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How Will History Assess Obama?

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.

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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.

30 Comments (Open | Close)

30 Comments To "How Will History Assess Obama?"

#1 Comment By Steven Donegal On January 20, 2017 @ 1:13 am

Pretty conventional conservative assessment. I’d rank Obama above Bush II, above Clinton, about on par withBush I, below Reagan, above Carter, above Ford, above the failed presidencies of Nixon and Johnson, above Kennedy and below Eisenhower. In other words, he’s not in the top tier but probably above average.

#2 Comment By Joe the Plutocrat On January 20, 2017 @ 1:13 am

I’m sorry, couldn’t get past, “hence the assault upon his legacy in the person of Donald Trump”. Trump’s primary assault on Obama concerned the POTUS’s citizenship. Everything else flowed from this. History will remember what Obama accomplished in the face of “unpresidented” (pun intended) treatment from the opposition party. It is difficult to measure all 44 Presidents by the same standard, history and technology constantly influence the very way we measure success and failure. My guess he will be top 25% (11 of 44).

#3 Comment By Stephen R Gould On January 20, 2017 @ 7:45 am

Every single last right-wing commentator has criticised Obama for the relatively lacklustre economic recovery post-crash. Are you all utterly unaware of the existence of other countries? To a great extent a trading nation depends on its trading partners for its own economic strength. Obama is not responsible for the economic policies of other nations. Compared to other developed countries, notably in the EU, the US recovery was very good.

#4 Comment By connecticut farmer On January 20, 2017 @ 8:13 am

Good article. Way, way premature though. What I call “The 25 Year Rule” applies to Obama as much as to any other president. A full generation must pass before we can start to assess a president. Even George Washington remains in the historian’s bulls-eye. Eisenhower, whose term ended 56 years ago amidst a great deal of criticism, is only now being re-evaluated in a more positive light. We are only now beginning to evaluate Bush Senior and the author’s comments concerning the Reagan era carry more weight now than they would have even ten years ago now that we are better able to “look back.”

The likelihood is that Obama may very well be adjudged a middling president at best, but this judgement cannot be made absent the passage of time.

#5 Comment By Viceroy of TAC On January 20, 2017 @ 8:43 am

I could not agree more with this article. My whole perception of the Obama presidency was always ambivalence. People on both sides would always get mad at me for saying that I thought Obama was an average president.

But he may get a higher ranking from future historians. I think there is less of a repair needed for Obama to “make him great” then there is for W. or Clinton. No scandals or appallingly bad decisions means historians do not have to jump through hoops to christen him as Saint Obama.

Also, the fact of the of him being the first “black” president will, at the very least, make him a major part of American history. I could see historians of the left making his presidency part of the civil rights struggle and, boom, suddenly this presidency is more significant.

And then I guess we have to have Trump does. If Trump is horrible then Obama will be bookended by two bad presidents and it will be easier to say, “How great was Obama against those two failures?” If Trump is on par with Obama or, er, better, then it starts to look awkward.

#6 Comment By collin On January 20, 2017 @ 9:54 am

While I agree with the assessment, we have to also realize the following:

1) To many people, the US hit rock bottom September 2008 and most people are better off today than 8 years ago. That will matter a lot in history books and the nation is in fairly good shape as it has been since 2004. So when things go wrong, Trump won’t have a lot room to blame Obama.

2) Yes, HRC lost the election by an inside straight electoral college and seemed to suddenly get old in the fall of 2016. It was not mandate and Trump has to deal with his low favorables.

3) To liberals, Obama does tremendous faith in America but I believe that vision is different than conservatives. So he is not Reagan, but at least 50% of the population he will become an icon.

#7 Comment By Viriato On January 20, 2017 @ 10:06 am

I agree with everything Merry says in this piece.

That said, when Eisenhower left office in 1960, pundits said many of these same things about him. They said he was a do-nothing President who was about as good a President as Chester Arthur was. For a while, historians agreed. Then along came the Eisenhower revisionists, such as Richard Immerman. Not to mention Vietnam, the turbulence of the 1969s in general, Watergate, and stagflation. Now, lo and behold, Ike is widely regarded as one of our nation’s greatest Presidents.

