EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of The Nation’s special issue on Barack Obama’s presidency, available in full here.
Will Barack Obama be remembered as a “transformational president”? has he been a president who—as Obama himself put it in 2008, in reference to Ronald Reagan—“changed the trajectory of America” and “put us on a fundamentally different path”?
In his last year in office, Obama and his aides have rolled out a campaign to make that case. “He put the history books ahead of the news cycles,” asserts former head speechwriter Jon Favreau. He decided to “resist smaller incremental politics to do big transformational things,” reports former senior adviser David Axelrod.
The question is, and will be, contested. In January 2015, New York magazine offered up 53 historians and pundits whose views on Obama were all over the place. Liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman hailed his presidency as a “historic success.” Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat concluded that the Obama “realignment” signals that “the age of Reagan is officially over.” On the left, Tavis Smiley argued that Obama failed the “[Martin Luther] King test”: “He’s gotten a lot done,” Smiley conceded, “but on racism, poverty, and militarism, we lost ground.”
As the first African-American president, Obama is inescapably historic. And there is no question that his presidency—despite facing scorched-earth obstructionism by congressional Republicans—has been consequential.
But transformational presidents—like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan—do more than simply govern well. They challenge and change the direction of the country. They indict the old order and summon Americans to a new vision. They forge what becomes an enduring majority coalition, forcing realignments so that successors can carry on the fight.
No president can be expected to complete the revolution. Obama describes the office as a “relay race,” with each president tasked to carry the country forward and then pass the baton. By definition, success or failure depends significantly on whether his (or, perhaps one day, her) successors consolidate the realignment, and on whether the opposition adjusts to the new reality. Dwight Eisenhower succeeded Roosevelt and Harry Truman while embracing Social Security and the New Deal’s economic reforms. Clinton convinced Democrats that they must tack to conservative winds after the so-called Reagan Revolution. Obama’s hopes to be remembered as transformational surely were deflated by the stunning victory of Donald Trump, running explicitly on the promise to repeal or reverse many of Obama’s signature achievements.
Obama came to office amid calamity: an economy in free fall, a debacle in Iraq, the shame of Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans. Calamity created opportunity. The conservative era of market fundamentalism, imperial arrogance, and scorn for government was exposed as bankrupt. There was, as even the archdruid of neoliberalism, former Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan, conceded, a “flaw” in that worldview. Obama has racked up some notable achievements; the country is on a more solid footing now than it was when he took office. Yet for all his accomplishments, he may end up being remembered more for rescuing the old system than for changing it.
Staving Off the Pitchforks
Obama swept into office with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress in the midst of the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. He helped rescue the economy with the largest stimulus in history. He passed the biggest health-care reform in half a century and the most ambitious financial reform since the 1930s, and he slowed America’s rising inequality with the first steps toward progressive tax reform.
Unlike Roosevelt or Reagan, however, Obama chose not to “relitigate the past.” His signature appeal, he believed, was that he could transcend partisan and ideological divides. He was mentored by Robert Rubin, architect of much of the financial deregulation under Clinton. His leading economic appointees—Tim Geithner, Ben Bernanke, and Larry Summers—were tribunes of continuity.
Consider these hallmarks of the conservative-era consensus: the assault on government, deregulation and financialization of the economy, corporate-defined globalization, and growing inequality. All of them characterized the status quo when Obama was elected president in 2008, and all of them remain in place as he prepares to leave office.
Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package was unprecedented in size, but still too small to drive a robust recovery. And as Republicans assailed its “failure,” Obama stunningly surrendered the ideological debate. In his first year in office, with unemployment in double digits and Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushing a new jobs bill through the House of Representatives, the president embraced austerity. Bowing to conservative and Wall Street alarms about debt, Obama argued that the government, like families, must “tighten [its] belt.” He appointed the risible Simpson-Bowles commission to focus national attention on deficit reduction, a move that deprived Democrats of a coherent economic argument and contributed to the loss of both houses of Congress in the 2010 elections. Obama then flirted with a reactionary “grand bargain” with former House speaker John Boehner, which was thwarted only by the intransigence of the Republican right. The opportunity to rebuild America and put people to work was squandered. This became the first “recovery” in which government jobs were cut.
The president’s financial reforms were similarly compromised. In 2009, he told 13 major bankers: “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.” And so it was. After Bush, Obama, and the Federal Reserve bailed out the bankers who caused the 2008 financial crisis, the banks emerged more concentrated than ever. Only one major banker went to prison for what the FBI called an “epidemic” of fraud. Big banks were required to build up more capital, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was created. But Obama leaves office with executive-compensation rules still unwritten and with federal regulators warning about the dangers of banks that are too big to fail and too weak to survive a downturn.
