What the Obama Presidency Really Means

President Obama is still in the first year of his second term and a lot will happen between now and 2016, but we already can glimpse what his legacy will be.

As I’ve written, the trio of scandals that have preoccupied the media for the last few weeks won’t really touch him, although the Justice Department’s spying on journalists like the AP and Fox News’ James Rosen may eventually lead to the resignation of ineffectual Attorney General Eric Holder.

And we don’t know what will happen in Iran or increasingly volatile Syria, which could test this president the way the Cuban Missile Crisis tested JFK.

Much will depend on how health care reform, this president’s signature legislation, works—or doesn’t. And of course he will always be remembered as the first African-American to be elected and then reelected president.

President Obama is sworn in for his second term in Washington, DC on January 20, 2013. Official White House photo by Sonya N. Hebert.

President Obama is sworn in for his second term in Washington, DC on January 20, 2013. Official White House photo by Sonya N. Hebert.

But I think President Obama will be seen principally as a transitional president who helped clean up the mess left behind by the administration of George W. Bush, the worst president of the last 50 years. That includes:

  • Ending the war in Iraq on schedule and walking away.
  • Bringing the war in Afghanistan to a dignified close, albeit one far short of a fantasy “victory.”
  • Killing Osama bin Laden and decimating Al Qaeda’s ability to carry out mass terrorist attacks like 9/11
  • Rolling back some of the excesses of the Bush-Cheney counterterrorism regime, like secret prisons and torture and moving to disperse prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, while trying to establish a clearer legal and operational structure for drone strikes.
  • Successfully completing the TARP program set up by the Bush administration. That includes rebuilding the capital of the largest banks, winding down the government’s position in AIG, and even beginning to make profits from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
  • Overseeing the Dodd-Frank financial reform act, which, though unwieldy, has stifled the worst excesses of these institutions and has undone the damage done by the Wall Street free-for-all ushered in by President Clinton and his Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin.
  • Continuing the Bush Administration’s bailout of the auto industry by using TARP funds and shepherding these companies through managed bankruptcies. Now GM and Chrysler are highly profitable and have helped spark a revival of the American industrial heartland.
  • Fixing FEMA and improving disaster relief dramatically from the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina
  • His agreement with Republicans to avert the “fiscal cliff,” which  made permanent most of the Bush tax cuts but also raised tax revenues from top earners, paved the way for a massive rally on Wall Street and (along with the Federal Reserve’s extra-loose monetary policy) a genuine consumer recovery. Even conservative host Lawrence Kudlow acknowledged that.
  • Reducing the deficit quicker than expected after agreeing to $3 trillion in spending cuts

The president has a long way to go to undo the damage created by President Bush. He has tried to have it both ways on the added executive powers the Bush Administration took on in the wake of 9/11.

His failure to pursue more action on climate change or to prosecute criminals at Wall Street banks will be lasting stains on his record.

He’s still trying to get enhanced background checks for firearms, immigration reform, and a grand bargain on entitlements and the budget. Any of those would enhance his administration’s legacy, but all three face stiff resistance in a Tea Party-dominated House.

And he has yet to achieve a foreign policy milestone like Richard Nixon’s trip to China or Jimmy Carter’s brokering of a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.

Short of those things, President Obama will be remembered as the president who lifted the country out of the hole dug by President Bush. That’s no small achievement, since it was a very deep hole indeed.

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