade of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.  Obama rhetorically supported the reduction of nuclear arms, describing in 2009 a program for moving toward a nuclear- free world (the primary basis for his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize).  Obama did achieve a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia in 2010 (the New START treaty, calling for the reduction of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 for both sides).  Yet, he has supported a 30-year, roughly $1 trillion upgrade of the nuclear arsenal, which focuses on smaller, more tactical nuclear weapons with more precise targeting capabilities (referred to as, “more accurate atom bombs”).  General James E. Cartwright, retired Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argues that on the one hand, the more precise targeting capabilities will enable the U.S. to hold fewer nuclear weapons; but acknowledges that on the other hand, “…what going smaller does is to make the [use of the] weapon more thinkable.”7

  • Trade. Grade:  B

Obama’s belief in the value (both economically and diplomatically) and importance of global trade is well-placed.  One of the most salient and underreported phenomenon of our times has been the global decline in poverty rates (the World Bank reports a decline from 35% to 11% between 1990 and 20138).  There are a multitude of factors behind this trend, but one of them is expanded trade.  Obama’s well-founded belief in the potential benefits of trade stand in stark contrast to the retrograde and dangerous mercantilist, zero-sum trade philosophy of the new administration.

However, for trade agreements to be desirable, they need appropriate protections for workers, the environment, and the sovereignty of governments.  Obama’s primary trade policy proposal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was deficient in all three areas.  Perhaps most concerningly, it contained an inappropriate investor-state dispute settlement mechanism (“ISDS”) that would allow corporations to sue sovereign governments if they implemented domestic policies that damaged their trade prospects with the country.

  • Immigration. Grade:  B

Obama’s legacy is mixed in this area.  He spoke about the need for undocumented residents to have paths to citizenship, and about the urgency of comprehensive immigration reform.  He also instituted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012, to enable undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as youth to receive renewable periods of deferred action on deportation proceedings; as well as its sister proposal — Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) in 2014, to enable undocumented parents to live and work in the U.S. for three years (DAPA was later blocked in court).  Obama also instituted liberal immigration policies in support of unaccompanied youth and families fleeing difficult circumstances in Central America.

However, his administration deported roughly three million immigrants, more than any other U.S. president in history (including Bush II, who deported a million fewer).  Obama’s deportations were seen as part of a conciliatory strategy to incent Republicans into passing comprehensive immigration reform – a strategy that failed.  He also ended the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy that allowed migrants fleeing Cuba without a visa to stay in the United States.

  • Domestic Economy – Recovery and Growth. Grade:  A-

Obama spearheaded a massive economic recovery from the Bush II Great Recession.  This was comprised of multiple components, including the controversial auto bailouts (which proved successful), financial bailouts (e.g., AIG and the support of JPMorgan Chase’s acquisition of Bear Stearns), aggressive Federal Reserve intervention, and economic stimulus (which, although too small and diluted with excessive non-infrastructure spending, was nonetheless effective).  Recalling that Obama’s stimulus program was highly criticized at the time, Paul Krugman notes that a recent survey of economic experts reveals that 82% believe that the stimulus reduced U.S. unemployment compared to just 2% that don’t.9

National GDP dropped 8.2% in the fourth quarter of 2008 (the last quarter of the Bush II presidency).  By the third quarter of 2009 (Obama’s first year in office), economic growth was positive again, and has remained positive in all but two quarters since.  The national unemployment rate has fallen by more than half since the end of the Great Recession, to 4.7%.  There have been 75 consecutive months of job growth under Obama – a modern-era record.  Moreover, the Dow Jones Industrial Average recovered from its Great Recession low of 6,547, and more than tripled to 19,732 by Obama’s final day in office.  Against all of these achievements, it must be noted that annual GDP growth rates under Obama have been lower than historic norms (very likely a structural phenomenon), and that Obama did not reinvigorate the domestic manufacturing base.

  • Domestic Economy — Taxation/Business Regulation/Industrial Policy/Income Inequality: Grade:  B

This array of somewhat disparate categories is considered concurrently, because each has major implications for income inequality, one of the major issues of our times.

