As Barack Obama’s two-term White House tenure neared its termination, the president busied himself with highlighting his triumphs and defining his performance as generally sterling, while his most loyal supporters served as a kind of echo chamber of praise. His opposition, meanwhile, portrayed his tenure as fundamentally a disaster.
Both sides have it wrong. History will assess Obama as essentially a middling president. He didn’t accomplish much, and some of what he did accomplish proved problematic. On the other hand, he led the country through turbulent times without letting it slip into the kinds of crises—deep recessions, debilitating scandals, violent street demonstrations, enervating wars—that unleash powerful waves of political opprobrium (and get harsh judgments from history).
Since voters assess their presidents as the Constitution invites them to do—in four-year increments—I shall do the same. Obama’s first term was a mild success—hence his 2012 reelection (by a relatively thin margin of under 4 percentage points). His second term was a mild failure—hence the assault upon his legacy in the person of Donald Trump, who nevertheless failed to capture the popular vote.
At the time of Obama’s reelection, his Affordable Care Act was not yet seen as the fiasco it later became. He could argue that he had extricated America from the Iraq War, as promised, without having to answer for the rise of ISIS. It wasn’t yet clear just how much Middle East chaos would ensue from his mindless decision to help overthrow Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. He could claim credit for getting America through the harrowing economic downturn he inherited from his predecessor without having to explain why he consistently failed to generate the kind of economic growth that normally follows such recessions.
In other words, when Obama faced the voters for a second time in 2012, the jury was still out on his overall performance. He could argue, with credibility, that he inherited two disasters from George W. Bush—the Middle East adventure and the Great Recession—and still needed time to clean up those twin messes. The voters bought it, by a thin margin.
But the second term yielded the realization that he couldn’t clean up those messes entirely. History doesn’t give high ratings to presidents who can’t generate economic growth above 2 percent over multiple years or who get the country into foreign-policy struggles that seem to have no end. Further, the threat of Islamist terrorism in Europe and America appears more ominous today than it was eight years ago.
Obama’s middling performance can be attributed to three leadership characteristics. First, his audacity in behalf of outmoded thinking. Second, his inability to build, or even conceive of, any kind of new coalition for a new era. And, third, his underlying perception of America as a fallen nation.
Early in his tenure Obama liked to use the word “audacity,” and it was clear he intended to be a president of rare consequence, in the mold of the most recent truly consequential president, Ronald Reagan. As he said early on, “I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.”
He was making two points here. First, presidential greatness entailed setting the nation upon a new course. Second, that happens only when the country yearns for a new course, based on a widespread feeling that the status quo isn’t working. As he said in that same peroration about Reagan, the Republicans were a party of ideas before and during the Californian’s tenure, “for a pretty long chunk of time there over the last 10, 15 years, in the sense that they were challenging conventional wisdom.” But in more recent times, he added, “we’ve heard it all before.” The GOP had run out of ideas.
He wasn’t wrong about that. And he wasn’t wrong to suggest, at the beginning of his presidency, that the times called for a new brand of leadership, a new dialectic designed to address the distinctive problems of the day.
Where he went wrong was in going back to the solutions of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson—big government programs and ever greater consolidation of power at the federal level. This constituted a policy mix from a dead era. Consider, for example, his first big initiative—the stimulus package designed to jump-start a sputtering economy. He should have insisted that the job of crafting it fall under his own auspices, with solid input from both parties. Then perhaps a new paradigm of governmental action in crisis could have emerged, and he could have reaped the credit. Instead he turned it over to House Democrats, who predictably loaded the legislation with pet programs long languishing in a legislative netherworld due a lack of public support. Talk about “we’ve heard it all before.”
It’s true that, when Obama assumed office, the times called for the kind of audacity he extolled. But his audacity, it turned out, was employed in behalf of tired old nostrums, not in behalf of any fresh thinking or new coalition building. This is reflected in his Affordable Care Act, his early cap-and-trade energy bill, and the Dodd-Frank financial-regulation legislation. The first is widely unpopular; the second never got past the Senate; and the third continues to roil markets in unforeseen ways.
On coalition-building, it seems clear that Obama never brought new voters into his camp to any significant degree. The presidential greats of our heritage all managed to build broad new reservoirs of support that mixed up the old flows of partisanship, demographics, and ideology. From Jefferson to Reagan, they all left behind new political coalitions based on new political alignments.
Obama’s bold governance, by contrast, didn’t bring such new voters into his fold; instead it stirred significant numbers of his election-day supporters to abandon him. Rather than uniting his party and dividing the opposition—a hallmark of any realignment president—he did the opposite, uniting the GOP and splitting his own ranks. We know of those old Reagan Democrats; where are the Obama Republicans or even Obama independents?
This was a failure of immense proportions. Obama took office with tremendous stores of good will throughout the country, at a time when the nation hungered for a new vector of leadership. He simply couldn’t succeed by defaulting to the prevalent Democratic fare from an era that no longer exists.
On Obama’s view of America as a fallen nation, it begins with the 1960s counterculture—which, as writer Shelby Steele has noted, forced the country to confront many of the “flagrant hypocrisies” of its history, such as racism, imperialism, suppression of women, and puritanical sexual mores. But in doing that, the counterculture embraced a view of the country that Steele calls “bad faith in America”—a feeling that the country remains tainted by its past and needs redemption.
“Among today’s liberal elite,” writes Steele, “bad faith in America is a sophistication, a kind of hipness.” And Obama’s “great ingenuity” was his ability to generate political motivation— votes—from that sentiment and its corollary conviction that it represents an intervention against evil. But this approach forecloses the celebration of American greatness as a rationale for power. “It puts Mr. Obama and the Democrats in the position of forever redeeming a fallen nation rather than leading a great nation,” writes Steele. Further, it fosters an elitist view that people who don’t share that sentiment are somehow unworthy of the American experiment. He suggests the president “seems not to trust the fundamental decency of the American people.”
All this caught up with the Democrats in 2016. Steele, who calls himself a “black conservative,” was writing in 2010, and his words seem prescient today in the wake of the 2016 election campaign, replete with evidence that many Americans are fed up with elites that seem to look down on them.
All of this renders the so-called Obama legacy highly vulnerable. He didn’t build a political edifice that his successors will have to respect and deal with. Consider the contrast with Reagan. When Bill Clinton took office, he identified one of his aims as the “repeal [of] Reaganism.” He tried—and had his head handed to him by the American people in the 1994 elections. Thereafter, in a nod to Reagan, he acknowledged, “The era of big government is over.” Reaganism lived on.
No such discipline will be imposed on future presidents by the lingering memory of Obama’s leadership. In the polls of historians, he will be down in the middle ranks with Benjamin Harrison, Martin Van Buren, Chester Arthur, and Rutherford B. Hayes. At least, that’s where he will be if history is just and wise.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington journalist and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His next book, due out from Simon & Schuster in September, is a biography of William McKinley.