Do I think Obama will be seen in a similar way in 60 years? I have no idea. I think it largely depends on what happens in the next few decades. If things get better than they are now, Obama’s stature will not increase; it might even decline. If things get worse, Obama will start to look pretty good in comparison, and his stature will rise accordingly.

Only with the passage of a few decades will we begin to have a clear perspective on where Obama ranks.

#8 Comment By John Gruskos On January 20, 2017 @ 10:17 am

Obama’s presidency was a failure, mostly because he turned his back on his own campaign rhetoric and listened to the advice of the hawkish foreign policy establishment.

He bombed Libya, armed the “moderate” Syrian rebels, meddled in Ukraine’s internal affairs, and supported Saudi Arabia’s war against Yemen.

As a direct result, American lives were lost, death and destruction were inflicted on the Middle East, Al-Qaeda offshoots such as ISIS, Nusra Front and AQAP gained territorial bases, Middle Eastern Christians were driven from their homes, a pretext was provided for the migrant invasion of Europe, and a tragic brother’s war in Donbas is profoundly harming both Ukraine and Russia.

Hopefully Trump learns from Obama’s failure and stays true to the America First policy articulated in his Cincinnati speech.

#9 Comment By Rossbach On January 20, 2017 @ 10:31 am

“…without letting it slip into… violent street demonstrations…”

Really? What were all those disturbances that took place in Ferguson, Baltimore, Dallas, etc.?

#10 Comment By c matt On January 20, 2017 @ 12:15 pm

History will likely assess him better than his critics, worse than his supporters. Probably closer on the spectrum to his critics, if only because his supporters believed him to be the second coming.

#11 Comment By JonF On January 20, 2017 @ 12:50 pm

Europe is not the US, and it has its own leaders and security forces and those, not the US president, are responsible for any problems with terrorists there. And in the US its sounds like ridiculous neocon propaganda to claim that terrorism is a bigger threat now than eight years ago. As the recent mass shooting at the Fort Lauderdale airport exemplifies, our problem is not with agents of Al Qaida and its ilk committing atrocities but with homegrown nutcases with guns and a chip on their shoulders.

Also, calling the ACA a “fiasco” is hyperbole. Yes, it has some problems (and intense partisanship has prevented any attempt to fix those) but it also has had some successes. The “middling” adjective can be applied to its score card too,

Finally, Obama’s voters did not abandon him– they took a pass on Hillary Clinton. Obama has racked up some decent popularity numbers in his final year– the problem the Democrats had with the recent election was not him– it was their nominee, and in a couple of specific states, not country-wide.

#12 Comment By Donald On January 20, 2017 @ 1:47 pm

Middling to above average, I’d say. And his failures on the domestic front are in large part due to Republicans, who came in saying right from the start that their priority was to make Obama a failure. That said, he didn’t go far enough with the stimulus and claimed it was just right and adopted the austerian framing on deficits, so he shot himself in the foot there.

On foreign policy I largely agree with John Gruskos above, except I don’t know enough about the Ukraine to have a strong opinion. But Obama was an interventionist disaster in the Mideast. Not as bad as Bush, but that’s like saying double pneumonia is not as bad as Ebola.

#13 Comment By Patrick Gatti On January 20, 2017 @ 3:01 pm

This is a reasonable estimation from someone on the right. However, the rankings will not be condicted by people exclusively on the right. He will however be ranked between 6-9.

#14 Comment By David On January 20, 2017 @ 5:44 pm

I think you’re correct JonF, but then that begs the question of which Democratic candidate would have won. I’m not convinced
Sanders would have brought out enough black voters to win, although maybe he could have done so by winning Michigan or Wisconsin. The Democrats’ dream candidate would have been Michelle Obama, in my opinion. I think she might have defeated Trump by winning Michigan and North Carolina.

