How Will Time Judge America’s 44th President?


As Americans must now face a President who promises to be the most controversial in modern-day history, it is all too easy to romanticize his predecessor. But behind his cool demeanour and unfaltering charm, we must not forget that Obama himself repeatedly made errors and miscalculations during his time in the White House. Having reached the end of his tenure, we are now obliged to ask, how will time come to judge the 44th Leader of the Free World?

No doubt in years to come people will be writing essays, dissertations, even books trying to answer this very question. It proves somewhat difficult to cover every angle from which his legacy may be assessed in a single article. There are, however, a range of considerations to address. The first is that of his legislative success, something of which he hasn’t seen a great deal. Obama may have been restricted by a divided government and gridlock.  Nevertheless, throughout his tenure, a record low number of bills have been signed into law. Obama was unable to pass any significant gun control measures, and even failed to appoint a judge to the Supreme Court in replacement of the late Antonin Scalia.

Yet claiming he achieved no legislative success seems a little harsh.  Through the enactment of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009, he was able to secure improved rights for women.  He also enacted the Affordable Health Care Act, or Obamacare, as it has come to be known.  From his standpoint, this proved to be a major domestic achievement, providing health insurance for 20 million Americans for whom it was previously denied. However, many Republicans remain convinced its enactment was a travesty for their nation, lowering health care standards and leading to a sharp increase in insurance premiums.

Obama’s unstable relationship with Congressional Republicans was only set to worsen after some disappointing 2010 midterm election results, which drastically reduced his Democrat majority in the Senate and saw him lose control of the House. His power was to diminish further as he lost control of both Congressional chambers following the 2014 midterms.

Furthermore, Republicans have rejected every executive action that Obama undertook. Amongst these orders was the so-called ‘indispensable’ 2009 fiscal stimulus.   Had it been passed, it might have averted global recession in the wake of the banking crisis.

Yet it wasn’t just the Republicans in Congress who disliked Obama and his policies. This disapproval could be felt through all layers of the party’s support system. Republican senators who agreed with any aspect of Democratic policy would be subject to abuse from constituents. This tumultuous relationship between American conservatives and liberals cannot reflect well on Obama, though arguably it was not through any fault on his part.

Despite the hostility of Republicans, many Democrats remained willing to lend their support. Wavering approval ratings for the President shot up on the eve of the recent election, with a Gallup poll recording support amongst 56% of Americans. This is significantly higher than support for Trump, who according to a Washington Post-ABC News Poll, was a favourable candidate amongst just 35% of Americans shortly before his election. Obama also retained strong relations with congressional Democrats. The healthcare vote achieved widespread support amongst party members, and it appears he too had strong relationships with both Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, Senate and House minority leaders.

However, there has been sharp criticism of his foreign policy. He continues to enjoy a measure of international goodwill, having successfully pulled US troops out of Iraq and entered into free-trade agreements with Panama, South Korea and Colombia.  However there is a perception that he has failed to provide international leadership. Obama’s weak reaction to the Palestinian crisis and passive approach to Assad’s use of chemical weapons did not lend themselves to a strong international reputation. Neither did his delayed response to terrorist organisations such as ISIS.  Failure to take a positive role overseas has created a power vacuum, culminating in increased lawlessness in North Africa and parts of the Middle East. It has also more recently allowed Putin to take a leading role in Syria.

What is more, Obama has not enjoyed conspicuous economic success and has failed to make inroads on social inequality. Income inequality itself is at its highest level since 1928.

Yet despite all of this, Obama has continued to present a positive media image.  No matter the challenge, from terrorist threats and atrocities to heartbreaking school shootings, he has maintained a reassuring presence in modern-day Western society. Barack Obama will for sure be remembered as one of the most charismatic Presidents in modern-day American history.  Yet with the benefit of hindsight, his presidency may one day be regarded as a triumph of form over substance.


Photography: John Althouse Cohen via Flickr

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