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Obama’s Legacy—If Any

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

Stimulus Bill

Healthcare Reform

Financial Reform Bill

Repealing DADT

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.

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Reader Comments (6)

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?

Speaking for myself, yes, yes, and no, in that order.

Healthcare reform, for all it's deficiencies - which are legion - could be the first step down a long road to something really significant. If that comes to pass, then there's good legacy material here.

But raising taxes on the wealthy is easy.

One more piece of evidence that Tom Friedman is a fool and a jackass.

entitlement cuts, radical cost-saving approaches to health care and new investments in our growth engines.
And another two more. Re:"new investments in our growth engines" - wow, that's a great bumper sticker. What does it mean? I have no idea and neither does Friedman.

in my opinion the transformational changes we most need are getting money out of politics and restoring full employment.

Well, I certainly can't disagree with that. Believe it or not, INMHO, raises taxes n the wealthy - by a lot- is a necessary [but not sufficient] condition for achieving either of these.

In other words, aint gonna happen.


January 8, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjazzbumpa

Obamacare will be remembered for the fact that Obama has done virtually nothing to take on the massive profit-taking of the US healthcare system; with the addition of more people to the system collapse is almost guaranteed, in one form or another.

He will be remembered for extending the police state in the US, solidifying and adding to the legacy of Bush, imprisoning more whistle blowers than any other President in memory, violating all standards of international law and decency with his drone murders.

Above all, if anyone is left to remember anything, Obama will be remembered as the President who utterly lost the last chance to control Climate Change...and with that, lead on saving civilization as we have known it and the human race. Australia has added a new color to the heat charts for maps this week....and we...we are debating fracking and innumerable other ways to quicken destruction. This is surreal.

January 9, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterchristine

I don't disagree, in general, with Christine, and I'm not much of an Obama fan.

But at a more nuanced level ---

Regarding the first point: though he may have been able to do more, it's not clear that this is true. We should have had universal health care right after WW II, like the Brits, but the 2nd worst congress in living memory squelched that. The recent 112th was the absolute worst and most obstructionist beyond living memory, and in fairly evaluating Obama's domestic performance it's important to remember that.

Re: the 2nd point, I don't know anything about the whistle-blowers, but concerning drones, etc. it's a mistake to consider this a continuation of Bush policies. More realistically, the great arc of American foreign policy post WW II [and possibly much earlier] has been continuous militaristic imperialism, intervention and meddling, irrespective of who inhabits the White House. Bush played his part, Obama is playing his. See Andrew Bacevich's book for a compelling overview. http://www.scribd.com/doc/16023291/Bacevich-The-Limits-of-Power-2008-Synopsis

The power of climate change denialists in the U.S. is enormous, and not limited to natural resource industries. Blame Obama if you wish, but there is a lot more to this than the relative ineffectiveness of a particular president who inherited a total mess in every conceivable respect.


January 9, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjazzbumpa

My approach to this question is like this: Instead of asking who is the prettiest girl in the room, I'm asking who will others say is the prettiest girl in the room. In this case the "others" are the men and women who will be history textbook authors 25 years from now. It seems to me those authors are likely to be looking for pivot points and transformations, and it seems to me that Obama, along with perhaps all other Presidents, cares about this too. Obama is not, I assume, seeking a judgment of history that "he was dealt a very bad hand but did an OK job preventing things from getting a whole lot worse." I think his best shot at being remembered positively for something he's already done is health care, and whether the ACA indeed develops into something positive or is later regarded as no more significant than the Medicare prescription drug program (or is indeed an unfortunate policy detour) is now mostly out of his control for two years and maybe four. It's also unpredictable, at least by me. I think I can predict that if the US economy is not booming by the end of his second term, Obama will be remembered as the feckless fellow with no adequate responses to a national calamity.

January 9, 2013 | Registered CommenterSkeptic

Thinking about this more, I would ask what former Presidents have been remembered for and why. George Washington's a clear case. Lincoln is a clear case. FDR is a clear case...because he was enormously successful in leading the country in 3 huge positives: winning WWII, pulling out of the Depression, Social Security and Medicare (...See this great clip! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mzChaTj_vbM). Muddling through this with half measures would have gotten him no fame. Nor would anyone have cared that he was dealt a bad hand!! Lincoln and Churchill were dealt bad hands too...leaders are remembered for doing brilliantly in the face of huge odds, not for stumbling along with baby steps. Great issues require great strides.

Then ask what the other Presidents are remembered for: Carter, inflation and Iran hostages; Nixon, Watergate; Johnson is a toss-up in my eyes between the Civil Rights laws and Vietnam; Kennedy for cute; Grant for dissolute.

We remember people who face terrible odds and do great things. And we remember people who fail or are criminal. We don't remember much in between. In other words, we remember great LEADERS, and rightly so!

If Obama could pull the world away from climate change and push it in the right direction away from destruction, he would be remembered; he is so pathetically absent on this that one wants to cry for all the completely foreseeable future devastation. It does no good to say this problem began with the industrial revolution...which it did; the buck would have to stop NOW.

If Obamacare succeeds, which it absolutely will not in any foreseeable future, he might be lauded. However, unlike as with the making of SS and Medicare, really making over healthcare as it exists now would cause enormous pain to shareholders of HCA, Humana, etc., all the drug companies, and on and on. The successful makeover of healthcare in the US would cause pain and economic dislocation on the same scale as making over the military industrial complex into something tolerable and reasonable. It does no good to say that the military industrial problem began in WWII, which it did; it has to stop NOW. Not taking these forces on now will cause huge pain on an individual and societal and global level over the foreseeable future of US history, and indeed, the history of the world.

Except, as Roger points out, that he is the first black President, this man will be remembered for nothing. And, he could have been, although the personal courage it would have required would have been very dangerous to his life in my opinion. This didn't stop Washington, Lincoln...who did give all in the end, or FDR who had astonishing guts. They did it.

January 10, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterchristine

Fantastic article. Cool.

February 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterErasmo Alkire

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