Obama did address the problem of rising income inequality rhetorically, and made incremental progress via a number of small measures (e.g., significantly expanding the compensation ceiling for triggering overtime pay; increasing the minimum wage to $10.20/hour and instituting paid sick leave for federal contractors; establishing a requirement to have states set realistic child support payments for lower-income, non-custodial parents in order to avoid debt accumulation; instituting the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to prohibit gender-based pay discrimination; requiring increased transparency in race and gender pay differentials; etc.).

Although seeking to end the Bush II tax cuts, Obama was only able to eliminate reductions worth 18% of their total value (mostly by eliminating the cuts on earnings over $450,000 for married couples and $400,000 for singles).  Obama did not make significant progress on comprehensive tax reform, the elimination of tax loopholes, or the repatriation of corporate profits held overseas to avoid the tax burden of repatriation.  Obama’s Treasury Department did impose some restrictions on corporate tax inversions (the process whereby domestic corporations purchase a smaller, O.U.S. corporation in order to change their tax domicile to a lower-tax-rate nation, thereby reducing their tax obligations), and instituted several measures (e.g., restrictions on “earnings stripping”) to reduce incentives for corporations to pursue this option.

Importantly, Obama established the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task forces to work with the Department of Justice to launch successful legal efforts to obtain large financial settlements from banks involved in illegal mortgage-backed security practices during the Great Recession (including Deutsche Bank, Citigroup, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Barclays).  Finally, he oversaw the introduction of Dodd-Frank regulations to limit financial sector power, which included the creation of the Consumer Financial Protections Bureau.  Despite these achievements, Krugman asserts:  “Let’s be clear:  The financial crisis should have been followed by a drastic crackdown on Wall Street abuses, and it wasn’t.  No important figures have gone to jail…and there has been nothing like the wholesale restructuring and reining in of finance that took place in the 1930’s.  Obama bears a considerable part of the blame for this disappointing response.”10

Obama’s policy actions in a variety of industries were generally sensible.  For example, Obama supported the important precept of net neutrality for the internet; expanded the Department of Transportation and National Highway Transportation Safety Administration regulatory roles for autonomous vehicles; and established a practical set of guidelines for states that had legalized marijuana that, if followed, would minimize federal involvement in state-level marijuana affairs.

  • Deficit/Debt. Grade:  A-

Obama is often criticized by Republicans for increasing the nation’s deficit, as the deficit increased from $458 billion in 2008 (Bush II’s last year in office), to $1.413 trillion in 2009 (Obama’s first year in office).  This interpretation is predictable and absurd.  Anyone who knows anything about anything understands that essentially 100% of the increase in the deficit was attributable to Bush II.  George W. Bush simultaneously pursued the unheard of “policy quadfecta” of two unfunded wars, massive tax cuts (primarily for the affluent), a major new spending program (the Medicare Prescription Drug Program) and irresponsible deregulation of the financial sector.  No-one cuts taxes in times of warfare, let alone introduces a new domestic spending program.  Unsurprisingly, this proved to be toxic recipe, leading to economic collapse.  By late 2008, the New York Times predicted that the 2009 deficit would be between $1.5 trillion and $2.0 trillion, irrespective of who became president.

Under Obama, the deficit has been steadily reduced from nearly 10% of GDP (by far the highest of any year since the aftermath of WWII) in 2009, to between 2.5% and 3.0% of GDP (which is in the range of what most economists consider to be reasonable) in the last three years of his administration.  This has largely been attributable to increased federal revenue due to the growth in the economy, and no new major tax reductions.  It is worth noting that budget deficits under Trump are expected to increase again, largely due to his proposed tax cuts for the affluent.

  • Domestic Programs. Grade:  A-

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has been a major achievement.  The total number of Americans without health insurance has dropped by over 20 million (from 48.6 MM to 27.3 MM Americans) since the onset of Obamacare in 2010.  This represents a decline from 16% to 8.6% of the population, with the latter figure (from 2016) being the first time in the nation’s history that the uninsured percentage of the population fell to below 9%.  That being said, Obama’s decision to not insist on the public option as a part of the ACA hurt the program and represented a failure to make more substantial progress toward the eventual goal of a single payer system.

