Grades for Obama on his presidency
There are many ways to measure a president and I believe there are three quantifiable measures of success and failure. The first is, are we as a nation on a better economic path then we were previously? Secondly, two goals which are sometimes at odds, are Americans more free and safe from harm? And finally, is the world a safer place to live in? Ultimately, these things are what most presidents will be judged by. Lincoln was judged by his ability to improve our social welfare by abolishing slavery, which was significantly more impactful than his failures which included jailing dissenters. JFK and Reagan were judged by their ability to improve our economic output thanks to tax cuts. Bush Jr will be judged by his inability to bring the Iraq war to a conclusion that led to more uncertainty in the middle east and a huge recession.
So, in that spirit, let’s talk about these issues and how it relates to Obama’s record. I will try to focus on the major 1 or 2 themes from each of these issues.
- Social progress. Obama will likely be long remembered as someone with a focus on civil rights, from changes in marriage laws, to legalization of marijuana, Obama, through the power of social media, managed to win the argument and force change. The democrats, through Obama, devised a strategy of winning over enough states on these issues, while pushing for change from the Supreme court that eventually through the force of will they came to pass. Are these changes significant? Unlikely. No one remembers the figure who led the charge for alchohol legalization nor previous changes in marriage laws. While they might be a footnote, they are not worthy of much significance. While some others issues might seem important instead to some, like criminal justice reform and terrorism, Obama’s impact on other social issues was limited and the problem generally was limited in scope to a small number of incidents. As for failures, one of Obama’s goals was to bridge the divide across racial lines in America. This goal was very ambiguously defined, but by most measures, he has seemed to fail. However, as there haven’t been any major incidents regarding civil rights, there is likely to not be any reference to these events in future history books. (short books at least). Overall, I give Obama a B+ for being able to somewhat progress civil rights and avoid major issues, but not much better than a C given that the issues he focused on only affect a very small portion of Americans.
- Economic Progress. Obama inherited a recession, which during Obama’s term, turned into a great recession. The recovery since then will be written most about in the history books. Measuring economic success is very tricky since there are multiple measurements that are valid, so lets look at some of the good and bad. First the good, the stock market is at record levels, some measures of unemployment show normal employment levels, the economy has grown at a rate better than most other countries, and inflation seems to be contained. Now the bad, labor force participation is still terrible, growth is consistent, but very low historically, poverty measures are worse, and incomes are stagnant. However, the worst failure of them all is his inability to reduce deficits significantly. While deficit spending normally is ok, at certain levels of GDP, we run out of room for that kind of spending. Also, given the amount of spending that has occurred, we should have expected a significantly bigger boost is federal revenue, but that has not occurred, perhaps because the spending was mostly focused on monetary policy. Also, given the likelihood of the repeal, the signature health care law Obama signed will likely be remembered as an example of his inability to bring major reform to economic policies. In the long term view, the Obama economy will likely be remembered as mediocre to bad. He managed to avoid a depression, but the cost was stagnation and he was unable to remedy the situation. Overall, I think Obama gets a C+ on the economy, decent, but could have been a lot better.
- Finally, is the world a safer place? This is a tough question because it requires us to define safe in a way that can be measured, so let’s go with the following questions. Are we in fewer wars? Is the world, especially historically unstable regions, more stable? Is democracy more popular? Are our relationships with our adversaries better? Are our allies safe? Let’s answer one at a time. Are we in fewer wars? Yes. We have far fewer troops deployed and Obama won’t be remembered like Bush as a war president. Is the world more stable? I’d say this is a resounding NO. From the Arab Spring, to the Syrian refugee crisis spilling into europe, to a higher incidence of radicalization and terrorist activities, the world is much less stable than it was. Secular dictators, as bad as they are, are being replaced by radical theocracies, such as Libya, Egypt, and even Turkey. There has been more tension with Russia these days than in the past 20 years, and our allies in Europe are undergoing a populist response to the refugee crisis that is threatening to break apart the EU at any minute. While nothing major has occurred as far as military operations go, the tensions and probability of those events happening is far more likely today than it was 8 years ago. Is democracy more popular? Neither Bush nor Obama were effectively able to promote democracy worldwide. Are our relationships with our adversaries better? While tensions with Russia in the last few months have been high, I believe this will likely to be a short term deal with the new administration and thus few will remember the tensions from today. Are our allies safe? Another resounding NO. The US has also been unable to convince our allies to expand their military capabilities. Japan looks the most likely to expand soon against influence from China, but European countries have suffered from unsustainable government programs and have not funded their military operations. While our relationship with our potentially largest enemies is better than it has been historically, our relationship with the unstable middle east could eventually force European nations into military action and currently they are currently unprepared for it as proven in Ukraine. Overall, I think Obama deserves a D on foreign policy. The world is less stable, democracy isn’t growing, populism is threatening europe, and terrorism is an unsolved issue. While Obama avoided major conflict, his decisions ultimately didn’t take into account the power vacuum created by leaving Iraq, which significantly contributed to the instability in the middle east.
Alright, for overall grade, I’d have to give Obama a C. If I had to write a short summary of Obama’s presidency I’d write it as follows:
After being elected, Obama helped america recover from a recession, but was unable to significantly improve the general welfare beyond that. He spent a significant portion of his time passing and attempting to execute a health care reform bill, but was quickly overturned after his departure. There were some gains in civil rights issues, especially on Marriage and drug laws, but overall the impact was low. On foreign policy, a series of decisions by Obama and european leaders led to increased instability and radicalization in the middle east culminating in a terrorist and refugee crises that resulted in a populist wave that threatened the bonds of the European Union.