Obama’s historic health-care reform has extended insurance to 20 million Americans and requires coverage of pre-existing conditions. But the White House ducked taking on the pharmaceutical companies and abandoned the public option that might have provided a check on insurance-company abuses. The reforms initially slowed the pace of rising prices, but now double-digit price hikes by insurance companies facing less and less competition in the various exchanges are making adequate health care unaffordable for more and more people. This only emboldens Republican efforts to “repeal and replace” it.
At the end of his presidency, Obama joined with the business lobby to try to push another corporate trade deal—the Trans-Pacific Partnership—through a lame-duck session of Congress. Even treaty advocates now accept that our corporate globalization policies have devastated American workers and helped hollow out the middle class. The president calls the TPP central to his legacy, but Donald Trump made tearing it up a centerpiece of his campaign.
In the run-up to his 2012 reelection campaign, in the wake of Occupy Wall Street, Obama declared income inequality to be “the defining challenge of our time.” Jason Furman, head of the Council of Economic Advisers, now argues that the president’s policies on health care, taxes, and the economy constitute a “historic achievement in reducing inequality.” Obama did raise taxes marginally on the wealthy and decreased them for low-wage earners. But the president’s reforms are a minor correction to decades of upward after-tax redistribution. More important, little was done to alter the economic structures that generate extreme inequality in incomes before taxes.
For example, Obama now argues that unions “should play a critical role” in reducing inequality, but he abandoned campaign pledges to make labor-law reform a priority. He raised the minimum wage for federal employees, but he refused to require preferences in federal contracts for good employers that respect the right to organize. And he remained largely on the sidelines as public-sector unions—the last remaining areas of worker strength—came under furious assault.
After eight years, Americans are suffering from a second “recovery” in which most lost ground. The wealth gap has grown wider for African Americans, who, targeted by the banks, were the biggest victims of the housing collapse. The new jobs—disproportionately contingent, precarious, and part-time—add to the insecurity. Student debt is soaring. Our trade deficits are ruinous. And our public infrastructure is deteriorating, as the share of GDP devoted to domestic spending has plummeted to levels not seen since the Eisenhower era. It is hard to argue that this constitutes a transformation.
Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize during his first year in office, largely on the promise that he would transform America’s relations with the world. He vowed to end the war in Iraq, heal the breach with the Islamic world, and reset relations with Russia. He pledged a new commitment to nuclear disarmament while avoiding “dumb wars.” He also pledged to address climate change, forestalling the “rise of the oceans.” Obama, who lectured on constitutional law at the University of Chicago, would bring US policy back in accord with the Constitution and with international norms.
In foreign policy as in economics, Obama achieved some real successes, notably the nuclear agreement with Iran and new relations with Cuba. Most important, he made the clear and present danger of catastrophic climate change more central to US policy at home and abroad. The agreement with China and the subsequent Paris climate accord provide at least the promise of bolder action on global warming.
Yet despite the achievements and alarms, Obama’s administration has not forced a sea change in American policy. His appointments—Robert Gates, Hillary Clinton, James Jones, Tom Donilon—ensured continuity, not a new direction. Although Obama grew skeptical of the “Washington playbook” on foreign policy, he failed to offer Americans an alternative vision. “Don’t do stupid shit” was his commonsensical doctrine, which might have served had he followed it.
Obama will leave office having made war longer than any US president in history. Efforts to extract the United States from Afghanistan and Iraq have been frustrated. The misguided intervention in Libya left behind a failed state. The administration became enmeshed in Syria and stood behind the savaging of Yemen by Saudi Arabia. Obama allowed neoconservatives to drag him into rising tensions with Russia over Ukraine, even while moving to confront China in the South China Sea.
If anything, Obama has expanded executive national-security prerogatives. While he sensibly repudiated torture as a national policy, he escalated the back-alley War on Terror, using secret drone strikes in several nations while professing to be “troubled” by the president’s power to “carry on perpetual wars all over the world, and a lot of them covert, without any accountability or democratic debate.” He has prosecuted more whistle-blowers than any president in US history, and he defended mass surveillance while refusing to hold officials accountable for lying to the American people and to Congress. Guantánamo remains open, a glaring insult to common decency. Obama is also the first president to maintain a “kill list,” and the first to target an American citizen for assassination.
The United States remains committed to defending 80 nations across the world and to patrolling the seas, skies, and outer space. We sustain a global network of over 700 military bases, and US Special Forces were active in more than 100 countries last year. Our military budget—about $600 billion a year—constitutes approximately one-third of all global military spending, more than the next 10 nations combined. Obama has signed off on more than $200 billion in arms sales since 2009, more than three times as much as George W. Bush in his eight years in office. Early progress on nuclear disarmament has ground to a halt, even as the president committed to a $1 trillion program to modernize the US nuclear arsenal.
