Monday, September 12, 2011

Barack Obama’s Legacy

This article has already been printed in the September 12th issue of
The Rutgers Observer but, because that newspaper is having financial problems which prevent its archives from appearing online, I decided to also post it here.

Historians love to shed light on the present by using analogies from the past; if nothing else, it helps validate our profession. That is why, as Barack Obama’s presidency prepares to wrap up its thirty-second month, I can’t help but be reminded of where Harry Truman was thirty-two months into his own administration. For Truman it was the end of 1947, and just like Obama in 2011, he was confronted with low approval ratings, a lousy economy, a hostile Congress, lackluster support within his own party, and a growing consensus that his time in office would be viewed by history – to say nothing of the voters – as a failure.

Today Truman’s first thirty-two months are remembered for his bringing an end to World War Two, his controversial use of the atomic bomb in Japan, his work in establishing the United Nations, his setting of Cold War precedent through the Truman Doctrine’s espousal of Soviet containment, and his use of the Marshall Plan to reconstruct postwar Europe. Although Obama’s accomplishments are obviously very different from those of Truman (and, thankfully, he doesn’t have an atom bomb to mar them), their beneficial impact on his legacy is just as great:

(1) He passed two stimulus bills that helped control the damage caused by the 2008 economic meltdown. Between September 2008 (the month of the meltdown) and May 2009 (the last month before the first stimulus could start to have a meaningful effect), unemployment increased from 6.2% to 9.4%, at a catastrophic average rate of 0.4% per month. As a result of Obama’s first stimulus bill, however, unemployment stabilized, vacillating between 9.4% and 10.1% from May 2009 through the end of 2010. After he attached a second stimulus bill to the Republican increase on the Bush tax cuts, the range of unemployment fell slightly, causing it to hover between 8.8% and 9.4% since the beginning of 2011.

(2) He passed a sweeping health care reform bill that will provide coverage to more than thirty million Americans by means such as expanding Medicaid eligibility, creating health insurance exchanges in each state, and offering subsidies to help small businesses and low-income families afford insurance premiums, even as it ends many of the unjust policies commonly practiced by insurance companies (e.g., discriminating against people with preexisting conditions or placing annual and lifetime coverage caps). Although the health care reform bill is going to soon reach the Supreme Court, only one aspect of it has any realistic chance of being overturned – i.e., the individual mandate, which protects insured Americans from having their premiums increased by the medical costs of the uninsured by imposing fines on those who can afford insurance but refuse to purchase it – and even that can be replaced by a system such as auto-enrollment if necessary. Consequently, by the end of the decade, the only Americans without some form of insurance will be illegal immigrants, those who opt out of Medicaid despite being eligible, and those who opt out of private insurance despite being able to afford it.

(3) He passed legislation that addressed many of the core factors which caused the 2008 meltdown, from the exploitative practices of credit card companies (the Credit CARD Act of 2009) to chicanery in the financial sector (the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010).

(4) He made significant strides toward gay rights by repealing the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and expanding the aegis of federal hate-crime law to cover gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability.

(5) He made controversial decisions to continue the Guantanamo Bay interrogations (opposed by liberals) and shift our intelligence focus from Iraq to Pakistan (opposed by President Bush and John McCain), both of which led to the discovery of Osama bin Laden.

(6) He fulfilled the central promise of his presidential candidacy – i.e., he brought an end to the Iraq War, with combat operations in that nation ceasing in 2010 and transitional forces scheduled to leave by the end of this year.

Of course, like Truman, the fact that Obama’s achievements aren’t more widely recognized touches upon some of his major weaknesses as a political communicator. Similarly, just as Truman was too timid to stand up to Republicans on matters like red-baiting, so too did Obama’s reluctance to alienate Republicans cause him to avoid taking the right positions on issues like Planned Parenthood funding, legalizing marijuana, and withdrawing from Afghanistan. Most disastrously, it caused him to refrain from pushing for a stimulus package large enough to get us out of our $3 trillion hole when he first took office, leaving America with a bill that merely stabilized the unemployment rate instead of actually reducing it.

Fortunately, it appears that Obama is starting to learn from his mistakes. By calling an emergency session of Congress and demanding that Republicans pass the American Jobs Act, he has deftly constructed a win-win situation – if they pass something resembling his current bill, as many as one million jobs could be created, while if they refuse, he will be able to characterize them as obstructionists. Either scenario helps both the country and his political standing.

Do you know who did something like that and was reelected as a result of it? Harry Truman.

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