Recent clashes between President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump over U.S. policies toward Israel and Russia provide a vivid reminder that successors often affect a president’s historical standing.
Fears that massive deficits would cloud Ronald Reagan’s legacy vanished after George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton reduced them. On the other hand, Clinton’s ability to work with a Republican Congress to improve the long-term fiscal picture looked even better after George W. Bush squandered his gains.
As Obama’s tenure ends, it’s clear he will have a special place in history as the first person of color to win the nation’s highest office. But his ultimate standing may hinge on the degree to which his top achievements, the Affordable Care Act and securities market reform at home and initiatives toward Cuba and Iran abroad, survive Trump’s presidency.
Obama set other standards in both tone and fact, including expanding the number of minorities and women in top jobs. He leaves office with high popularity and in next week’s farewell speech can legitimately cite many positive achievements.
But Obama is leaving his successor with some potentially reversible targets. One critic, former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that Obama was “one of the three most transformative presidents in the past century,” along with Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, but he predicted many of the president’s initiatives won’t survive.
Republicans can’t destroy his success in preventing the Great Recession, which he inherited, from becoming a depression. Obama engineered a steady, though modest, recovery including rescue of the domestic auto industry. But Republicans can undo some legislative successes and executive action.
Notable among these are the controversial health care law known as Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank law designed to prevent another financial collapse, both enacted by the Democratic Congress in Obama’s first two years.
Obamacare reduced by half the number of Americans without health care coverage and slowed the rate of overall industry price increases. But it failed to lower current costs for many people.
Its replacement is one of Trump’s top goals. But repealing and replacing the complex law will be difficult, and what emerges could be a revised — not a replaced — version.
Trump can more easily overturn Obama’s widespread use of executive authority, notably strengthening environmental regulation to reduce the impact on climate change and protecting millions of immigrant “dreamers” brought to the United States illegally as small children.
Despite the president-elect’s contention the country is in “a mess,” Obama is leaving a strong economy. Unemployment, which peaked at 10 percent in his October 2009, is down to 4.6 percent, and the economy has expanded for 81 consecutive months, adding 15 million private sector jobs after losing 5 million in 2009.
Looking abroad, Obama has been less successful. He failed to compensate for diminished American influence after lowering the U.S. profile in global trouble spots, notably the Middle East.
Critics say the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq created a vacuum that gave rise to the terrorist Islamic state ISIS. Though Obama claims the Iraqis gave him no choice, he underestimated the renewed terrorist threat after Navy Seals killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Lately, a U.S.-led coalition has regained the military initiative, but repeated terrorist attacks show ISIS remains a global threat.
Syria was Obama’s biggest failure. His refusal to enforce his “red line” against President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons and to help anti-Assad rebels enabled Russia to step in, bolstering the Syrian dictator. U.S. inaction contributed to massive homelessness, sending millions of refugees abroad and creating security and political problems in Europe and the U.S.
Obama scored two diplomatic breakthroughs. The U.S. and five other countries, including Russia, reached an agreement with Iran halting its nuclear weapons development for 10 years. Trump has threatened to withdraw U.S. participation.
Obama restored diplomatic relations after 54 years with Cuba’s communist government, though the long-standing U.S. trade embargo remains. But Cuba’s leaders have not moderated their authoritarian rule.
Some of Obama’s biggest failures were political. He failed to achieve his stated goal of reducing partisanship, due both to Republican intransigence and his often passive leadership.
During his presidency, Democrats have lost the House and Senate, most governorships and many legislatures. Despite winning two terms with more than 50 percent of the vote, Obama failed to prevent Trump from defeating his designated successor, Hillary Clinton.
Still, as a popular ex-president at 55, Obama will likely be a continuing political presence, reminding many Americans of a vision far different from the one about to unfold.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is a columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Readers may email him at [email protected]