I haven’t really had a chance to go over how I feel about the Obama Presidency as a whole to this point, so I figured I’d take a moment to do exactly that. As his second term gets under way, Barack Obama has a lower approval rating than most recent Presidents. CBS has the ugly numbers for the President:
Just 43 percent of Americans currently approve of the president’s job performance, down 11 points from this time last year, according to a new Washington-Post/ABC poll. Disapproval is 55 percent, up from 42 percent last year. A CBS News/New York Times poll released last week showed Mr. Obama with a 42 percent approval rating and disapproval at 50 percent.
With an obstinate congress that has not gotten anything done in seemingly ages and the botched rollout of the Administration’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, the President’s approval rating is undeniably low. But he has also run for his last election, so the question turns now to how he will be remembered in the years and decades ahead.
In the end, Presidents are remembered for what they do, and their legacy can be quite different than their approval rating on the day they left office would indicate. In the stimulus package, the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd/Frank financial reform bill, withdrawal of troops from Iraq, plans to be out of Afghanistan this year, progress in nuclear negotiations with Iran, and the isolation of rival China in the international community, the Obama administration has laid the groundwork to be remembered as one of the most consequential of the modern era. Bill Clinton, who is remembered quite fondly by liberals and even some conservatives these days, never had a single achievement even half as significant as the Affordable Care Act, which is only one of Obama’s many accomplishments.
Obamacare alone would have made this a weighty Presidency. As the Washington Monthly put it, in listing passage of the Affordable Care Act as its choice as the administration’s top achievement to date:
After five presidents over a century failed to create universal health insurance, signed the Affordable Care Act (2010). It will cover 32 million uninsured Americans beginning in 2014 and mandates a suite of experimental measures to cut health care cost growth, the number one cause of America’s long-term fiscal problems.
But that’s not all! Even before that, in the very early stages of his Presidency, Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or the “Stimulus Package“, as it came to be known. The $787 billion dollars in direct Federal spending came at the depth of the Great Recession in 2009, and helped to plug the hole in demand that the implosion of the financial sector the world over wrought. And it was pretty successful, if, unsurprisingly, insufficiently large.
What was arguably more important than the macroeconomic benefit of the Stimulus Program, though, was the actual, real world investments that the burgeoning Obama administration got to make. The bill included investments in infrastructure, like repaved highways and updates to our decaying bridges, education, like upgraded cafeteria’s and computer labs in public schools and community colleges, healthcare infrastructure such as electronic records to decrease dangerous medical errors, energy grid upgrades to increase our productivity and safety, and numerous tax breaks to put money back into the pocket of the middle class.
With the recession mostly subsided, attention turned to regulations that would help to prevent another economic cataclysm like what occurred in 2008 and 2009. With Republicans and Democrats in agreement that something had to be done to reign in a financial sector that had run amok, something moderately bipartisan actually happened in Washington with the passage of the Dodd/Frank financial reform bill in June of 2010. The law requires that banks keep more capital on hand as a safeguard for tough times, bans risky forms of trading from large money-center banks like Bank of America or JP Morgan, requires that banks have a plan in place for their liquidization, should times get sufficiently tough, and finally instituted Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s brainchild, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). These measures, while short of what many on the left had wanted, seem to have had some genuine success. Big banks seem to be more stable and mundane than they were in the high flying days leading up to the Great Recession, as they should be.
The next campaign promise to check off the list for Obama was to get the troops out of Iraq, which finally happened on December 18th, 2011. The war, which cost U.S. taxpayers at least $1 trillion that were officially on the books, the lives of 4,487 young U.S. troops, with another 32,223 injured, and seriously eroded the country’s image all over the world, was over. Obama, who voted against the war, campaigned against the war, and largely beat Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Primary because of her ill-conceived support for the war, had fulfilled another major campaign promise.
Next, for the President, it was time to extricate the country from another Republican foreign policy fiasco, the country’s longest war ever at well over 12 years. The war, which has an unofficial death toll of 18,675, is still not over. However, the President has announced that all U.S. troops will be out by the end of this year, and both sides have agreed to the outlines of a final Bilateral Security Agreement that says, “unless mutually agreed, United States forces shall not conduct combat operations in Afghanistan”. For 2014, the administration’s plans for drawdown in Afghanistan calls for, “US force level [to] drop to between 10,000 and 20,000 troops… They will consist of Special Forces, counter terrorism forces, and military training personnel. They will be deployed to a small number of bases around the country.”
Besides the two wars that he inherited, Obama’s foreign policy has been one of leading from within the pack, as opposed to so far out ahead as to be out of sight like his predecessor. By garnering international support for increasingly tough sanctions in Iran and choosing not to overplay their hand in fomenting regime change in Iran during the Arab Spring, the Obama Administration has finally brought Iran, nearly completely isolated internationally, to the negotiating table about its nuclear program.
Further to the East, in Asia, the Administration has executed its “Asian pivot“, where it turned its diplomatic attention to the all important Asia region. Most importantly, the United States has fostered increasingly strong relationships with all of rival China’s neighbors, which has served to isolate them and show other countries in the region that they do not have to become a defacto satellite to China.
When held up against the accomplishments of other modern Presidents, and the political gridlock of most of his term is taken into account, it is undeniable that Barack Obama’s record is impressive. Once the partisan battles of the day like Benghazi, Solyndra, and IRS Taxgate have subsided, and the right has a new object of their hatred, Obama’s reputation will see the same type of bounce as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have seen after leaving office. What’s more, even today, with his favorables down, people still seem to personally like the president, which should help in later years. With these legacy achievements to add to the mix, there is little doubt in my mind that Barack Obama will go down as one of the best and most important Presidents of the modern era.