In public education, the federal government plays only a modest funding role (accounting for less than 10% of total K-12 funding).  Thus, its role in the public education system is limited.  That being said, the abolishment of the absurd, Bush II No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which focused on identifying “failing schools” (without reference to socio-economic conditions) via high stakes testing, and its replacement with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was a significant Obama-era achievement (and one in which Washington State’s Patty Murray played a leadership role).  Obama also advocated for free tuition at community college.

There was not significant Medicare or Social Security reform (to improve future solvency prospects) under Obama.  However, the Obama strategy of merely upholding the current programs while not making progress on solvency stands in stark and superior contrast to Bush II and possible Trump administration proposals, which rely on sinister combinations of eligibility restrictions, benefit cuts and/or privatization efforts.

  • Public Health/Crisis Interventions/Foreign Aid. Grade:  A-

Obama played a significant rhetorical role on AIDS, stating, “We’ve learned that stigma and silence don’t just fuel ignorance, they foster transmission and give life to a plague.”11 In addition, federal funding for addressing the international crisis (PEPFAR – the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief – which was started under Bush II), peaked under Obama at $4.6 billion in 2010.  Obama also asked Congress for $1.8 billion to combat the Zika virus (although he only obtained a fraction of these funds), and $6.0 billion to combat Ebola, playing a meaningful role in dealing with the hysteria that surrounded the crisis and contributing to its containment.  He also asked Congress for $1.1 billion for initiatives to address the U.S. opioid epidemic, and launched the “Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week.”

Obama was also consistent and steady in his responses to the nation’s gun and violence tragedies (e.g., Sandy Hook, Fort Hood, Umpqua, Charleston with Obama’s singing of Amazing Grace, Orlando, and others) and disaster response (e.g., Hurricane Matthew).  He regularly advocated for increased gun control (although with little tangible success).

Under Obama, foreign aid was increased considerably, after three years of decline during the end of the Bush II administration.

  • Environment – Climate Change. Grade:  A-

Climate change policy is treated separately from other environmental topics, because (in my view) this is the primary moral issue of our times.  To Obama’s immense credit, he is the first American President to make climate change a central priority.  The Seattle Times observes that, “He was also the first president to fully embrace climate change science…”12 His Clean Power Plan (calling for coal power emission reductions) is bold.  He also aggressively raised automobile mileage standards (Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFÉ), and was the first president to implement CAFÉ standards for medium and heavy weight vehicles.  He contributed to the success of the monumental Paris Climate Agreement, and entered into a significant climate change agreement with China (and other nations) in 2016, committing the countries to adoption of the Paris Protocol and other measures.  He increased investment in renewables, largely via Department of Energy grants, and took steps to address aircraft carbon emissions.  He opposed the Keystone XL Pipeline and attempted to delay the permitting of the Dakota Access Pipeline (both measures have been disregarded by Trump).  He also closed off the Arctic and part of the Atlantic Ocean to new oil and gas drilling at the end of his tenure.  This amounts to a major set of achievements.

This being said, his overall climate policy record, as noted by a number of analysts, is mixed.  Importantly, Obama did not make meaningful progress in moving the country away from a fossil fuel economy.  Bill McKibbon of 350.org stated in a December, 2013 Rolling Stone article:  “By the time Obama leaves office, the U.S. will pass Saudi Arabia as the planet’s biggest oil producer, and Russia as the biggest producer of oil and gas combined.”13 Thus, Obama embraced the science of climate change, made rhetorical progress on the issue, and instituted a number of meaningful initiatives/measures; but he did not fundamentally alter the underlying fossil fuel problem at the heart of the crisis.

  • Environment – Other. Grade:  A-

Obama was also strong in other environmental areas.  This article won’t cover the array of environmental initiatives pursued by Obama, but will highlight arguably the most notable — his massive expansion of national monuments, including Gold Butte, Nevada and Bears Ears, Utah, using the Antiquities Act of 1906.  The Economist reports:  “Mr. Obama has designated 535 million acres as national monuments – more than twice as much as any other president.”14 The Obama administration also instituted a host of environmental protection regulations in the latter days of his time in office.

  • Domestic – Social Policy and Civil Rights. Grade:  A

Obama had a number of successes in these areas.  They include: the repeal of the ridiculous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy for gays in the military.  His views on gay marriage evolved during his tenure, and the landmark 2015 Supreme Court Decision requiring states to recognize gay marriage took place during his tenure.  He also made significant progress towards women’s equality in the military.  And Obama supported LGBTQ rights via support of the right to use restrooms that corresponded with chosen gender identity.  Obama also pursued diversity via his cabinet and judicial picks, appointing both Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court.

Obama spoke against discriminatory policing and police brutality, and reached consent decrees with the Chicago and Baltimore police departments to pursue more racially equitable policing.  He also took measures to address the racially-biased war on drugs and criminal justice system.  He ended the U.S. use of private contractors for prisons.  He also granted 1715 commutations and 212 pardons (for a total of almost 2,000 clemency grants), mostly for low-level drug convictions — a level without precedent since the FDR/Truman era.  He instituted a number of less visible measures, including reducing prison phone rates and generating support for the My Brother’s Keeper program.  Obama also designated three civil-rights sites in his final days in office.

A variety of social indicators (e.g., abortion rates, crime rates, smoking rates, illegal immigration levels, etc.) improved considerably under Obama.

  • Campaign Finance and Election Reform.  Grade: C

On the one hand, Obama railed against the increase in corporate influence in the campaign finance system.  Obama himself garnered record numbers of small, individual campaign contributions (presaging the inspiring Sanders campaign finance model of 2016), although Obama was certainly not immune to the lure of elite-circle fundraising.

On the other hand, major setbacks in the realm of campaign finance (e.g., Citizens United, which allowed unlimited corporate donations; and McCutcheon, which increased limits for individual donors) occurred in the Obama era.  This is not to say that Obama did not play his part in opposing these decisions; but rather to observe that campaign finance has become an even more concerning phenomenon in the Obama era.

  • Developing Broad Electoral Support and Momentum for his Platform. Grade:  C-

The Democratic Party lost control of a considerable number of state governorships and legislative chambers during the Obama Administration.  The Republican Party now controls the governorship, state senate and state house in 25 states (an all-time high); while the Democratic Party controls this trifecta in just 5 states (a low going back to the Civil War, when there were far fewer states).  Even worse, the Obama era has been followed by the election of the most alarming individual ever to hold the office of president.  Many of Obama’s achievements – regarding the environment, health care, deficit reduction, civil rights, etc. – will now face repeal.  New York Times columnist Ross Douthat writes:  “And in electoral politics, instead of the great Obama realignment, we have a Democratic Party reduced to rubble and the staggering ascent of Donald Trump.”15

Obama’s culpability in these transpirings is controversial, and I will return to this question in the final section, as it bears on the evaluation of the Obama presidency.

  • Vision – Appropriateness and Inspiration: Grade:  A-

Obama articulated an appropriate and inspiring vision for the country:  inclusive politics; support for the liberal international order; the recognition of a multi-polar future; the exercise of caution in military engagement; nuclear arms reductions; dealing with global warming and income inequality; the promotion of equality and civil rights; etc.  And, as noted above, Obama made meaningful progress in many of these areas.  The Seattle Times writes, “…Obama had an unsurpassed capacity to inspire and encourage the better angels of our nature.”16

  • Vision – Limitations and Contradictions: Grade:  C

Although Obama’s vision was appropriate for the times as well as inspiring, there are four dimensions along which it can be criticized.

