Building The Obama Legacy

by George Kennedy on January 5, 2013

Election 2012

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A reelected President Obama now contemplates the architecture of a second term and thus his legacy as the nation’s first African-American president.  Setting aside the perennial Washington histrionics on every issue of the day, this is now the real back story.  What will be history’s judgment of this president and how broad gauged or narrowly cast will those judgments be?  Part of that judgment will weigh his accomplishments against what he failed to attempt.  That may be an unfair yardstick but expectations were high for Obama; a bar he set during two campaigns.  This judgment will come from his base.   Mr. Obama, therefore, will have to choose his political battles with care, e.g., legislative proposals, cabinet selections, and perhaps a Supreme Court nominee.

President Obama is off to a good start toward shaping his legacy.  He joins only three out of seven presidents in the last 75 years, that garnered more than 51 percent of the popular vote twice.  Voters, including some skeptics, trust Mr. Obama.

The “political dye” for Mr. Obama’s legacy may have been cast when he negotiated a successful conclusion to the fiscal cliff talks.  Opinions vary, however, regarding the strength and style of Mr. Obama’s leadership.  The President’s supporters should make the case that he demonstrated the political will to become the  advocate for the middle class he so adroitly cast himself to be during the recent election.  This effort cannot begin soon enough given the battles yet to fight.

The big issues worthy of expending precious presidential capital appear to have emerged:  immigration reform, ending the War in Afghanistan, gun control policy, revitalizing the economy, and electoral reform.  The President will not exert equal effort on each issue but, these are the issues around which presidential legacies are built.

Progress in each area will require bi-partisan Congressional support and therein lies the challenge for the President, his team, and his supporters.  The down-to-the-wire resolution to the fiscal cliff crisis was merely a prelude to the heavy lifting required to move Congressional Republicans beyond their tactics of  thwart, stall, and obfuscate on any policy debate the outcome of which strengthens Mr. Obama and his party heading into the elections of 2014 and 2016.

Cooperation between the Congress and this White House to revitalize the economy is what the electorate wants.  The voters may have voted for divided government but that does not mean they want the permanent partisan bickering Washington cannot seem to transcend. Cooperation, however, is not in the political interests of conservatives, especially to those House and Senate members now fearing a Tea Party, primary challenge in 2014.  This list includes the Senate Minority Leader and the re-elected Speaker of the House.

President Obama, for all practical purposes, has an 18-month window to put some “legacy points” (legislation passed) on the board.  Hill conservatives will dig in on Mr. Obama’s legislative agenda, eschew any effort to govern, and, again, play to their base for the mid-term election in 2014.

The question – and well-founded fear – is, will Mr. Obama capitulate under pressure from the GOP to obtain an outcome – any “reasonable” outcome that meets his corporatist’s view and legacy criteria?  There is reason to be concerned.  Economists Robert Reich and Paul Krugman, and other Progressives ask whether Mr. Obama will force Democrats to play defense on his policy agenda for the next four years.

The economy is the one area where the GOP is likely to place a stake in the ground:  debt ceiling talks.  In two months, that struggle will encapsulate a strong GOP demand for more domestic spending cuts and entitlement reform as the price for their votes on raising the debt ceiling.  Although Mr. Obama has said he will not negotiate with the Republicans on this, the leverage and the political will to confront the President may rest with the Republicans.  Complicating the negotiations for the White House is the planned departure of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner at the end of January.

Republicans will likely bet the President’s larger purpose will be to govern and thus more amenable to meeting their demands.  Should he capitulate to the Republicans, their leverage increases in 2014 and they will campaign against presidential overreach.  The Democratic base will be furious and the White House will be under assault from the left and the right…tough stuff to build a legacy.

The President does have a few cards to play…provided he plays his hand well.  The Republican Party is angry, in disarray, leaderless, and perhaps poised on the brink of oblivion.  This makes the GOP more dangerous than ever; they need to recapture the White House – to once again exercise their unique brand of power.  This weakness can be exploited.  The Democrats and this president should craft a national strategy to keep the GOP on the defensive through presidential travel and well-coordinated public and media pressure.

A winning issue for Mr. Obama and the Democrats is electoral reform.  The electorate supports it and the issue cuts across each age, gender, and ethnic group in the Democratic Party.  The issue speaks to demographic changes already underway and thus the future of a new America.  Using the President’s bully pulpit combined with extensive travel, the President becomes the living symbol of an America in transition to a more inclusive, equitable, and compassionate democracy.  He would likely sustain the electoral majority, the new voting coalition, he forged in his recent campaign for reelection.  Any Democratic successor to this president would welcome the keys to this political treasure chest.

Mr. Obama has also earned high marks for his stewardship of America’s foreign policy.  Fareed Zakaria correctly notes that this President is wary of grand declarations and military intervention. Mr. Obama, he writes, employs ”a deliberative process of decision making, a disciplined evaluation of costs and benefits and perhaps above all an instinctive feel for the power of strategic restraint.”  That is a superlative assessment for the leader of the world’s only superpower and, to quote Zakaria, “emergency call center.”

Mr. Obama is not an ideologue and that quality of his character manifests itself in his approach to the role of government in a modern and changing world.  Speaking of his legacy, he says “he just wants smarter government and a set of results that he can claim as he leaves office in early 2017.”  More specifically, to strike a practical balance between a government that plays a role in managing markets and providing a safety net, and a government committed to the view that markets are self-regulating and that the state’s intervention should always be minimal, is a legacy worthy of this President.  But, in the face of continuing GOP opposition, is this goal achievable?  The next 18-months will tell.

President Barack Obama may well be the first – and only – African American President for some time.  Therefore, judgments of history that apply to his presidency may be more harsh and more narrowly constructed.  They may also be more generous.  The hope is they will be balanced.

An infield home run on Mr. Obama’s policy agenda may not move the scales of history as much as one or more out-of-the-park home runs.  He is going to have to get in the trenches and get dirty.  President Obama’s legacy, thus may have to represent hard fought triumphs of presidential will and tough leadership over his vaunted preference for a deal.

President Obama sees parallels between Lincoln’s struggles as president and his own.  Mr. Obama admires Lincoln for the vision and conviction to chart a course to preserve our union at a tumultuous time in our history as a young nation.  Mr. Obama says he, too, has earned the right to set a direction for an America in transition.  Let’s hold him accountable.  Should he succeed, he joins President Lincoln in the Pantheon of great presidents or be consigned to a rung on the ladder along with his predecessors.  The choice is his.

George Kennedy

George Kennedy is a retired senior Foreign Service officer with extensive international experience. He holds a B.A. from the University of Oregon and two graduate degrees from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. Mr. Kennedy was a political advisor to state and federal officials and has authored strategy pieces for Members of Congress and presidential candidates. He serves on the Advisory Board for the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona.

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