As foreign-affairs analyst Stephen Walt concludes, for all of his expressed skepticism, Obama embraced the “broad establishment consensus about American exceptionalism and its alleged indispensability as the provider of global order.” Despite its repeated failures, the bipartisan foreign-policy establishment remains securely in place, and Washington has yet to engage in serious debate about America’s proper role in the world.
The Limits of Social Liberalism
The White House glowed like a rainbow on June 26, 2015, the day the Supreme Court ratified same-sex marriage—a warm symbol of the advance of social liberalism in the Obama years. The wedge issues that Republicans had wielded effectively for decades—race, gay rights, crime, guns—began to favor Democrats. LGBTQ activists, Black Lives Matter organizers, and Latino Dreamers argue correctly that Obama was more laggard than leader in their fights. However, his election and reelection not only symbolized and accelerated social change; his core message—that there is but one America—legitimized the arguments for change, and his White House responded when movements opened up the political space.
Despite Donald Trump’s summoning of the dark side, America is becoming more cosmopolitan, tolerant, and inclusive. Republican governors learned the costs of standing against equal rights for gays and lesbians. Conservative legislators acknowledged that too many Americans have been incarcerated for too long and for too little. Republican strategists pleaded with their party to champion immigration reform and to reach out to minorities and the young. Trump trashed those efforts, but they will surely be revived if the GOP is to survive as a viable national party.
The ideological advance doesn’t signal the end of discrimination or bigotry; the continued black casualties of police violence demonstrate that. Women’s rights remain a battleground in a prurient culture. Gun control—one of Obama’s central causes—actually lost ground. Continued economic distress could easily deepen the ugly social divisions that Trump exploited in his campaign. But this is the one area where the message and the new majority were wedded together, and it marks a significant turn.
Obama is the first Democratic president since FDR to be elected and reelected with a majority of the popular vote. He personifies our emerging majority-minority nation, the kaleidoscopic America. He helped to forge a new, potentially growing majority coalition of people of color, single women, millennials, and professionals.
The scope and durability of this coalition, however, have proved uncertain. Obama energized this coalition around his person—but unlike Roosevelt or Reagan, he failed to inspire it with a historic mission, to instill deeper understandings of a new role for government at home and abroad. These voters failed to turn out in the midterm elections, and the Democrats suffered historic reverses. White blue-collar workers felt abandoned in both politics and policy. Hillary Clinton’s stunning defeat in 2016 was caused in part by white working- and middle-class voters rebelling against an establishment that had failed them. Obama will leave office with Republicans in control in Washington and in 25 states to the Democrats’ five. Under Obama, Democrats have lost more than 900 state legislative seats across the country.
Obama’s first campaign was propelled by creative new energy in social media, unleashing the power of small donors and volunteers. But he scorned the public financing offered presidential candidates, raking in record big-money contributions. Young people—the motor force of his coalition—grew cynical or more radical. Hillary Clinton, Obama’s designated successor, paid a huge cost politically for her reliance on deep-pocket donors.
Obama in History
The tawdry presidential campaign of 2016 suggests how much we will miss the eloquence, decency, and steadiness of Barack Obama. Few of us will forget the electricity of that glorious Election Day evening in Grant Park, his family onstage amid a sea of exultant supporters. He brought America back from the brink, but it is hard to conclude that he put it on a new path.
Harvard sociology professor Theda Skocpol argues that Obama might be seen as a “pivotal” president, if not a transformational one. On his watch, the United States began to recognize its corrosive inequality, the power of big money to rig the rules, and the way the deck was stacked against the vast majority. The endless wars without victory, combined with the hollowing-out of America, still mandate a change in course. By 2016, both parties were roiled by populist movements and candidates, as the utter failure and intransigence of the political establishment became more apparent. If this populist energy continues to build, perhaps historians will see his administration as the turning point. Obama’s health-care plan, progressive financial and tax reforms, and focus on climate change might be seen as the first steps toward a larger 21st-century New Deal. Perhaps his skepticism about the use of force abroad will inform a more realist, less imperial foreign policy.
But Trump’s victory stands as a repudiation. Trump campaigned against Obama’s agenda and vowed to reverse many of his signature programs. Democrats may be able to limit much of the rollback—and Trump could prove a transitory setback, as neither he nor the Republican Congress have answers for the workers who helped elect him. But even if the populist movements join with Obama’s rising American electorate to forge a new reform era, it will come long after Obama has left office, with another leader forging the way.