President Obama has been openly covetous of building a legacy that would secure his name in the history books.
“I have no desire to be one of those presidents who are just on the list – you see their pictures lined up on the wall,” Obama told historian Doris Kearns Goodwin in 2007. “I really want to be a president who makes a difference.”
And after just three years in office President Obama seemed ready to declare victory, hinting that his first-term accomplishments already granted him lofty status in any “Best Presidents” list.
“The issue here is not gonna be a list of accomplishments,” the President told CBS’s Steve Croft on 60 Minutes. “As you said yourself, Steve, you know, I would put our legislative and foreign policy accomplishments in our first two years against any president – with the possible exceptions of Johnson, F.D.R. and Lincoln – just in terms of what we’ve gotten done in modern history.”
Just a few short months ago, President Obama would have probably argued that he’s built on that legacy. He’d point to he Iran nuclear deal as a historic achievement in international relations (in reality, it was a dangerous giveaway), the Paris climate accords as fulfillment of his promise to slow the “rise of the oceans” (in reality, they were a paper tiger with no enforcement mechanism), the regulations flowing from Dodd-Frank as a check against financial excess (in reality, they slowed investment and put community banks out of business), and numerous executive actions on immigration as a signal of his executive strength (in reality, they were antidemocratic means of enshrining amnesty).
But there is an important caveat to many of President Obama’s signature accomplishments. Very few of them were achieved by anything resembling a democratic process. Rather than attempt to find middle ground with Republicans in Congress, which could have yielded him lasting legislation, or listen to the will of the American people, which could have delivered enduring Congressional majorities, he instead rammed his agenda through by way of executive order.
“We’re not just going to be waiting for legislation,” Obama announced after his 2012 reelection. “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone…and I can use that pen to sign executive orders and take executive actions and administrative actions that move the ball forward.”
Obama no doubt believed that history would vindicate his forceful, and in his mind, forward-looking approach. If anything, he thought, the simpleton voters just hadn’t caught up to his agenda yet.
Unsurprisingly, those simpleton voters had something to say about that. Rather than elect Hillary Clinton, who ran on a platform of protecting and expanding Obama’s achievements, the electorate selected Donald Trump, in no small part because of his promises to undo the flawed elements of Obama’s legacy. As Marc Thiessen writes for the Washington Post, President Obama has little room to complain:
“If you rule by executive fiat, then you should not be surprised if the next executive undoes your fiats. …
There is wisdom in the scriptural admonition to “be like a wise man who built his house on the rock” instead of the “foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
Obama built his legacy on the sand of unilateralism, instead of the rock of bipartisan consensus. And great will be the fall of it come Jan. 20, 2017.”
Rather than use the next few months to bolster his place in history by working with a diminished Republican Congress to slam through the Trans Pacific Partnership, criminal justice reform and his Supreme Court nomination, he’s planning on using it to conduct a farewell tour. One last sad reminder that although his eloquence was unmatched, his accomplishments left something to be desired.