The greatest compliment Barack Obama ever got from the right was their complete unwillingness to accept reality.
The stock market nearing new highs? Bubble! Jobless claims at a 43-year low? The numbers must be fake! Twenty million more Americans with health insurance? Obamacare can’t possibly be helping anyone because I know a guy who knows someone’s doctor who said…
While many on the left have been disappointed by the president’s “incrementalism,” the Obama administration has engineered tremendous change since 2009 — even as a conservative Supreme Court spent much of 2010 tearing up campaign finance law while the president was forced to reduce the massive deficit he’d inherited from George W. Bush, who inherited a surplus.
Though the president’s approval rating has been edging up, he’s not likely to reach the heights Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan did in their final days in office, nor see anything like the depths that George W. Bush or Richard Nixon earned as they prepared for their last helicopter flight of shame out of the White House.
But there is a strong case to be made for President Obama being one of most consequential presidents ever.
And it’s not just because of the symbolic value of his being our first African American president, nor because he avoided a Great Depression, nor even just because every solar panel, Tesla and wind turbine you’ll ever see — and you’ll see a ton — came about much quicker as a result of Obama’s stimulus. These are all achievements that will endure regardless what happens in November.
“He just flew above it all,” Jim Nelson wrote in GQ. “And, luckily, he took most of us with him. He was the Leader not only of our country but of our mood and disposition, which is harder to rule.”
Why is it so hard to see that now?
- Negative partisanship.
Democrats have won the popular vote in five of the six most recent presidential elections. In 2012, Obama became the first president elected twice with more than 51 percent of the popular vote. Yet Republicans handily won the popular vote, and eventually both houses of Congress, in both 2010 and 2014, forging one the largest conservative majorities since the Great Depression. This phenomenon has been described by political scientists Alan I. Abramowitz and Steven Webster as “negative partisanship,” which means that almost every race has become nationalized and 90 percent of voters participate in straight-ticket voting. While Donald Trump’s candidacy has thus far been so polarizing that it could disrupt this trend, “A growing number of Americans have been voting against the opposing party rather than for their own party,” Abramowitz and Webster explain. Republican voters have no interest in seeing anything Obama does as a success, and others, including myself, tend to see what he’s achieved as substantively positive. However, given George W. Bush’s messy last year and the corporate capture of our “Winner-Take-All” political system, even some on the left are dismayed by how much work remains to be done, and how little seems possible in our divided government.
- An activated left that recognizes the very real crises of inequality and endless war.
When the Congressional Budget Office released “Trends in the Distribution of Household Income Between 1979 and 2007” in October of 2011, its recognition of the massive transfer of wealth that had taken place in America helped launch the Occupy movement. But when economist Emmanuel Saez found that most of the economic recovery was going to the richest one percent through 2013, it set off a wave of despondency on the left. We’re yet to see if new taxes on the rich, combined with the greatest anti-inequality measure since the Earned Income Tax — Obamacare — have affected this trend, which began with the anti-tax, anti-regulation, pro-financialization policies that marked the Reagan Revolution. There are encouraging signs that Medicaid expansion is helping to move some the working poor out of debt, but the lack of a public option in the Affordable Care Act is still seen as a massive betrayal of the left and has fed Bernie Sanders’ push for a fully-realized Scandinavian-style safety net. Likewise, Obama’s remarkable victory in 2008 campaigning against the Iraq War sparked hopes for a new era of diplomacy, which has been somewhat realized through the Iran deal and the Paris Climate Change agreement. But the United States’ never-ending involvement in Afghanistan, our return to Iraq, and our abetting of the bombing of Yemen have left what remains of America’s anti-war movement demoralized. Syria is a never-ending humanitarian disaster that some critic say proves Obama over-learned the lessons of Iraq. On the other hand, Libya reveals the challenges that come from interventionism in which the exit strategy is to exit immediately. These are very real, vexing challenges that Obama’s successor must face. And conservatives believe they have the solution — which is to do nearly the same things that got us into these messes.
- A conservative electorate insulated from reality by a new media landscape that relies on conflict and derision.
In conservative media, Obama’s failures as a candidate and human being have been obvious since the moment he took office, and Republican voters took the hint. His disapproval rating among GOP voters has been in the high 70s since the end of his first year of office and it’s now in the high 80s, even as we’re seeing his best numbers from independent voters since he was re-elected. Regular audiences of Fox News and AM radio either don’t know that that deficit has been cut by two-thirds, or that unemployment claims recently hit a 43-year low — or they just refuse to believe it.
- Obama’s accomplishments feel like stuff we should have done decades ago.
On Earth Day, the Department of Transportation announced that all future transportation plans must take into account carbon pollution, a minor but significant achievement that left many Americans thinking, “Why the hell weren’t we doing that already?” When Obama came into office, he did more to fight climate change in a few weeks (with a massive stimulus) than all other presidents had in more than two hundred years. Sure, the Clinton administration took important environmental steps in the 1990s. But they were nearly all abandoned and reversed by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, as they ignored the international consensus on climate science that had emerged long before Al Gore’s popularization of it in the mid 2000s. Similarly, the advancement of LGBTQ rights have happened so quickly that it’s hard to remember what a crucial victory the ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was. Now marriage equality, which the administration fought for through litigation, is already taken for granted. These huge paradigm shifts all seem inevitable now because they should have happened decades ago. But anyone who lived through 2000-2008 can tell you how quickly achievements that seem irreversible can be washed away by a flood of caprice.
- His legacy depends so much on who succeeds him.
The Affordable Care Act, Wall Street reform, making federal income taxes more progressive, a global climate change agreement, and the removal of nearly all of Iran’s uranium rank among Obama’s greatest accomplishments. And they could all disappear, or at least shrink into irrelevancy, with one election and a few pieces of legislation. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which has saved Americans billions of dollars by enforcing the fine print on consumer financial regulations, would never see the second year of a Republican administration. Neither would many of the regulatory positions required to make Dodd-Frank’s reforms work. The survival of these crucial victories depends on the next president. The sudden Supreme Court vacancy left by Antonin Scalia, similarly, will be decided in one way or another by the 2016 election. If it becomes clear Republicans have no chance of succeeding him, Obama will get his third appointment and a chance at leaving America with a left-leaning Court for the first time since the early 1970s. If not, a Republican president will have their chance to replace Scalia and then possibly Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, which will leave America with the most conservative Court since before World War II. Then the right’s agenda of reversing the Obama presidency will be expanded to wipe out the historic achievements of Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt. Like the rest of American politics, Obama’s legacy sits at a crossroads, waiting for voters to render their verdict.
Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama toasts with Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri during a state dinner in the Centro Cultural Kirchner as part of President Obama’s two-day visit to Argentina, in Buenos Aires March 23, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria