In the wake of President Obama’s final state of the union address, many are reflecting on what his legacy will be. They are discussing his policy achievements and failures both at home and abroad. But with much of his policy agenda, Obama appears to have little interest in leaving behind a long-lasting legacy. For all his talk about being on the right side of history, Obama views that history only in the short-term.
Obama has been obsessed with the idea of leaving behind a legacy since long before he ran for president. In the years before winning the Democratic nomination in 2007, Obama wrote not one, but two memoirs about his life, reminding readers that he’s got what it takes to be a legacy-maker. He has the right narrative arcs to his own history that make him ideal for “making history” (beyond the actually historic fact of having our first black president). He’s pre-destined himself for it, and it weighs heavy on both him and the media.
Obama’s Biggest Achievements Will Fade
The media loves to talk about his “legendary” achievements, the things he’s done that so many liberals thought would remain forever in the realm of fantasy, like health care reform. Yet many of his so-called achievements are unsustainable and fraught with controversy. His grandest triumphs seem unlikely to withstand the test of time. But that hasn’t stopped his crooning.
Obama rammed through the Affordable Care Act despite a nation very split on the issue. He sees it as his landmark legislation. Its rollout was a debacle, and since then insurance premiums have gone up, and the public remains deeply divided on the issue. Because it passed entirely along partisan lines, if a Republican president is elected either this cycle or the next, it will be dismantled and tossed aside.
Never mind that. Obama can proudly crow that he “fixed” the health-care system. He gloats over Dodd-Frank and his “stimulus” bill, but he has presided over the slowest recovery since World War II, an unemployment rate that is still higher than it was in 2007, and a labor force participation rate of 62.6 percent, the lowest since 1977.
Obama’s Foreign Policy Legacy Is Heightened Danger
Obama’s foreign policy legacy is perhaps the most dangerous of his short-term “legacies.” His idolization and misunderstanding of diplomacy has dangerously diminished our position in the world. He re-opened diplomatic relations with Cuba, which sounds impressive, but asked for next to nothing in return.
In 2015, the Cuban regime made 7,686 political arrests. One of these was a performance artist, Danilo Maldonado, who was arrested for “mocking” the Castros. According to Maldonado, “There have been no positive changes. The U.S. has given away too much at the normalization talks, and that has let Cuba continue its repression.”
This method of “diplomacy” at all costs has left the Middle East extremely volatile. Obama signed a nuclear deal with Iran that gave them everything that they wanted (release of $100 billion, the legitimacy of lifted sanctions) while we conceded all of the most important points, including inspection of military sites. Although Obama insisted sanctions would “snap back” if Iran doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain, that claim was quickly tested and proven untrue.
Not only does this deal not deter a nuclear Iran, many worry we have just ensured the opposite. Our obsequiousness to Iran has communicated above all our softness, which encourages them to take liberties (see last Tuesday’s overnight arrest of ten U.S. sailors), and sends a message to our enemies that we are sentimental suckers.
Obama loves to point to his role in ending the war in Iraq, the issue that got him elected. Although the surge worked and relative stability had begun to take root, he withdrew our troops prematurely, leaving a toxic power vacuum into which ISIS gladly stepped. So while Obama may have technically “ended” the war, he reversed much of the gains our troops had won and created a more unstable Middle East. At least he can say he got us out of Iraq—for now.
Obama is also fond of pointing out that ISIS is on the run, that they are being “degraded.” But saying it doesn’t make it true. The downing of a Russian passenger plane last year and the attacks in Paris in November and San Bernardino in December refute this, as does ISIS’s expansion into Libya. The look on the joint chiefs’ faces during the state of the union said it all. They sat grim and tight-jawed while Obama bragged about our international strength and the safety of our nation.
Barack Obama: Master of the Ephemeral Quick Fix
More than anything, Obama’s record of executive action is a key example of how little he cares about long-lasting policies. Obama’s strategy here is to refuse to negotiate with Republicans on an issue, blame them for the stalemate, then heroically proclaim he is going to transcend “party politics” and do what’s “right.” He then proceeds to bypass Congress with an executive order that will only last so long as he, or someone from his party who agrees with him, is in power. His two major executive actions, on immigration and gun control, play well to his media admirers but not to American voters in general.
Unlike Lyndon B. Johnson who, for better or for worse, created long-lasting social programs, Obama is the master of the quick fix. He’s looking for that big headline, that big press announcement, that sound bite.
So long as he can say, technically, “I brokered a nuclear deal with Iran,” he doesn’t care how long that deal lasts, what it really achieves, or what instability will follow in its wake. He can, for the rest of his life, say those seven words. He wants to claim personal and political victory even if it’s shoddily done and won’t last. While LBJ was looking out for future generations, Obama is looking out for himself.
It’s not that the things Obama has done won’t have lasting ripple effects, possibly for generations to come. Nor has he achieved no long-term goals (see Michael Grunwald’s article in Politico for a detailed look). It’s that his most signature policy achievements are achievements in name only.
This is because Obama cares more about the letter of the law—did he technically do X, Y, or Z—than the spirit of it—did he actually attain his goal. He’s so anxious to be seen as creating a legacy that he isn’t really creating one at all, or at least not the one he’s hoping for. For all of his talk of being on the right side of history, our president has a surprisingly short-sighted view of his own legacy—one that will likely damage his party far more than it will damage him.