In attempting to place Barack Obama historically in a presidential ranking, there are many complicating variables that would not normally be present. I attribute this to the election of Donald Trump to follow Obama into the White House.
Because Trump is likely to be such an extremist, irrational and unqualified train- wreck, there are bound to be Obama accomplishments that are undone. This could include the Affordable Care Act, the Iran nuclear deal and environmental and financial regulations, to name but a few.
A second factor that presents a challenge in grading Barack Obama’s presidency is the Republican obstruction during his two terms. Never before has a president been faced with opposition so severe, extreme and absolute. This was evident to such a degree that Republicans actually opposed their own ideas; the Affordable Care Act being the most obvious example. Opposition to Obama was a virulent reaction to his being black, well-spoken, reserved, and thoughtful, with the racism being at the top of the list.
With these qualifications in mind, I have ranked Barack Obama where I believe is appropriate. I feel that had his successor been Hillary Clinton, or even a rational Republican (which in 2016 was nearly impossible to find), this position would be more historically settled. However, depending on the Trump presidency, and how quickly the pendulum swings back to sanity in the nation in 2018 and 2020, Obama’s place could rise or fall by a few slots.
I rank Barack Obama reasonably high, and believe true historians will as well, for many reasons. However, I would first point out his most obvious failures, shortfalls and missed opportunities.
Domestically, his weak points can be viewed as a product of his early tenure timidity, or faith that he could bring Democrats and Republicans together. This resulted in his providing for inadequate spending to combat the Great Recession (with too many ineffective tax cuts included), relying on Congress to lead the way on health insurance reform (Thus succumbing to the tendencies of men such as Ben Nelson, Max Baucus and Joe Lieberman to significantly weaken the final product, and Republicans to whip up a frenzy of misinformation and lies leading to the creation of the Tea Party), and in not prosecuting anyone on Wall Street for the reckless behavior that enabled the economic collapse Obama inherited.
On foreign policy, Obama’s greatest failings were in his too closely adhering to George W. Bush Administration policies on drone strikes and warrantless wiretapping (I place this in foreign policy due to its terrorism connection). Obama, also, was sometimes too reasonable with the thugs and tyrants in the Middle East and Russia. While I will point to this as a strength, too, drawing lines in the sand (Syria), being too reflective (Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, China) and not recognizing the value of at least showing the stick more transparently alongside the carrot, allowed the various strong men in these countries to act without genuine fear of repercussion. Lastly, he, like most all other experts, underestimated ISIL’s rise.
While peace between Israel and Palestine remains out of reach, probably further away than it was when Obama took office, I blame this fully on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli extreme right, Mahmoud Abbas and the weak and cowardly Palestinian leadership, Republican intransigence, and AIPAC.
However, Barack Obama’s successes, while some potentially will be ephemeral, outweigh these weaknesses by a sizable margin, thereby making him an above average to very good president.
While the world exploded due to the Arab Spring, most United States connection to this would be longstanding, dating back to post-World War II. No president could have drastically altered the events that took place. Egypt was a mess because the Muslim Brotherhood and the military both refused to govern inclusively. Iraq fell apart due to Bush policies, Iran’s influence and the Shiite unwillingness to, again, govern inclusively. While I have mentioned Obama’s failings as to Syria, I also believe he wisely did not engage more fully. The American people overwhelmingly opposed the boots on the ground that would have been required, Congress, cowardly, was unwilling to act in any manner, and the reality within Syria showed that the opposition to Bashar al-Assad was incredibly fluid and unreliable. Arming militants could have led to a repeat of the disastrous outcome of arming the Afghani jihadists of the 1980’s.
As such, I view Obama’s Syria policy as limiting the quagmire for the U.S. ISIL was technically an already existing threat – a product of the Iraq War and al Qaeda in Iraq. Iraq itself had no true means of being a success because of their own leadership. Obama got the U.S. out of the sinkhole that Iraq had been as best as possible. The same was true in Afghanistan.
