It is difficult to overstate the degree to which some conservatives fear President Barack Obama. For the past six years, many conservatives have looked in horror at the president’s efforts to move the country in a more progressive direction. Even worse, they fear he succeeded — and the nation they see today is unrecognizable from what it once was. Whether the country is in the midst of profound change or not, there is a perception that Obama’s presidency is fundamentally transforming America. That, after all, was his stated goal during the 2008 campaign and his first inaugural.
But what if both Obama and his critics are wrong? What if instead of changing America in any meaningful way, President Obama leaves office as one of the least consequential two term presidents in history? At the moment, with the president looming so large over the political landscape, such an idea seems absurd. After two solid electoral victories, the commanding heights of the culture largely supporting his agenda, and his historic status as the first African-American president, it might seem unlikely that his presidency could one day be seen as insignificant or inconsequential.
What are we really left with?
But as his second term grinds on without legislative success at home or accomplishments abroad, it is increasingly likely that he will finish his presidency with only three accomplishments to show for it: two relatively young Supreme Court appointees and an enduringly unpopular, highly problematic health care law. Critics of the president who believe he has been more consequential may point to his ability to avoid culpability for Benghazi and other scandals, or his refusal to give way on Keystone or entitlement reform, but that’s not the same thing as a tangible accomplishment. In terms of building a legacy or moving the country in a more progressive direction, it’s the equivalent of being asleep on the job, or at best, underperforming.
This is not to say the president has been without success. What the president achieved is a winning record on winning the issues of the day. On Syria and Afghanistan, he sensed the war-weariness of the country and avoided conflict. On Congress, he successfully portrayed the opposition as both weak and radical. On taxes, he succeeded in restoring marginal rates on top earners by a few points, but had to settle for making lower tax rates permanent for 98 percent of taxpayers.
With the exception of his partial victory on taxes, none of these can be counted as enduring political successes. In fact, depending on the outcome of conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan, his avoidance of conflict could ultimately be seen as a hollow success, another “holiday from history” when negligence today leads to catastrophe tomorrow. Similarly, while he may have succeeded in marginalizing Congress, if it came at the expense of actually passing legislation, then its ultimate outcome was a purposeless exercise in partisanship, another turn of the one-way ratchet of incivility in Washington. By the end of his term, it may be that on everything from entitlement reform to foreign policy that there is very little difference between what happened with him as president and what would have happened if no one were president. However large these victories seem in the moment, if they don’t translate into anything tangible, they are wasted victories.
Can Obama salvage his legacy?
None of this is to say that conservatives should let their guard down. President Obama remains determined to achieve his agenda and he is currently trying to win enough issues of the day to build momentum and gain fully Democratic control of Congress. To his mind, the only way he can get any legislative victories is with a Congress similar to the one with which he began his first term. In that sense, he intends the second term of his presidency to play out differently than those of past presidents, with more political power and legislative achievements at the end of his term than the beginning. That this goal is both high risk and seemingly defies the rules of political gravity appears to be worth the gamble to the president.
If he fails in his goal, however, he will have even less power than most second term presidents. Not only will his failures to achieve gun control or immigration reform in the first half of his second term loom larger, but the sense that real power lays elsewhere in Washington will grow stronger.
Furthermore, there may a reversal of attitudes among conservatives and progressives. For conservatives, there may be a sense of relief and empowerment that they survived largely unscathed when progressivism was at its most potent. For progressives, there may be a feeling of recrimination and questioning of how things went so wrong when they finally got a president who could have walked out of an Aaron Sorkin script. Finally, while history can and will speak for itself, it seems unlikely that it will look kindly on a president who was most effective only during a fluky two year period when his party had unified control of the government.
As a result, control of Congress over the next few years will likely determine whether President Obama will end up as a transformational figure. If he is able to wrest control of Congress away from Republicans, he will be able to impose his will through the normal legislative process, rather than through administrative agencies and anonymous bureaucrats. He will gain the democratic legitimacy in legislation that eludes him when he stretches his claims of executive power to impose his agenda.
If, however, he is unable to flip Congress, or if Congress gains even more Republicans, then his strategy will have been for nothing and his time and energy will have been foolishly spent. Rather than investing himself in building congressional relationships or working to get even a handful of Republicans to buy into his agenda, he will have presided over an eight year period in which little happened and that which did happen is a matter of continuing controversy. Should ObamaCare’s status as an unpopular law akin to the Bush tax cuts continue after he is gone, then even the permanence of his biggest achievement will be in question.
Although Obama’s reelection renewed the president’s political power, his legacy is in trouble because his agenda may be unsustainable. The next president, whether Republican or Democrat, will have no reason to carry his flag or make excuses for his shortcomings. Further, given the state of gridlock in this country, the next president will have an added incentive to distinguish themselves from the Obama era and to pursue significant, broadly supported legislation. If the next president is able to accomplish something meaningful, it will indicate that it wasn’t the era or the system’s intransigence, but Obama himself, who made a presidency that was both heralded and feared as transformational turn out to be rather inconsequential instead.
David Hodges is an attorney in Washington, D.C.