#15 Comment By Habarigani On January 20, 2017 @ 8:04 pm

I am sorry that this analysis completely ignores Republican intransigence. They wanted to make Obama one term president on the very first day of Obama’s inauguration in 2009. Even the initiatives Republicans agreed to previously, they chose to oppose. Obama asked them for advise and he only got “our way or highway” response. They would cooperate if and only if Obama governed as a Republican.

On ACA he asked for Republican input and advise and got neither. Is it a surprise that most of his initiatives passed with only Democrat support?

Who blocked Obama’s supreme court nominee?
Perhaps Democrats should reject every supreme court nominee from Trump! What is fair for goose is fair for gander!

What happens now if Democrat return the favor and resist every Republican initiative? Another gridlock!!!

Plain and simple fact is that Republicans did not want Obama to succeed.

#16 Comment By AJ On January 20, 2017 @ 11:48 pm

On the other hand, he led the country through turbulent times without letting it slip into the kinds of crises…violent street demonstrations, enervating wars—that unleash powerful waves of political opprobrium (and get harsh judgments from history).

Only because the lickspittle Left gave Obama a pass on his wars. But have no fear, with a Republican in the White House again, candlelight vigils will doubtlessly make a sudden remarkable comeback.

#17 Comment By Ed On January 21, 2017 @ 12:28 pm

“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”

In the middle range, yes, but 20th and 21st century presidents are such oversized figures with oversized responsibilities that to be average now, means to be ranked about Harrison, Hayes, Van Buren, and Arthur.

For us now, a lot depends on personality. I’ll grant that Obama was actually above average among the presidents, but his personal quirks got on my nerves, so did his unwavering media fan club and apologist hacks like Carney and Earnest.

Future generations will judge him more on his record compared to other presidents than on his annoying traits. I have to admit that the country was better off when he left it than when he took over, though the improvement happened in his first term, but I’d stop far short of saying “great.”

#18 Comment By Inflationary Times On January 21, 2017 @ 12:34 pm

As JonF says, Mr. Merry was hyperbolic indeed in describing the ACA as “widely unpopular.” It is and has been approximately half-popular and half-unpopular with opinions very much related to which side of the aisle one sits.

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#19 Comment By Strange Fruit On January 21, 2017 @ 10:07 pm

One of the worst, I think. At best, like Clunton, a squandered eight years, his promises almost wholly unkept, and a complete failure at the two chief hopes – stopping the wars, reversing the growth of the national security state, and healing the racial and “identity” divides.

He leaves a country even more bogged down in foreign messes than the one he was left by Bush II, and more divided than at any point in my lifetime. We’ll be paying for his foreign policy disasters, his growth of the national security state, and the continuing flood of unwanted immigrants for a very long time.

That said, I liked him as a man. In his personal behavior he was a gentleman and struck the right tone.

But overall, good riddance. A disaster who helped cause disasters yet to come.

#20 Comment By Dave On January 22, 2017 @ 8:40 am

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).

No violent street demonstrations? I’m sorry, but have you not been in this country for the past two years?

#21 Comment By Frankfort Historian On January 22, 2017 @ 10:06 am

Nice enough man. Terrible president.

He did papered over serious problems, exacerbated others, helped set the stage for coming disasters, and while he started out looking like a real chance for intelligent, healthy change, he ended up looking like an affirmative action hire of the go-along, consensus supporting kind.

An odd combination of James Buchanan and Vernon Jordan.

#22 Comment By Colonel Bogey On January 22, 2017 @ 11:35 am

Obama regarded abortion-on-demand as a good thing. He did not merely condone this evil, as some presidents condoned the lesser evil of slavery, he encouraged it and cheered it on. This, alone, precludes the possibility of his ever being regarded as a successful president or even as a tolerable one.

#23 Comment By Marie On January 22, 2017 @ 3:02 pm

Well, our premiums tripled since ACA was made law, and pretty much every other middle-class family I know had the same experience. I guess that’s class “partisanship.”

