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The Legacy of a President

How will Obama be remembered?

There has been a noticeable increase in recent months on the subject of how President Barak Obama will be viewed after his administration has ended. This is a curious spectacle, not least due to the fact that Obama is set to remain in power for three and half additional years. Equally odd is how those offering analysis of the topic rarely discuss the legacies of previous presidents, specifically in regards to what defined them, or continues to define them. This plausibly offers an outline on how to evaluate the current president. even when subject to individual interpretation. To alleviate this, a set of guidelines should be offered with the basis set for what defines a legacy, how it can be constructed, as well as how it can be open for continuous interpretation.

Before we begin attempting to assess the Obama legacy, we should define what previous presidents are known for, and acquire a firm grasp of how their legacies were defined while they were in office, and afterwords. For example, Ronald Reagan's legacy is likely to be viewed as a positive if limited to his tenure. However, the financial crisis of 2008 was in many ways the result of a continuation and expansion of the ideology he advocated. His ideology had won the people during his tenure, but much of that same ideology came crashing down when Henry Paulson felt compelled to inject government capitol into a system that was unable to save itself. The most damaging impact to Reagan's legacy arguably occured twenty years after he left office, and four years post mortem. George W. Bush, on the other hand, left office in dire straights. Recently, this too has begun to turn. G.W. Bush is now viewed more favorably than the current president, despite the opposite being true by a nearly three to one margin when their administrations transitioned. Time, therefore, can offer its own separate verdict.

So can exposure. Every president since Kennedy has dealt with a televised audience, and each since Clinton came under the microscope of the internet. Each form of media offers its own unique substances and nuances, but more importantly they form a permanent record unavailable to prior presidents. While Lincoln's writings and speech transcripts have stood the test of time, and FDR's fireside chats were indespensible in their day, video recording carries a greater weight to subsequent generations. This limits the comparable field. Noting this, the list of comparables should probably not begin prior to 1961.

A detailed look at recent presidents and what stands out during and after their administration is required. For the purposes of this editorial, I will begin with Jimmy Carter, as I do not feel Ford, Nixon, Johnson or Kennedy offer accurately comparable value. JFK's legacy is skewed favorably due to his untimely death, Johnson's due to how he took office as well as how he left, Nixon's due to impeachment and resignation, and Ford because he was never elected to the presidency or vice presidency.

Also of note, a removal of the spirited ends of each political spectrum is also necessary. For example, those stating that Obama is among the great presidents in U.S. history, as well as those believing that he is among the worst, are near certainly to be proven wrong. In both cases, the individuals rivaling for the best and worst spots are cemented in a way that Obama is unlikely to match.

Our comparable field:

Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter is not remembered as a good president. This may seem an understatement, but clarity is key, especially when each president is going to be defined by a shortened highlight list, not a detailed historical tome. He was elected largely as an alternative to the seeming corruption and corrosion in Washington from the prior two administrations. The previous two elected administrations were forced to cease their role as president due to their ruling actions. Johnson, because of Vietnam, and Nixon due to his role in a notorious scandal. Carter came in as a wave of fresh air, completely untainted by prior discrepencies. Once elected, he is viewed as having mismanaged an energy crisis, appearing toothless to both the USSR and Iran, and when he tried to act on the latter, the action was such a total failure as to be seen as a national embarassement. He was subsequently seriously challenged in his own party's primary before being defeated in the general election. Post presidency, he has built his reputation as a sincere humanitarian, but has never escaped the appearance of ineptitude of his administration.

Overall legacy: Negative. His noteworthy humanitarian actions have allowed him high favorability as an individual, but not enough to redefine his poor tenure.

How does this apply to Obama: Obama also entered as a new alternative to D.C. Obama's highly risky mission was a profound success, while Carter's was the opposite. Obama was re-elected, Carter was not.

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan came in riding a wave of conservatism that remained popular in America until 2008, and remains still popular within the Republican Party. His ideals of limited government, lower taxes, free market advocacy and a hawkish foreign policy became so accepted that the next Democratic Party president only challenged the edges. Reagan is also one of only two re-elected presidents since the Eisenhour administration that left office able to ask the American public this simple question while getting a favorable response: "Are you better off now than you were prior to my presidency?" As was mentioned above, Reagan's legacy was complicated by the fact that many of the guiding principles that elevated him so far were key contributors to the financial crisis twenty years later. Government deregulation and business operational freedom were two of the most important successes of the Reagan administration, as well as two of the most important failures in 2008. Additionally, Reagan successfully implemented the largest tax cut in post WW2 American history. Since that tax cut, median American purchasing power has remained perfectly stagnant to inflation, while the wealthiest of Americans have increased their value substantially. The gap between the haves and the have-nots is a continuous issue today, and can be traced in many ways to this president. Strong, hawkish foreign policy was also a staple of his administration. The supporting of questionable foreign leaders in favor of preferential policy dealings was as well. These would also come to a head over the coming decades.

