Most Americans are rightfully worried about the transition in the White House set for a week from today. While President Obama has certainly had his share of critics, we suspect historians will give him generally high marks for his eight years in the White House.
Certainly, few presidents have taken office under more trying circumstances. In the month when Barack Obama first took the oath of office, the American economy was in freefall, with employers shedding 818,000 jobs in that January alone. The cost of a federal bailout of the financial sector, approved under the George W. Bush administration, meant Obama inherited an astonishing $1.3 trillion deficit, the largest in American history. Two of the country’s three largest auto manufacturers were facing insolvency, and threatened the loss of millions of additional American manufacturing jobs.
Throughout it all, President Obama exhibited his usual calm and cool demeanor, providing confidence to Americans that a recovery was at hand. And thanks, in part, to federal stimulus spending and an auto industry bailout, the administration broke the economy’s fall and set the stage for a gradual, albeit uneven, economic recovery, a recovery that has been gaining speed ever since.
Far from the disaster that Obama inherited from his predecessor, the soon-to-be former president will leave his successor with an economy that is in the midst of the longest period of job growth in American history, and that has provided the first substantial gains in income for average Americans in a decade. In the third quarter, the economy grew at three percent, a healthy pace even in good economic times. The stock market indices have more than doubled under President Obama’s tenure, the price at the pump is at record lows, when adjusted for inflation, and more Americans have affordable health insurance than ever before. At the same time, the budget deficit has been cut by nearly two-thirds.
By these traditional measures, President Obama has been remarkably successful.
And President Obama achieved other successes as well, including taking important steps forward in addressing the very real dangers posed by disastrous climate change, and by forestalling Iran’s progress towards the construction of nuclear weapons.
Despite eight years in the public eye, the Obama administration has experienced no major scandals and both the president and his wife Michelle have exhibited the best in American family values. It’s no wonder that the president leaves office with a 56-percent approval rating, while his wife Michelle’s popularity is even higher. We suspect most Americans will sincerely miss having this careful, earnest and eminently decent first couple in the White House.
Despite his many successes, Obama’s legacy now appears in danger, and, for that, he must share some of the blame. He failed to recognize the degree of hostility that many on the other side of the aisle harbored towards him, and it cost him critical time as he sought, ultimately in vain, for bipartisan support for his signature healthcare initiative, the Affordable Care Act. Obama and the Democratic-led Congress devised the ACA on GOP free market principles, believing that Republicans would support a health care plan that they themselves had originally proposed. Instead, he got obstruction at every turn and a health care plan that was needlessly complex, inefficient, and expensive. He should have pushed to open Medicare to everyone. That was better policy and better politics.
Perhaps Obama’s biggest failure was his decision to surround himself with conventional, Wall Street-centric economic advisors, who failed to recognize that establishment economic policies, particularly on trade, were creating real angst in the manufacturing heartland. His continued push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, even as the controversial trade agreement became a major issue in the recent presidential campaign, was a political blunder, one that probably cost the Democrats the Senate and the White House. Obama proved he could be tone-deaf at times, and this was one example, one that set the stage for a populist revolt.
Unfortunately, Obama’s hand-picked DNC chair stymied the Democratic populist, Bernie Sanders, leaving the door open for Trump’s rightwing nationalist version. It was a historic miscalculation. Obama, without doubt, left his party weakened. Like Bill Clinton before him, Obama failed to make a forceful case for truly progressive policies, and that will have long-term implications for the Democratic Party, and the country.
And it casts a notable shadow over an otherwise successful presidency.