#24 Comment By Not Made in USA Anymore On January 22, 2017 @ 3:47 pm

… as having destroyed his presidency by giving too much attention to foreign affairs – to the Middle East in particular – and too little to his own country and countrymen. In particular he seemed alternately indifferent to and completely lost in dealing with the economic crisis, first wildly and recklessly pumping money into Wall Street and then standing back and puttering around in the Middle East while the Fed fiddle about arranging and rearranging fiscal bandages for eight years.

#25 Comment By Argon On January 22, 2017 @ 5:26 pm

JonF: “Also, calling the ACA a “fiasco” is hyperbole.”

Agreed. But that is the talking point of this editorial board so it must be related without questuon. The ACA also wasn’t “government takeover of healthcare” or “death panels”. It was means of providing healthcare to many poor and underinsured citizens who had been previously priced out or locked out of coverage. What ‘systems’ were present prior to that made for a national disgrace.

#26 Comment By Greg On January 22, 2017 @ 9:20 pm

Can you be more specific about “pet programs long languishing in a legislative netherworld due a lack of public support”? I thought much of the ARRA et al was direct tax relief to individuals and businesses, infrastructure spending, relief to state/local govts…?

#27 Comment By Eric On January 23, 2017 @ 10:07 am

Persuasive analysis, if a little harsh. Obama belongs somewhere in the range of 11-20. Hard to see why he would be viewed less favorably by history than Clinton, which is implied by Merry’s analysis.

Probably hard to make definitive assessments until post-2020. If much of Obama’s agenda survives Trump–and especially if Trump turns out to be aberration, not harbinger, and Dems get the WH in 2020–Obama’s legacy will be stronger than Merry suggests.

#28 Comment By John Lord On January 23, 2017 @ 3:35 pm

In the article the notion that Obama regards America as a fallen nation and the notion itself, derived from the 60s counter culture, has merit. But I think that progressives view of America in particular and the West in general goes much further back. Undoubtedly the counter culture gave it a boost, but Western self loathing was written about by people such as Orwell with great acuity in the 30s.
It’s part of what we are that we are so ready to self criticise and at times in the past it allowed for necessary self correction. But progressives disproportionatly talk down their own culture while turning a blind eye to the greater shortcomings of other cultures often now living amongst us.

#29 Comment By mulp On January 24, 2017 @ 3:28 am

Obama has made health care a right.

Conservatives are now promising a free lunch, none of the costs of Obamacare, none of the restrictions which are forms of rationing health care in limited networked and high out of pocket expenses, and no mandates to buy insurance in order to get medical care when the nearly 100% odds of needing some significant medical care does occur at some point in a family’s life.

Obamacare is based on fixing the for profit private insurance model’s failure to be universal, and thus require government bailouts and redistribution of wealth from the responsible to irresponsible. Bankruptcy is a government bailout, that takes services from doctors and hospitals and gives it to sick and injured who can’t or would not buy insurance to pay medical bills so they could spend the insurance money on other things.

High risk insurance pools are insurance company bailouts – insurers figure out which paying customers will not be profitable and dump them on government and taxpayer funding high risk pools.

Obama took the Republican plan and got Democrats to make it law. Now Trump is promising to eliminate all the costs and restrictions and make it more universal because conservatives and Republicans have been promising more and better for less with no rationing and no losers for seven years.

Failure is a million people losing insurance, a million with much higher premiums or out of pocket costs, of just hundred thousand denied access to medical care they got under “failed” Obamacare.

Obamacare is likely to be just like Medicare, the “bad” policy of LBJ that conservatives just can’t eliminate because so many conservative voters consider it their right to have Medicare.

Health care can cost less than US health care, but it involves “government run and paid for” health care. Dozens of nations have better, lower cost national universal health care.

Obama moved the US closer on the universal right part using the conservative policy from the 90s. Now Republicans must go further in making it more universal and lower cost.

#30 Comment By Mark S On January 25, 2017 @ 9:50 am

Hey all, just a liberal passing through, checking out some other news sites to hear some different view points.

Just wanted to say, I really enjoyed these comments. They were intelligently written, respectful, based on facts and reality, and a breath of fresh air compared to the comments on many other right leaning web sites.

Thanks 🙂