Overall legacy: Mostly Positive. Prior to problems that occured well down the road, his legacy was almost unequivicably favorable. Issues post-tenure and post-mortem have offered increased scrutiny on this administration's decision making, but not enough to re-define him on the macro. Of further note, varying scandals under his administration have in no way discolored this president. When applied to Obama, the current president can only hope for the same. Finally, while Reagan's popularity has come down in some circles, most conservatives and Republicans continue to view this administration as a resounding success.

How does this apply to Obama: Reagan offered clear differing ideology to the previous admistration, just as did Obama. Reagan was largely successful in dealing with Congress, the same cannot be said of Obama. Reagan's ideology won the day, is still applicable, and was successful in the short term, moderately successful in the medium term, if less so in the long term. Obama's ideological success is as yet undecided. However, the likehood of Obama emulating this success is not high. If Obama can avoid the pitfalls in the medium and long term that Reagan's philosophy was not, that could be cause for reconsideration.

George H. W. Bush

Perhaps the toughest president to label in recent history (positive or negative) is GHWB. Elected to continue the successes of the Reagan administration, he proved a pragmatic leader. He raised taxes as he felt needed, and intervened in Iraq in the same manner. He would see the fall of the Communist block in Germany, and the end of a near half century old Cold War. A foreign policy expert, his administration was blindsided by an economic slowdown, as well as a degree of party weariness with the American public, and he was challenged by both a businessman from his home state as well as a governor from a neighboring one. Ultimately defeated by the governor, his legacy has been narrowed in a way that makes defining his presidency more difficult than his two predecessors and successors, as well as more forgettable.

Overall legacy: Neutral-Slightly Positive.

How does this apply to Obama: GHWB became more popular as a governing leader near the end of his successor's tenure. The image of him as an honorable, effective statesman has solidified since leaving office. His Iraq record is minimally comparable to Obama, but Obama could gain from detaching from there in a way favorable to his constituency, something GHWB also is received without negatives. Obama's re-election would also seem to elevate him beyond GHWB, but this is anything but absolute.

Bill Clinton

Clinton is the second president able to positively answer the question placed to the Reagan adminstration. His timeline occurred during a growth cycle that likely could not have been more favorable. He also benefitted from being challenged during his initial election, as well as in his re-election, by two candidates to his right. Clinton never won 50% of the vote, yet was elected twice by sizeable margins. Foreign policy offered minimal historical high value points, as a semi-drawdown from the Gulf War, a distant conflict in Rwanda and another in Kosovo never captivated the American public's attention. The last years of his administration saw Clinton attempt the stongest peace accord negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians to date, but the Palestinian leadership undercut his efforts. It would be impossible to overlook Clinton's personal life during his administration. In addition to rumored affairs throughout his time as president, as well as prior, a verified one caught the president red-handed, and caught him outright lying to the American people, heavily tainting his legacy. The fact that it was with an intern, that a psuedo-coverup occured, and that the issue dominated his agenda for a substantial amount of time, as well as an impeachment, will always prevent Clinton from being elevated too high on any presidential historian's count.

Overall legacy: Somewhat Positive

How does this apply to Obama: Despite sharing the same political party, and despite the fact that Clinton's wife served in Obama's administration, Clinton's record offers minimal comparability. Clinton's tenure is viewed by many as having been a long run of good luck accompanied by a personable, articulate leader. The flaws associated with his personal choices seemed more amusing than damaging. If in any way comparable, Obama's personality seems favorable to most Americans, even those that disagree with him on policy.

George W. Bush

The younger Bush never had a run of good luck during his presidency comparable to his immediate predecessor. Elected without a popular majority, the first year and nine months of his presidency were largely uneventful. He successfully passed an education bill and a tax cut, but was somewhat short on a defining agenda prior to the most infamous event in the new milenium. Events on 9/11/2001 impacted both his adminstration and the American public in a way few other historical events have ever shaped a people. The next four years saw differing battle lines on a wave of issues that allowed the Bush administration to define itself much more clearly. An additional tax cut, two wars, one of which was seen as reactionary to the 9/11 event, the other as a proactive move based upon the same event, nearly left defining this administration based upon entirely foreign policy and security as a fair point. Undeniable success in the early portions of both wars were largely wiped away by subsequent rebuilding efforts, which undercut any legacy based gains. In 2008, a major financial crisis began in the first quarter, and came to a dramatic head at the end of the third/beginning of the fourth. This would play against the economic mantra that had identified both the Reagan administration as well as this one. Elected running on an agenda of tax cuts and lesser government, these solutions proved either too shallow, or outright incorrect, depending upon one's viewpoint. Regardless, seeing both his foreign and domestic agenda in shambles during his second term will always be a commonality with this administration. Bush's administration was also viewed as having prioritized security over privacy, with two signature Patriot Acts offered as evidence. Often overlooked is that a temporary surge in Iraq in 2006 was one of the best foreign policy decisions of any recent presidential regimes. Of further note is that the decision was made largely against the public's will, showing a degree of leadership seemingly missing in modern political leadership.

Overall legacy: Somewhat Negative. Bush's tenure was not a happy time. The War on Terror, foreign entanglements, and economic stagnation followed by an economic crisis defined his leadership. The Iraq War from 2004-2006 was mishandled repeatedly. The Afghan War was largely sidelined. International diplomacy was at a low point. Domestically, Bush passed a sweeping tax cut while the government carried an annual surplus. Since that tax cut, the U.S. Goverment has carried a deficit every year.