The first is inconsistency.  Obama sought to establish a more civil, less partisan political discourse; while concurrently seeking to transform society by doing such things as addressing the divisive issues of climate change and income inequality.  These objectives are mutually incompatible.  Just as slavery was never going to be abolished in a congenial political environment; progress on climate change and income inequality are not going to occur in the spirit of cordial bipartisanship.  The Seattle Times writes:  “His presidency, by his admission, failed its lofty promise.  The country is more hyper-partisan and certainly not post-racial.”17

The second criticism, an extension of the above, is the naivete inherent to Obama’s vision as well as his approach to trying to implement it.  Paul Krugman writes:  “Obama was indeed naïve.  He faced scorched-earth Republican opposition from Day One, and it took him years to start dealing with that opposition realistically.”18

Third, there is the contradiction between Obama’s soaring rhetoric, and the reality of his governance.  In an appearance at Seattle’s Town Hall, Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe, conceded that Obama, “campaigns in poetry but governs in prose.” Indeed, Obama portrayed himself as Gandhi-esque, but alas, was never of this mold.  This was made clear via a recurring series of inconsistencies between his rhetoric and reality.  Obama advocated for climate change, but allowed fossil fuel expansion; he worked to transform the health care system, but gave up the public option; he spoke in favor of democracy during the Arab Spring, but often did not back the pro-democracy contingents; he won the Nobel Peace Prize in part for advocacy for a nuclear-free world, but signed off on a $1 trillion nuclear arms upgrade; he opposed the Global War on Terror but advanced the age of drone warfare; he advocated for progressive immigration policy but pursued deportations; he pursued trade agreements, but failed to secure the necessary labor and environmental protections to make them desirable; etc.  Some argue that these contradictions between rhetoric and reality reflect nothing more than realpolitik realities.  Others argue that these inconsistencies are devastating to the Obama legacy.  Cornell West asserts that Obama, “…posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit.”19 In my view, neither of these extreme interpretations is accurate; instead, the truth lies somewhere in between.  Krugman summarizes the situation well:  “In each of these areas of public policy, Obama delivered less than his supporters wanted, less than the country arguably deserved, but more than his current detractors acknowledge.20 He concludes: “I don’t care about the fact that Obama hasn’t lived up to the golden dreams of 2008.  I do care that he has, when all is said and done, achieved a lot.”21

The fourth potential criticism of the Obama vision is that, at least for now, it has been repudiated by the onset of the Trump administration.  I will return to this important topic later.

  • Administration Ethos. Grade:  A

This is one of the most underrated and underappreciated strengths of the Obama presidency.  Obama elevated the importance of science, fact, the recognition of intellectual authority, and the belief in a logical and intellectual approach to policy formulation.  He also worked to institutionalize this ethos, implementing the Open Science policies after the end of the Bush II administration.  The importance of this aspect of Obama’s legacy is becoming increasingly transparent as our society devolves into the dangerous, post-truth, alternate-fact, fake news, society-of-spectacle, pseudo-reality world that increasingly defines the Trump era.

  • Leadership. Grade:  B+

Obama was steady and versatile.  He was able to handle a broad range of challenges, from economic crisis to international conflict to domestic challenge.  He also operated effectively on multiple levels — he articulated a vision for the country, rhetorically supported the ideals behind this vision, and instituted a variety of policies to effect this vision.  He did not merely preside over the nation, but instead sought to reform it.  He had an aggressive but not overburdened change strategy.  And he was at once ideological and pragmatic; serious-minded but able to maintain perspective; heavily invested but able to handle setbacks; emotional but possessing uncommon equanimity.  He was affable, at times self-deprecating, and possessing of a strong sense of humor.  When Dick Cheney referred to him as, “…one of the worst presidents we’ve ever had,” Obama retorted, “That’s funny, I thought Cheney was one of the worst presidents we’ve ever had.”

Nonetheless, Obama was at times overly aloof, and unwilling to sufficiently engage the senators and representatives involved in the messy and demanding legislative process, which is a prerequisite for effecting change.

