Four Ways President Obama Can Cement His Legacy

President Obama is going through one of the periodic rough patches of his presidency. From the collapse of his campaign against the automatic spending cuts in the “sequester” to the failure to pass universal background checks for gun purchases, the president seems to have lost the mojo that carried over from his election victory last year.

Now, he needs to get his juice back amid speculation he’s already a lame duck and mounting criticism of his handling of the civil war in Syria, plus renewed examination of the death of four Americans at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi last year.

I believe the president must do four things to delay his lame-duck status and cement his legacy.

Push again and maybe again to eliminate the gun show loophole. The compromise bill sponsored by Senators Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) fell six votes short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. One of those “no” votes came from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who voted against the bill to allow it to come to the floor again. (I don’t get it, either.)

Republican Senators Jeff Flake of Arizona and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire may change their votes, so there may now be 58 votes for Manchin-Toomey. The president and his supporters should beg, plead, or twist arms to secure the other two votes and get it through the Senate. (The House, of course, is another story.)

President Obama meets with top economic and legislative advisers. Official White House photo by Pete Souza.

President Obama meets with top economic and legislative advisers. Official White House photo by Pete Souza.

Work behind the scenes to help Senators put together a passable compromise on immigration reform. Let senators like Marco Rubio take the lead but signal you’ll be open to tougher security provisions to help get a bill through a Senate filibuster and the House, where the nativists in the Republican Party are strongest. Again, this is a good place for the president to “lead from behind,” keeping his fingerprints off the final bill for tactical purposes. He’ll get credit for it, anyway,

Focus on implementing the Affordable Care Act and financial reform.  Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank financial reform act, passed in the two years the president had a Democratic Congress, are likely to be the cornerstones of his legacy, but successful implementation is critical. I’ve already pointed out some concerns about Obamacare’s rollout. And regulators are still writing rules that Congress dumped in their laps in the overly complex Dodd-Frank Act. Some of them are quite tough, which is why banks are mounting yet another big lobbying effort. The president should encourage his regulators to stand firm while sweating more of the details on health care reform.

Don’t let Syria disintegrate.  As I’ve written here, Syria is a big mess, and there are no good solutions. But I think the president’s bottom line (or red line, if you will) is to keep the country from falling apart or triggering a regional war. That will mean helping control the flow of refugees, probably arming some of the rebels, and perhaps getting NATO (not U.S.) troops into limited—and I mean limited— military action. President Obama doesn’t want to be known as the president who lost the Middle East on his watch, but he’ll have to take some steps to prevent that from happening.

I don’t think President Obama will be remembered as a great or near-great president. But to be considered a good one, he’ll have to successfully complete his big legislative initiatives and also make sure the things he’s already accomplished will last beyond his second term. Of such successes are presidential legacies made.




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