The Obama Legacy

A Presidency of great promise ends in rancor and disappointment.



President Obama once said that as President he aspired to be the progressive Ronald Reagan, and as he prepares to leave office he has succeeded in fundamental if ironic ways.

While Reagan left behind a calmer, more optimistic country, Mr. Obama leaves a more divided and rancorous one. While the Gipper helped elect a successor to extend his legacy, Mr. Obama will be succeeded by a man who campaigned to repudiate the President’s agenda. Barack Obama has been a historic President but perhaps not a consequential one.

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Mr. Obama was always going to be a historic President by dint of his election as the first African-American to hold the office. His victory affirmed the American ideal that anyone can aspire and win political power. This affirmation was all the better because Mr. Obama won in large part thanks to his cool temperament amid the financial crisis and his considerable personal talents.

Yet his Presidency has been a disappointment at home and abroad, a fact ironically underscored by Mr. Obama’s relentless insistence that he has been a success. In his many farewell interviews, he has laid out what he regards as his main achievements: reviving the economy after the Great Recession, a giant step toward national health care, new domestic regulations and a global pact to combat climate change, the Iran nuclear deal, and a world where America is merely one nation among many others in settling global disputes rather than promoting its democratic values.

Even on their own terms those achievements look evanescent. Congress has teed up ObamaCare for repeal, and Donald Trump will erase the climate rules. The global climate pact is built on promises without enforcement, and Mr. Trump ran against and won in part on the slow economic recovery. Authoritarians are on the march around the world as they haven’t been since the 1970s, and perhaps the 1930s.

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These results flow both from the progressive agenda he pursued and the way he tried to implement it. He took power in 2009 with historic Democratic majorities, and he made the mistake of using them to fulfill 40 years of unmet progressive dreams.

From his first days he let Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi write the stimulus and ObamaCare, to the exclusion of Republicans. “I won,” he famously replied when Eric Cantor asked him to consider Republican economic ideas. The result is that his legislative achievements were built on partisan votes that now make them vulnerable to partisan repeal.

Mr. Obama rejected bipartisanship even after he lost Congress—the House in 2010 and Senate in 2014. He walked away from a budget deal with John Boehner in 2011 at the last minute because he wanted more tax increases. In his second term he all but disdained Congress, preferring to rule by regulation.

This was a gamble that he could elect a Democratic successor to protect his executive orders, but his immigration and other rules can be erased by Mr. Trump or Congress. By rejecting the hard work of building political consensus, Mr. Obama built much of his legacy on sand.

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Mr. Obama’s progressive agenda failed most acutely on its core promise of economic “fairness.” The President made income redistribution to address inequality his top policy priority, above economic growth. The result has been the slowest expansion since World War II and even more inequality.

Higher taxes and wave after wave of new regulation dampened investment, while expanded entitlements and transfer payments lured more Americans out of the workforce. After the 2009 spending bill failed to spur durable growth, the White House relied almost entirely on the Federal Reserve to prevent another recession. The Fed was able to raise asset prices, which has helped the relatively affluent who own assets, but it couldn’t ignite the broad-based expansion and new business creation to lift average incomes.

The Reagan and Bill Clinton expansions left the public in an optimistic mood. Illegal immigration and trade deficits were larger than during the Obama years, but Americans worried less about both because they could see the tide rising for everyone. The slow-growth Obama years created the dry political tinder for Mr. Trump’s campaign against immigration and foreign trade.

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The story is in many ways even worse on foreign policy. When Reagan left office the Soviet Union was in retreat and the Cold War nearing its end. As Mr. Obama leaves office, the gains of the post-Cold War era are being lost as world disorder spreads.

This too flows from Mr. Obama’s progressive worldview. He fulfilled his 2008 campaign promise to reduce America’s global involvement, especially in the Middle East, but his willy-nilly retreat has led to more chaos. He deposed a dictator in Libya but walked away from the aftermath. His decision to leave Iraq let him claim the “tide of war is receding” as he ran for re-election in 2012, but it allowed Islamic State to gestate there and in Syria as he let its civil war burn out of control.

The President’s calls for a world without nuclear weapons have been met by the acceleration of nuclear programs in North Korea and Pakistan. A “reset” with Moscow did nothing to alter Vladimir Putin’s revanchism in Ukraine and beyond. Reductions in U.S. military spending have emboldened China to press for regional dominance in East and Southeast Asia.

Whether his deal with Iran prevents that country from becoming a nuclear power won’t be known for several years, but it has already helped Iran fund its terrorist proxies in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. His outreach to Cuba may be historic but so far it has yielded no benefits for the Cuban people.

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Perhaps the most decisive verdict on the Obama era is the sour public mood. While Americans like and respect the President personally, which explains his approval rating, on Election Day they said by nearly 2 to 1 that the country is on the wrong track. Even race relations, which should have improved under Mr. Obama’s leadership and example, seem to have become worse. His polarizing Presidency has now yielded an equally polarizing successor.

The lesson is not that Mr. Obama lacked good intentions or political gifts. Few Presidents have entered office with so much goodwill. The lesson is that progressive policies won’t work when they abjure the realities of economic incentives at home and the necessity of American leadership abroad.

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