Between now and next January a lot of retrospectives on the Obama Administration will be penned. I thought it would be helpful for us to get a head start on the debate, since Obama has achieved so much (for good or ill, YMMV) and since Hillary Clinton must run on his record and, if elected, govern with its consequences.
As we’ve discussed in meetings on other presidents (e.g., LBJ, Reagan, Clinton, Nixon, Wilson), it can take decades for a president’s true legacy to become fully visible. Even then, reputations are colored by the politics of whoever is doing the judging and wax and wane as new events shed new light on old decisions. I think our assessment of Obama has to be especially tentative because so much of what he accomplished has been incremental. At practically every juncture (health care, financial reform), Obama chose to achieve what he could, rather than go down in a blaze of ideological purity. Many of his accomplishments also were done via executive actions (immigration, civil rights enforcement), so they are easily reversible by a Republican president.
Still, when taken together, Obama’s eight years of incremental and contingent changes have added up to…a big f***ing deal, as VP Biden likes to say. No matter your political POV, the scale and breadth of the sum of those achievements are simply stunning. Obama entered office with a collapsing economy, two failing wars, and a political opposition dedicated to his destruction. Yet, he managed to affect major changes in almost every area of national government policy, including in
- heath care;
- energy, climate, and environmental policy;
- education (K-12 + college);
- financial market regulation and consumer protection;
- labor law and civil rights enforcement;
- criminal justice reform; and
- tax policy.
His foreign policy was not as, let’s say, action-packed and transformational as his immediate predecessor’s. But, Obama
- continued the struggle against Al Qaeda;
- wound down the Iraq and Afghan wars (and now shares responsibility for their aftermath);
- negotiated a global climate treaty, historic nuclear agreements with Iran and India, and several major trade agreements; and
- pivoted (kind of) U.S. foreign policy towards Asia.
Shocking disclosure: I’m a big fan.
So, are we just going to spend Monday evening listing our most (or least) favorite Obama accomplishment? No, I hope not. In my opening I will briefly remind us of some of, IMO, Obama’s most important but less well-known accomplishments, like in energy and climate actions, education, and civil rights enforcement. But, with Republicans are committed to what they have told their supporters for almost a decade: All of Obama’s policies are disasters and they will reverse as many of them as they can, as soon as they get the chance. So, my real idea behind this meeting is for us to explore this question:
- What is it that makes a president’s achievements endure rather than be reversed and forgotten?
Do the policies have to “work;” i.e., solve the problems they’re intended to solve? Must they be popular? When do future leaders feel free to roll back what a predecessors did and when do they feel constrained?
Anyway, enough rambling. I don’t have time to add a lot of links this week. But, here are some assessments of the Obama presidency and related matters. I’ll keep my opening remarks short, especially if we have a big crowd like last week’s 22 souls.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Lists of accomplishments –
- Obama is one of the most consequential presidents ever. Recommended
- He will be considered a great or near-great president. Recommended.
- Paul Krugman’s opinion on economic and a few other issues is here.
- Is Obama “the Left’s Reagan?”
- More mixed assessments: In general. On foreign policy especially.
Conservative POV –
- Because Obama is not a strategic thinker, his achievements are ephemeral and they will not last.
- He is a bad president, period.
Next Week: Are science and religion inherently in conflict?