Obama’s inauguration today provides the opportunity for a tentative overview of his still uncompleted two-term presidency. To be sure, he will always be remembered as the first African-American president, but what else will we remember him for? In this regard let us consider his domestic and his foreign policy achievements separately.
In terms of domestic policy, the main course of Obama’s presidency was set when he fell into the trap, set not just by right wing Republicans but by such false friends as David Brooks and Tom Friedman, of making the budget deficit the overriding issue. Of course, the deficit was unavoidable, but every Democratic president since Roosevelt has understood that this issue had to be subordinated to the larger goals and values of American society. Obama’s failure to grasp the need to rise above the merely economic has meant that his eight years will have been largely dominated by a series of pointless “cliffs,” “grand bargains,” concessions to austerity and the rest. Not only that, but his legacy promises to remain a series of arguments over the deficit, and not a vision of who we are as a people, and where we want to go.
There are two exceptions to this, both potentially vast: the auto bailout and the Health Plan. Nonetheless, both suffer from a failure to situate them within a coherent, historically grounded vision of America. The auto bailout was not merely a success. What Obama actually did was to nationalize the auto industry for a while, reorganize it and help it get back on its feet. This reform demonstrated the continued relevance of the innovations of the New Deal, including its socialist aspects. But Obama of course shied away from any such implications, and limited his intervention to the swing states of Ohio and Michigan. As to the Affordable Care Act, it is widely understood today to be profoundly redistributive, and it is my hope that it will prove to be so. However, it may well be deployed toward another end, namely to deepen the gulf between those who can afford first-class health care and the rest of us. Which of these paths are followed is not yet clear, and the estimation of Obama by historians will largely depend on which prevails.
In regard to foreign policy, Obama has been more successful, but still suffers from the same problem: reforms without a narrative that gives them meaning. He has continued to back off of Bush’s disastrous first two years, as Bush backed off in his later presidency, but he has in every other way confirmed the bizarre view that terrorism should be the main focus of our foreign policy. the election of the first person of color to the American presidency promised to be an event with global significance, but in fact Obama has confirmed a traditional “realist” provincialism, having little relevance to the really great global stories– China, the Arab Awakening, and climate change. In regard to civil liberties, Obama has renounced outright torture, but has otherwise worsened Bush’s execrable record. I have in mind here not just the drones, but the arrogation of the right to execute American citizens without trial, as in the case of Anwar al-Aulaqi and his sixteen year old son. Obama’s confrontational policy toward China may also be misguided; it is too early to tell whether it is bluster or for real. It is not widely understood for example that the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands were taken from China in 1895 as a result of an aggressive Japanese-initiated war.
Overall, the central lesson of the Obama presidency is the crucial role of the Left in saving America from its worst errors. It was the anti-war Left in the Democratic Party that gave the nomination to Obama, rather than to Hillary Clinton, and this was a great achievement, not just because of the election of an African-American (we also need a woman President to be sure) but because Hillary Clinton would almost certainly have led this country into an outright war with Iran. It was also the Left, especially the short-lived but profoundly important Occupy movement, that brought the issue of social and economic inequality– in a word, class– back to American society, giving Obama the language that provided him with his re-election victory. Obama has proven to be a disappointing, but not disastrous president, but his presidency is likely to be remembered as the time when an American Left began to revive.