  • Class/Comportment. Grade:  A+

Throughout his time in office, Obama conducted himself with professionalism, class and dignity.  His eight years in office were ethical, and devoid of scandal, conflicts of interest, etc.  Columnist Leonard Pitts writes in a published farewell letter to Obama: “You have performed on the highest, most public stage there is, sir, faced headwinds unprecedented in American politics and nonstop disrespect from the GOP.  But you did so with unflappable dignity, unshakable class…and urbane cool.”22

III. META-NARRATIVES

Prior to making an overall assessment of Obama, I will discuss five meta-narratives that I believe create useful perspective on the Obama presidency.

  1. Obama righted the nation from the sinking ship status left by Bush II.

The U.S. was in dire condition at the end of the Bush II presidency.  The nation was involved in two wars (one with no known rationale) that were proceeding poorly; its international standing was badly damaged; it was mired in recession due largely to the under-regulation of the financial sector; and it was positioned to produce an inconceivable $1.5 trillion deficit in 2009.  As Obama noted: “We were losing 750,000 jobs a month when I was sworn in…We had to stop the bleeding.”23 In the next several years, the Obama administration launched a prolonged economic recovery, cut the unemployment rate in half, reduced the deficit to historic norms, reduced military involvement abroad and improved the U.S. image abroad.  Obama, like Lincoln and FDR, came to office at a time of national crisis, and made critical contributions to stabilize the nation.

  1. Obama is a truly remarkable individual.

The nation’s top office has been held by a number of truly remarkable individuals, (e.g., Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Eisenhower, etc.).  For Obama to enter the presidency in a time of national crisis, as the first black president in a nation built on slavery, while operating under the microscope that accompanied his status as the nation’s first minority president, and to achieve what he has achieved, is truly remarkable.

It is also important to recognize that, as the nation’s first minority president, it was important for Obama to succeed.  Jackie Robinson is a seminal figure in baseball, not merely because he was the first African-American major league player, but because he was outstanding.  Obama’s success will serve as an enduring national (and international) inspiration.

It also goes without saying that had Obama engaged in the type of unethical behavior – whether in his personal life (e.g., Clinton’s Lewinsky scandal) or in his administration (e.g., Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal), he would have faced an unprecedented, racially-heightened backlash from a still far-too-racist nation.

  1. Unfortunately, the powers that be will evaluate Obama through the distorted prism of a racist lens.

From start to finish, Obama was treated in many quarters as an imposter.  From the birther movement; to Mitch McConnel’s “Party of No,” aligned to oppose Obama; to South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson’s infamous “you lie” outburst; to the Tom Cotton Iran Letter (intended to undermine Obama’s Iran nuclear program negotiations); to the Republican courtship of Benjamin Netanyahu; to the GOP refusal to allow a vote on Merrick Garland’s appointment to the Supreme Court; to the endless quips about Obama and his family; the implicit message was clear:  “Don’t worry America, there may be a black interloper in office, but this is country is still controlled by the elite white establishment, and we won’t let the Obama agenda overly influence the direction of the country.”

Unfortunately, the same racist sentiment that led to the reflexive opposition to Obama when he was in office is also driving the effort to diminish his legacy.  I posit the following:  If the roles of Bush II and Obama were reversed – that is, if a black Democrat started two unsuccessful wars (and one based on a trilogy of lies), instituted reckless policy that led to a major recession and the skyrocketing of the federal deficit, and was followed by a white Republican who executed the architect of 9/11, moved to extricate the country from its foreign wars, improved U.S. standing abroad, and led a dramatic and prolonged economic recovery – the nation would be chiseling statues of the white Republican in front of every school building in the country.  Obama, of course, will not enjoy this fate.  For the present, he will have to be satisfied with the plaudits of academics, historians and other analysts in-the-know, and wait for the maturation of the country and the vindication of history for more widespread accolade.

  1. Obama was a visionary and a tactician, but not necessarily transformational.

As noted previously, I argue that Obama articulated an appropriate and inspiring vision for the country.  I also argue that Obama clearly established himself as an effective tactician, able to formulate and implement a series of tangible steps to both move the country out of recession and onto a more solid economic foundation, and to similarly formulate and implement tangible steps to reduce our overextended military presence abroad.  However, it is in the realm in-between, in the effort to transform American society, where Obama’s legacy remains unclear.  As noted previously, there has been a large gap between his oratory and his achievement of transformational policy.  Moreover, in areas where he did achieve transformation (e.g., the ACA), he faces the prospect of rollback.