The Obama Administration had clear successes, too. Ties to India grew by leaps and bounds. The failed Cuba policy was ended, with great promise for the future. Despite some serious problems with its Rohingya population, Myanmar gave up a solid measure of its military rule. Al Qaeda was seriously weakened, including the death of Osama bin Laden. There were no significant terrorist strikes within U.S. borders. The open hostility and negative image of the United States internationally, a product of the Bush Administration’s “Cowboy Diplomacy,” was greatly reversed. And, most importantly, despite unprecedented political opposition from Republicans and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Iran Nuclear Agreement was signed. This deal made the world much safer for the foreseeable future and possibly bought Iran enough time to moderate when Ayatolluh Khamanei dies, hopefully soon.
Domestically, the Obama presidency could have been great. Sadly, due to Obama’s early naiveté that Republicans would be reasonable and act in the best interests of the nation, combined with those Republicans intentionally harming the country solely to deny Obama any success, less was accomplished than was possible. I do not put too much of this upon Obama’s shoulders.
The Obama Administration was handed the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression. Unemployment was rising, banks were becoming insolvent, the auto industry was collapsing, and the country was on the brink of disaster. Obama’s steady hand provided enough stimulus to stem the tide. Bailouts to the auto and banking industry, building on what the Bush Administration was virtually forced to begin to enact, saved millions of jobs and prevented a complete economic catastrophe.
Once things stabilized, with the help of an engaged and late-to-the-game, proactive Federal Reserve Bank, unemployment eventually leveled off and actually achieved near complete employment. Obama’s negotiating led to a reversal of some (though not enough) of the Bush tax cuts, resulting in a lessening of income inequality. Towards the end of Obama’s tenure, income growth began to show real signs of picking up momentum. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was created, greatly reducing the risk of further financial fraud and protecting the middle and lower classes significantly.
While the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare,” has produced incredible controversy, and is far from a perfect piece of law, it’s success is beyond logical question. It did not fully address cost containment, but it did slow the growth of increases. It allowed for a wide array of innovation to make care more efficient and effective. Most importantly, through the insurance exchanges and increased Medicaid enrollment, 30 million additional people received affordable (due to subsidies) health insurance. The plan also had a substantial impact on income inequality by effectively granting raises to people in the lower and middle classes via affordable care, while paying for the care with tax increases on the wealthiest people.
The Affordable Care Act clearly needs tinkering to fix the various problems that any large piece of legislation can lead to. Sadly, the potential for repeal by Republicans following the end of the Obama presidency could undo all these gains and negatively impact tens of millions of people. This is one key area where Republican success would, sadly, negatively impact Obama’s legacy. However, judging by early news from the post-Obama presidency, Republicans appear to have succumbed to the notion of insuring more people. Though all their alternatives will not actually result in this, the change in the tone of the conversation is to Obama’s credit. The best hope is that once Republicans make things worse, the Obama legacy will allow for a second reversal that restores coverage levels and goes further than the ACA.
While some might argue that President Obama did not do enough for the environment – increased oil production domestically, allowing fracking – the truth is his administration did protect vast expanses of the nation and made major efforts to improve auto fuel efficiencies, address climate change globally and shift the country to alternative energy sources.
The Obama Administration was essentially scandal-free. In fact, the only real scandal during Obama’s term in office was Republican attempts to manufacture scandals through countless irresponsible, fraudulent and shameful investigations into, frankly, nothing.
Some might place blame on Barack Obama for the increased national divisiveness. It is more appropriate to place almost no blame on the president. Any disparagement of President Obama for the rancor that grew during, and as a result of, his presidency would be the equivalent of blaming Lincoln for the Civil War. The truth is, as is often the case throughout history, a reaction to economic difficulty, often leads to nationalist excess, rightwing extremism and overt acts of hostility. The rise of the Tea Party, the extent to which the Republican Party became a rightwing, fanatical platform and the eventual rise of Trumpism, is not a reflection on the Obama Administration, or any failings on its part, but the product on an uninformed electorate and misguided rage.
Overall, Barack Obama merits the rating I have given him. Repeal of the Affordable Care Act with an insufficient replacement, or a rejection of the Iran Nuclear Accords, could drop his rating. But the United States was blessed by a thoughtful, responsible, dynamic, and good man, who had a plan of success for the nation. It was not fully attained, and could be undone in many respects. For now, Barack Obama stands as this nation’s #11 president.