President Obama’s legacy is caught in an odd limbo. To many Republicans, Obama is a leftist’s dream, a European-style socialist who hides his love of big government under a veneer of pragmatism. To many Democrats, Obama is just the opposite – a centrist sell-out who is all too happy to engage in elegant policy debates, but is unwilling to scrape and claw to enact his progressive agenda.
Ultimately, it matters little who is right. History will, with much more context that we presently enjoy, cast its light on the policy achievements of President Obama. But it may matter a great deal in the short term, when perceptions of Obama’s policy legacy are likely to remain one of the predominant voting cues for the 2016 elections.
We know that Obama’s unpopularity in Republican circles will drive turnout. But, what of liberals, who truly believed that Obama would be the one to usher in a permanent Democrat majority? They have much to be disheartened about.
He expanded the domestic spying program. He’s led the least transparent administration in recent memory. The health care law that bears his name is crumbling beneath the weight of ill-thought-out policy prescriptions such that Democrat candidates to succeed him are pushing for changes. His post-recession home ownership programs were a spectacular busts. He was forced to admit that his stimulus plan “was not as shovel-ready as we expected.” And perhaps worst of all, the president who was elected largely as a rebuke to President Bush’s decisions to send troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, is now left fighting those same battles, in additions to new ones in Syria and Libya.
Even his significant second term achievements come with a caveat – they were achieved almost solely through executive order, thereby unlocking a dangerous precedent that Democrats could come to loathe. As then-senator Obama warned of President Bush, “I take the Constitution very seriously. The biggest problems that we’re facing right now have to do with [the president] trying to bring more and more power in to the executive branch and not go through Congress at all. And that’s what I intend to reverse when I’m President of the United States of America.”
This is not the legacy that Democrats thought they would be settling for after eight years controlling the White House, two of which enjoyed filibuster-proof majorities in the Senate. That sense of missed opportunity no doubt left a bitter taste in the Left’s mouth, one that has caused an important divide amongst their electorate.
Many are flocking to the feisty, but kooky, campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders, the avowed Democratic Socialist, who clearly has no idea what that term means (nor does anyone, really). Still others are resigned to the fate that Hillary Clinton will inevitably secure the nomination and are attempting to get excited by the thought of a Wall Street lackey serving as the liberal standard bearer.
They are right to be concerned. Ed Rogers writes for the Washington Post:
While Republicans are engaged in a noisy, boisterous process that is at the very least compelling to watch, the Democrats appear to be letting Clinton sleepwalk them into the doldrums of a campaign that will not be able to channel the emotions of the electorate. Her campaign will only feed the malaise that many voters feel and won’t do anything to create the enthusiastic wave to turn out Democrats in the numbers she will need to repeat President Obama’s 2008 and 2012 victories. . .
There is no case to be made that Clinton is a refreshing change, that she has the answers and the leadership abilities to not only bring the country together but also to reverse the chaos abroad that threatens the United States today. If Washington doesn’t work now, Clinton is not going to bring a new leadership style, energy or fresh appeal to the White House to change anything. At least when Bill Clinton ran for president, he was credible as a “New Democrat.” Clinton can’t try to make the claim that she is a “new” anything.
In other words, Democrats, at best, are hoping to transition from a president who failed to live up to his left-wing bona fides to a candidate who makes little effort to conceal her establishment roots. In an election that appears to be driven by the electorate’s desire for change, it will be hard for Democrats to make the case that their slate offers much hope. In that sense, Obama’s legacy may best be described as unfulfilled promises, both on the policy and the political fronts.