  1. It will take a generation to evaluate Obama.

It is often the case that it takes years before an effective evaluation of a president can be made.  This is because that final result of the vision and initiatives pursued by a president cannot be known for decades.  It should be noted that this principle can also be invoked as an excuse to delay unfavorable judgment.  Such was the case with Bush II, where acolytes argued that it will take generations to evaluate his legacy, because of the potentially transformational effects of his actions in the Middle East.  In my view, this is absurd.  The gross incompetence of his administration, and the chaos he unleashed in the Middle East (as well as in the U.S.) cemented his legacy even before the end of his time in office.  There will be no historic revision.

Conversely, a full assessment of Obama’s legacy must await the unfolding of history.  This is largely due to the repudiation of Obama’s vision that has occurred via Trump.  Obama defended the liberal international order, sought to address climate change, deal with income inequality and move the nation one step in the direction of a single-payer health care system.  All of this is now being reversed.  Thus, the ultimate evaluation of Obama is, to some extent, contingent upon the future.  If, on the one hand, Trump proves to be a temporary anachronism, a troubling detour in an otherwise forward march toward a more progressive future characterized by global integration, inclusionary politics, the solving of key moral challenges (e.g., climate change), then Obama may eventually prove to be, retrospectively, a president who was indeed transformational.  If, on the other hand, the future does not involve the reestablishment of this progressive vision, then Obama’s legacy will prove less momentous.  I bet heavily on the former scenario.

Some will argue that a president cannot be held responsible for the future outcome of events – something that is out of their control.  I completely disagree.  A central objective of a president must be to situate him/herself and his/her policies within “the tides of history” (to cite Obama himself) – to ascertain whether the vision and policies he/she pursues can ultimately come to fruition.

III. FINAL ASSESSMENT

Overall, I ascribe the grade of B+ to the Obama presidency, and argue that this would place him somewhere in the range of the 10th to 12th best president in U.S. history.  This evaluation is not based on an algorithm that weights and averages the aforementioned 20 performance categories, but rather a subjectively and intuitive assessment based on their substance.

Historians often place presidents in tiers.  The first tier is reserved for exceptional presidents, and most commonly contains just Washington, Lincoln and FDR (in various orders).  The second tier, generally contains an additional eight to ten presidents.  As implied above, I would place Obama near the bottom of this second tier.  A recent (2017) C-Span poll of 91 historians ranks Obama as the 12th best president in U.S. history, roughly in line with my evaluation.

I also argue that Obama is the best U.S. president since Truman (which is somewhat at odds with the C-Span poll, which places Kennedy, LBJ and Reagan higher).  Moreover, since I believe that Obama’s progressive vision will eventually prove ascendant, I believe his legacy will further improve with time.  In support of this view, I close by again citing Krugman, who concludes that, “…Obama has emerged as one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history.”24

In my next article for the South Seattle Emerald, I will attempt to build off of this evaluation of the Obama presidency to shed light on one of the most jarring and troubling disconnects in modern political history – the blood-curdling transition from Obama to Trump.

John Stafford is a senior substitute teacher for Seattle Public Schools.  He is a former partner with Strategic Planning Associates, a corporate strategy management consulting firm in Washington, D.C.  He has a B.A. from Dartmouth College, an M.A. from St. Martin’s University and is completing an M.A. from the Harvard Extension School.  He is involved with the Democratic Party in South Seattle.

