With President Obama's second inauguration just two weeks away, the pundits are talking about Obama's legacy. In an MSNBC interview with Michael Beschloss, for example, Alex Witt posts this list of Obama's first term accomplishments and calls them significant.
Lilly Ledbetter Act
Student Loan Reform
Auto Industry Rescue
Financial Reform Bill
Killing Osama bin Laden
To that we could add withdrawing troops from Iraq (pursuant to an agreement between his predecessor and the Iraqi government) and, of course, the facts that he is our first non-white President and was reelected. Are there other significant accomplishments that will impress historians a few decades hence? I don't think so, and if he had died yesterday in a prosaic, non-political way, such as by choking on a pretzel, he would be remembered 25 years from how for just one thing—being black.
Some might argue that he will be remembered for "Obamacare," officially the Affordable Care Act, but we don't seem to be remembering George W. Bush for the Medicare prescription drug plan, which is about as significant and a great deal more popular. Maybe the auto industry rescue will be remembered by some, but does anybody remember that President Carter rescued Chrysler in 1979, that President Ford bailed out New York City in 1975, or that President Nixon rescued Lockheed in 1971? (Other government bailouts are listed here.) No? Didn't think so.
It seems to me that none of the other accomplishments on the MSNBC list (or any others to date) are going to be remembered for long, let alone thought of as legacy material. So, if Obama is going to be remembered as other than a seat-filler, it's going to have to be for something he does in his second term.
Others have noticed this, of course, and describe Obama as having been so far a "transactional" President who would like to be a "transformative" President but isn't doing what he would need to do to get there. Tom Friedman nails the problem in yesterday's NYT op ed, More Risk-Taking, Less Poll-Taking: Obama is not articulating a vision of what America should and could be in five or ten years or a generation. He has been content to advocate for what he judges can be achieved under current political realities. He is not attempting to change how voters think about themselves and America. He's going with the flow. Friedman says this (emphasis added):
Maybe Obama has a strategy: First raise taxes on the wealthy, which gives him the credibility with his base to then make big spending cuts in the next round of negotiations. Could be. But raising taxes on the wealthy is easy. Now we're at the hard part: comprehensive tax reform, entitlement cuts, radical cost-saving approaches to health care and new investments in our growth engines. This will require taking things away from people — to both save and invest. A lot of lobbies will fight it. The president will need to rally the center of the country and the business community to overcome them. He'll have to change the polls, not just read the polls. He will have to take on his own base and the G.O.P.'s.
I'm sympathetic to the argument that transforming the American mindset is very difficult and perhaps impossible, but if Obama thinks that's reason enough not to try, then he's giving up the possibility of having a transformative position in history. I hoped for more, but I didn't really expect it. By the way, my agenda for transforming the nation would not be the same as Friedman's; in my opinion the transformational changes we most need are getting money out of politics and restoring full employment.