Sunday, May 29, 2011

Obama's Legacy

A little more than twenty-eight months into his first term, there still exists a prevailing consensus that Barack Obama doesn't have very much to show for his presidency. As one of my friends recently put it while praising Obama for his initiatives toward a Middle East peace process, "I think he's starting to get ahead of the 8-ball finally. He's been doing a lot of reacting for the first 2.5 years..."

While I have certainly been highly critical of Obama on many occasions, I realize that it is important to credit our leaders when they deserve it as well as assail them when they come up short. This is especially true of liberals, who in numerous ways have yet to recover from the 1960s "crisis of confidence" (Jimmy Carter's term) that caused them to view all "establishment" political figures - past and present alike - with rigid cynicism. That such skepticism is valuable in holding powerful men and women accountable is beyond question; at the same time, an excess of jadedness not only creates a simplistic mindset as distorted as the right-wing's unthinking adulation for its leaders (which leftists correctly lampoon), but also makes it harder for liberals to develop the kind of political solidarity which is crucial to success in a pluralistic democracy.

All of this would be irrelevant if Obama had indeed neglected to do very much during his presidency. Even a brief scan of his achievements, however, will show that this is manifestly not the case. In his first twenty-eight months as president, Obama...
- Pushed through two stimulus bills that prevented the economic meltdown of 2008-2009 from worsening and has since led to a gradual recovery.
- Ended the war in Iraq.
- Repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
- Imposed new regulations on Wall Street banks so as to prevent a repetition of the 2008 economic meltdown.
- Imposed new regulations on credit card companies so as to end exploitative practices on consumers and/or homeowners.
- Avenged the September 11th attacks by reversing Bush Administration policies and seeking Osama bin Laden in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, eventually resulting in the terrorist's assassination.
- Passed a revolutionary health care reform bill that, among other things, prevents insurance companies from discriminating against people with preexisting conditions, outlaws annual and lifetime coverage caps, provides Medicaid coverage to all families and individuals with incomes up to 133% of the poverty level, provides subsidies to low income families and individuals to help them afford health care insurance (while placing a fine on those who refuse to purchase it), and creates health insurance exchanges to help individuals and small businesses compare different plans and determine which are ideal for them.

That, by the way, is the short list.

What makes these accomplishments even more significant is how they compare with those of Obama's predecessors. On domestic policy, the last president to match or surpass Barack Obama was Lyndon Johnson, whose legacy includes most of America's major civil rights legislation, the War on Poverty measures (viz.,
the Job Corps, VISTA, Project Head Start, etc.), the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, the implementation of programs to help individuals with low incomes afford housing, the elimination of restrictive immigration quotas that limited the number of non-white groups that could live in America, the founding of education assistance to provide financial aid to poor public school districts and low-interest loans or scholarships to working class college students, and the passage of the late-twentieth century's most important environmental protection laws (viz., the Wilderness Preservation Act, the Water Quality Act, the Air Quality Act, etc.) Similarly, the last president to equal Obama's achievements on foreign policy was Jimmy Carter, who granted amnesty to conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War, crafted the first lasting peace agreement between Israel and one of its hostile Arab neighbors (Egypt), ended decades of conflict in Central America by giving the Panama Canal to Panama, and engaged in painstaking negotiations that led to the freeing of American hostages captured by Iran with a minimal loss of life.

This is not to say that one shouldn't be critical of Obama's shortcomings and errors. He should be faulted for the fact that Guantanamo Bay remains open and the Afghanistan War rages on, that the health care reform bill didn't include the public option that would have made it truly comprehensive, and that his economic stimulus bills weren't large enough to bring the economic recession to a speedier close. Like Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter before him, Obama's many successes have not been unaccompanied by important failures (e.g., Johnson escalated the Vietnam War, Carter was inept in handling America's economic and oil crises and reneged on his vow to decriminalize marijuana). At the same time, just as Johnson and Carter are viewed more kindly by today's historians than by their contemporaries, so too is it likely that Obama's presidential tenure will be lauded once it is viewed through the clear lens of hindsight rather than the haze of our current political firefight.

Of course, it would help the liberal movement if, every now and then, its leaders received their due while they still had the power to do something with it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think your points are excellent, both about the quiet reality of Obama's achievements in face of the complicated situation, as well as the polarizing criticisms getting flung around, and also about the unfortunate incapacity of liberals to appreciate our leaders while they are in power. Thank you.