Notes:

  1. Michael J. Boyle, The Tragedy of Obama’s Foreign Policy. Current History, January, 2017, pp. 14-15.
  2. Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man.
  3. Michael J. Boyle, The Tragedy of Obama’s Foreign Policy. Current History, January, 2017, p. 14.
  4. Amy Hawthorne and Michele Dunn, Remember that historic Arab Spring speech? Foreign Policy online, 5/21/13.
  5. Elliott Abrams, How Obama Caved on Bahrain. Foreign Policy online, 2/27/15.
  6. The Economist, Syria’s peace talks: Time for someone else to have a go.  1/28/17, page 39.
  7. James E. Cartwright, cited in William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, As U.S. Modernizes Nuclear Weapons, ‘Smaller’ Leaves Some Uneasy. New York Times online, 1/11/16.
  8. The World Bank online, 10/2/16.
  9. Paul Krugman, In Defense of Obama. Excerpted from Rolling Stone Magazine, October 23, 2014, in Rolling Stone Magazine, February 23, 2017, p. 82.
  10. Paul Krugman, In Defense of Obama. Excerpted from Rolling Stone Magazine, October 23, 2014, in Rolling Stone Magazine, February 23, 2017, p. 82.
  11. Penny Starr, “Obama on Aids: ‘Stigma and Silence Don’t Just Fuel ignorance, They Foster transmission.”  In CNS online, 6/6/16
  12. Seattle Times Editorial Board, Yes He Did: Obama Made America Better.  The Seattle Times, January 15, 2017, p. A18.
  13. Bill McKibben, Obama and Climate Change: The Real Story.  Rolling Stone, December 17, 2013.
  14. The Economist, National Parks: An Ear-full.  January 14, 2017.
  15. Ross Douthat, Making an educated guess on Barack Obama’s legacy. The Seattle Times, January 20, 2017.
  16. Seattle Times Editorial Board, Yes He Did: Obama Made America Better.  The Seattle Times, January 15, 2017, p. A18.
  17. Seattle Times Editorial Board, Yes He Did: Obama Made America Better.  The Seattle Times, January 15, 2017, p. A18.
  18. Paul Krugman, In Defense of Obama. Excerpted from Rolling Stone Magazine, October 23, 2014, in Rolling Stone Magazine, February 23, 2017, p. 80.
  19. Cornell West, cited in: Paul Krugman, In Defense of Obama.  Excerpted from Rolling Stone Magazine, October 23, 2014, in Rolling Stone Magazine, February 23, 2017, p. 80.
  20. Paul Krugman, In Defense of Obama. Excerpted from Rolling Stone Magazine, October 23, 2014, in Rolling Stone Magazine, February 23, 2017, p. 83.
  21. Paul Krugman, In Defense of Obama. Excerpted from Rolling Stone Magazine, October 23, 2014, in Rolling Stone Magazine, February 23, 2017, p. 83.
  22. Leonard Pitts Jr., Godspeed, Mr. President. The Seattle Times, January 15, 2017, p. A18.
  23. Barack Obama, cited by Jann S. Wenner, In Command: The Rolling Stone Interview.  Rolling Stone Magazine, February 23, 2017, p. 49.
  24. Paul Krugman, In Defense of Obama. Excerpted from Rolling Stone Magazine, October 23, 2014, in Rolling Stone Magazine, February 23, 2017, p. 83.

Featured Image is a Wiki Commons photo 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One thought on “An Evaluation Of The Obama Presidency: Implications for Understanding Our Times (Part One of Two)”

  1. I would give Obama a lower grade overall, perhaps C, despite the many achievements that you point out. Otherwise, Trump would not have won. In my view, Obama’s huge failure, the elephant in the room, was his bailout of Wall Street instead of the working class.
    This was because Obama is a creature of the establishment, the liberal establishment to be sure, but still the establishment. Instead of cleaning house in 2009, he surrounded himself with Wall Street people. Likewise he kept the traditional foreign policy establishment. Without the right team in place, it was impossible for reality to match his rhetoric.
    Read the article in The Atlantic magazine by Ta-Nehisi Coates about Obama’s deference to the white establishment, though I found it tro be too much about race and not enough about class. Also, read the work of Chris Hayes or Walter Benn MIchaels on the perils of meritocracy and diversity, when class is neglected as a consequence.
    Also, our problem is not just income inequality, but also wealth inequality. It’s the concentration of wealth and power that has corrupted and economic and political system, with bigger crises to come. Read Peter Turchin (“Ages of Discord”), for our best historian’s research on this.

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