How does this apply to Obama: Obama was largely elected as a counter to this president. His challenger never escaped being viewed as a successor, whilst Obama offered a clear separation. Progressivism, which had been closeted for three decades resurfaced at the end of the Bush tenure. How well Obama can define his legacy will in many ways be judged by how well it is viewed against this one.

Barak Obama

That leaves us with Obama. Using these notes as guides, some things can be defined currently, while others will require more time to decide. Like Reagan, and to a lesser extent Carter and Clinton, Obama was elected with a wave of fresh air. A nation that had defined itself as center-right for nearly three decades had unquestionably been moved left at the end of the prior administration. This allowed Obama room to define himself, as well as define a modern version of liberalism or progressivism to the American people. Successfully doing so could mean several decades of impact, while failure to implement viable solutions to the nation's problems could harm his legacy for even longer. The fact that he broke a string of Caucasions that went back to the founding of the republic also elevates his status, whether fair or not. In the early years of his administration, his signature piece of legislation was a healthcare law that ladders its implementation over nearly a decade. As such, rendering a grade for it remains impossible. On May 2, 2011, a daring mission occured that eliminated the key leader of the attacks on 9/11/2001. This would offer the closest thing to closure for many Americans on the initial event, and was celebrated as such. Although the success had enough players at numerous levels to be shared, the risk that a president takes when undertaking such an event cannot be overlooked, as Carter's legacy shows the final responsibility is with the president. Ironically, the two wars inherited from the previous administration offer a look at how apathy can play a part in a legacy. Obama would see the end of the Iraq War, and would be viewed favorably for it. The irony plays in because although the American public was content with the result, the reason that it ended the way it did was because the administration was unsuccessful in negotiating terms required for a re-defined continuation. In other words, diplomatic ineptitude by the administration gave the American public precisely what they wished for. In Afghanistan, the president has yet to complete his task despite doubling down on the effort. A similar final result is not out of the question. On the domestic front, deficits and debt have largely defined this president. A near total inability to deal with the opposition party has as well. Although half of the issues of the day were inheritted, no solution to date has been presented and enacted. This leaves room for a major hit on his legacy should these issues remain unsolved. Finally, Obama advocated a greater role for the federal government. Early events in his second term have left this thought process in question, as the image of corruption or ineptitude allow his opposition greater strength.

Overall legacy: Far too soon to tell. If he is unable to break congressional gridlock, govern over a solid jump in economic growth, have an honest conversation with his constituancy about government revenues in relation to spending, as well as prove unable to deal with a wealth gap in a manner seen as near unanamously favorable, his legacy is not likely to be exceptionally high. So long as his opposition shoulders the lion's share of the blame and proves unable to gain in key demographics or popularity, his legacy could avoid being overly negative regardless of how well his policies serve his people.

My recommended reads

Embers of War - Frederik Logevall - Thorough book on the start ot the U.S. Vietnam War.

A History of Christianity - Paul Johnson - Fascinating look at Christian history.

The Best and the Brightest - David Halberstam - Excellent for anyone wanting to read up on the Vietnam War.

Too Big to Fail - Andrew Ross Sorkin - Now a movie about the financial crisis, but the book is always better.

All the Devils Are Here - Bethany Mclain and Joe Nocera - Detailed look at the financial crisis and its roots.

The Ocean of Life - Callum Roberts - Interesting book on ocean life and science.

Manhunt - Peter L. Bergen - The best book so far on the hunt for and mission to kill Osama Bin Laden.

The Passage of Power - Robert Caro - Book four of the biographical series on Lyndon Johnson.

The American Civil War - John Keegan - A British historian's take on the American Civil War.

Game Change - John Heilemann and Mark Halperin - Behind the scenes look at the 2008 Presidential campaigns.

The Big Bang - Simon Singh - A good science brushup with historical lineage regarding the life of our universe.

The Guns of August - Barbara Tuchman - Arguably the best take to date on WW1's early miscues and miscalculations.

What If? - Collective Authors - Alternative history based primarily around what the world would look like had differing victors emerged in various wars.

What If 2? - Collective Authors - Alternative history mostly revolving around specific events or individuals and their movements.

New Pengiun History of the World - JM Roberts - A narrative of the world as we know it from creation to now.

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations - David Landes - Interesting take on economic history, with a heavy tilt towards the cotton and print industries from early on until the industrial revolution.


"I saw the angel in the marble, and carved until I set him free." - Michaelangelo

"Behold, my son, with what little wisdom the world is ruled." - Count Axel Gustaffson Oxenstiern

"The dissenter is every human being at those moments of his life when he resigns momentarily from the herd and thinks for himself." - Archibald MacLeish

"We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it." - Edward R. Murrow

"I regard class differences as contrary to justice and, in the last resort, based on force." - Albert Einstein

"Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison." - Henry David Thoreau

"All who have meditated on the art of governing mankind have been convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of youth." - Aristotle

"The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice." - Martin Luther King, jr