President Obama’s approval ratings have risen as his tenure nears an end. That’s a typical pattern. And there may be anticipatory Obama-nostalgia, given his potential successors. And some always considered him the most wonderful president since FDR, or Lincoln, or Jesus.
I give him points for intellect, integrity, eloquence, and demeanor. In such respects he’s actually a model president, so the admiration is understandable. Alas however, he’s failed in three crucial respects.
First, he promised a new post-partisan politics. But it was all talk and no walk. Obama’s intellect here disserved him, by making him arrogantly contemptuous toward lesser mortals with different views. It started even before he took office. There was never an effort to meet the other side half way, or even a tenth. Instead he was all about demonizing them, imagining he need only point out their errors, and they would just capitulate, or be punished by an enlightened electorate.
It doesn’t work like that. Opponents usually have reasons for their stances. And please don’t quote Mitch McConnell about making Obama a one-term president. For a political party, winning the next election is its raison d’etre, entirely legitimate. And while Republicans did refuse cooperation with Obama, that was only after he’d established a modus operandi of disregarding them.
Obama felt he could, having congressional majorities at first. He didn’t change that when the landscape changed. The result was a political climate so poisonous that Trumpery is a natural upshot. There’s blame all around. But it rings hollow for Obama to complain of partisan enmity by people he’s relentlessly sneered at.
Secondly: Obama fans point to the economic crisis he inherited, and how well we’ve done since. Fair enough. Though really the credit belongs far more to the Fed than the White House. But meantime, Obama’s biggest economic legacy lies in the future, and it’s not good. As ever more people are not working but collecting benefits, deficits and debt will explode. We’re skating along for now only because interest on our borrowings is so low. But at some point unsustainable debt levels will spook the markets, interest costs will balloon, and we’ll be busted.
To head this off, Obama appointed the Simpson-Bowles commission, which came up with a balanced deficit reduction plan. So far so good. But then Obama just ignored the whole thing. Now, his wasted eight years make the problem far tougher. That’s his chief economic legacy.
Third: the world situation has undeniably deteriorated on Obama’s watch. Queered by Bush’s bungled Mid-East intervention, Obama fell into the opposite mistake of hands-off. Iraq was making progress when he took office, but then he disengaged, and all hell broke loose. It also did in Syria where again his phobia of involvement made things much worse. How many times have we seen this movie? – where a little action at a critical juncture could head off so much agony later.
His signature moment was drawing a red line on chemical weapons in Syria, then funking it when the line was crossed. Shredding America’s international credibility, making Uncle Sam a monkey’s uncle.
More generally, the Arab Spring was an epochal moment of opportunity, where U.S. engagement might have helped midwife positive outcomes. We’ve done this before, like in post-WWII Europe, where deep and steadfast American involvement helped hugely – to our benefit. The Middle East cried out for this. Obama feared the consequences of acting; but inaction has consequences too.
It’s no surprise that a villain like Putin, taking Obama’s measure, would push the envelope. Russia’s Ukraine aggression up-ended a crucial norm of international conduct that had prevailed, pretty much, since WWII. Putin basically got away with it, and won. This is terrible for the global future.
All considered, President Obama has been great on style. Pity about the substance.