Saturday, December 14, 2013

The real legacies of the Obama Administration

We, as a nation, remember political history in chunks based on the identity of the Chief Executive. Even though some things that happen are not necessarily directly attributable to a given President, he or she tends to get the credit or the blame in this regard. And one of the reasons--really, the principle reason--we remember political history in this manner is because that's the way it is taught, from elementary school to graduate school. To be sure, there are a handful of exceptions (like Reconstruction) but for the most part, political history is taught as a series of Presidents. Really, history in general is taught this way, and not just with regard to the United States.

Despite the "great man" theory of history having fallen out of favor in academia (that's the idea where history can be understood as the consequences of actions taken by larger-than-life figures), the course of history is charted under such a rubric, more often than not. It's a somewhat understandable---if sometimes insufficient--shortcut, for it allows "periods" in history, either with regard to the rule of a single leader or a dynasty.

Looking at just the history of the United States, moments--or even extended periods--when this rubric is found wanting are easy enough to spot. For instance, there is the westward expansion of the 19th century, which spanned over fifty years and the administrations of some 13 or so Presidents, of various political parties and various points of view on this expansion. But there are also more limited events that occurred during a single administration, or perhaps two or three, that had very little to do with the actions or lack thereof of the President or the Federal Government. Like the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. True enough, there was a response to these calamities from the Feds, but one cannot fairly attribute the actual events to the Administration of the moment or to a previous one.

All of that said, there are without a doubt "legacies" that can be pinned to political leaders, at local, state, and Federal levels. And necessarily, the ones that have the widest impact are the ones centered around the most powerful political figure in the nation: the President.

Some Presidents have very clear and very favorable legacies, like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. The former established standards for Presidential behavior that remain to this day (and are rarely met). The latter held the nation together (by force of arms, it is true), brought slavery to an end, and set the stage for the United States to become the most powerful nation in the world. Others have legacies that are contentious, like FDR, Andrew Jackson, and Thomas Jefferson, with some thinking very highly of what these men accomplished and others thinking their accomplishments are overstated, to say the least.

Then, of course, there are those who simply did little of value, whose legacies amount to nothing if they are lucky or to a series of bad decisions sometimes having severe consequences. This group includes Andrew Johnson, Warren Harding, and James Buchanan. Harding's Presidency was basically one scandal after another and Johnson's legacy is that of an obnoxious Southerner who stood in the way--whenever possible--of attempts to recover from the Civil War and to protect the rights of newly emancipated blacks in the South. Buchanan, whom I happen to view as the worst President in the history of the United States, left a legacy so terrible it is difficult to fully appreciate today. Opportunities to stave off secession were missed horribly by Buchanan; he was truly a man of inaction, especially as compared to Lincoln or Jackson in this regard. And he foolishly tried to halt the westward expansion, which in and of itself only contributed to the unrest in the nation.

Most Presidents have varied legacies; the periods when they held office have things that are remembered positively and things that are remembered negatively. Consider Bill Clinton. The Clinton years are remembered for the economic prosperity of the times, for the sexually-charged scandals that impacted the office of the President, and for the general growth of partisanship in politics and the media. Clinton himself is credited and blamed for all of these things, as well as being remembered for a handful of specific statements and actions that are used to define him, most often by those who supported him.

Really, the legacy of Ronald Reagan is not all that different, except the big scandal of that era was the Iran-Contra Affair. The economic bounce-back from the Nixon and Carter years remains the most critical element of the legacy, though it is very closely followed by the end of the Cold War. And Reagan is--to this day--one of the most heavily quoted Presidents in the modern era, again mostly by those who share his politics.

To be sure, there are also a number of specific laws/polices linked to these Presidents, as there are to most others. For Clinton, there is the aborted "Hillarycare" fiasco, the Glass-Steagall bill, welfare reform legislation, and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."  For Reagan, there are his the so-called "War on Drugs" policies, his response to the Air Traffic Controllers strike, and "Reaganomics."

With all this in mind, it is perhaps time to start looking at Obama's potential legacy, given that the remainder of Obama's second term is looking more and more like it will be something of lame duck period (there's a very good chance Obama will be dealing with a fully Republican Congress after the 2014 Elections). In a year-by-year tally, one could spend pages and pages listing things about the last five years, but one could have done that with Clinton, Reagan, or any other President as well. What I want to do is separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were, pinpoint some very specific things that will be associated with President Obama's time in the White House.

First, there is the economy. Regardless of what one thinks about blame here, the economy has been weak during the last five years. Even some improvement in the next three will do little to change the historical perception in this regard. The period will be remembered as one with a sub-par economy, a recession that began before Obama took office but one his policies failed to impact substantially, one way or the other.

Next, there is the issue of foreign affairs. While the legacy of Obama's predecessor has certainly been found--and will likely continue to be found--wanting in this arena, Obama has done little to distinguish himself. The death of Osama bin Laden, while big news in the moment, will not echo through history in the least, partly because the Obama Administration had already successfully downplayed al Qaeda's significance prior to that moment. The real kicker for Obama is the so-called Arab Spring, which became much more of a winter in short order. The turbulence in the coming years in this region of the world will fall on Obama's shoulders, by and large, just as the conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to fall on those of George W. Bush.

From the standpoint of policy and scandal, there is a lot to choose from. But suffice it to say, I do not think any of the scandals that have plagued the Obama administration--from Fast and Furious to the IRS to Benghazi--will be a part of his legacy. Rather, he will be remembered for two things: Obamacare (which could be very bad or very good for Obama) and the growth of an Imperial Presidency. Obama has taken new liberties with regard to Presidential power; whether one supports him or not, this reality cannot be denied. And like all things in American politics, his actions will be used as precedents by future leaders.

Lastly, there are the things Obama has said, the general demeanor and attitude of both him and other politicians (both those supporting him and opposing him), that will impact his legacy significantly. And no doubt, Obama's skin color will play a role here. But I think that--over time--Obama's legacy here will largely be about the reactionary movements that were spawned and rose to prominence under his watch. Thus is the stuff that sticks to leaders, because it's the stuff that really defines the times. Reagan looked good in this regard, thanks to the Reagan Democrats. But so did Clinton, in a very different way. Obama? The jury is still out here, but depending on 2014 and 2016, he may be held responsible for a significant period of change in U.S. politics. At least that's what I'm hoping.

Cheers, all.

No comments:

Post a Comment