Obama Is Burnishing His Legacy as the ‘At Least I Tried’ President

On 30 September 2011 Barack Obama woke up to the news that his order to kill Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen living in Yemen, in a drone attack had been carried out successfully. That afternoon, according to Mark Helperin and John Heilemann’s book Double Down, the US president addressed his inner core in the White House Roosevelt room about issues on which he felt he should be truer to his progressive roots. Three years later, he is still wrestling with most of them.

There was climate change: last week his administration confirmed it would give nothing to assist poor countries to make the transition from fossil fuels and protect their citizens from climate change-related catastrophes. Immigration reform: two weeks ago he reneged on his pledge to deal with it through executive authority by the summer’s end, postponing his efforts until the end of the year. Poverty: last week saw the first drop in the poverty rate since 2006 – that’s good news, even if it does remain considerably higher than when he took office. Israel/Palestine: we saw how that panned out over the summer. Guantánamo Bay: still open. And gay marriage – which he eventually came out and supported.

The point he drummed home during the election was that if the Republicans won, things would be worse. That was true. And he managed to convince the electorate. But what he conceded that day in the Roosevelt room was that he could do better on his own terms. That remains true.

Naturally, this is about more than Obama. He ran as the embodiment of liberal electoral aspirations, and now he stands as the emblem of the limitations on those aspirations. He sits at the centre of a system that is openly gerrymandered and in which you have to pay to play. He might have done better, but there was insufficient pressure from below. His tenure proves just how little progressive change is possible through the ballot box in the absence of social movements. It is not about him. But it is through his presidency that these aspirations have been filtered.

When it comes to the public’s general view on how he is doing his job, the verdict is pretty grim – Obama’s approval ratings have not touched 50% since May. When his abilities are assessed more specifically, it’s even worse. His administration’s approval ratings for handling the economy, foreign policy and immigration are all significantly lower. As November’s midterm elections approach, Democratic candidates in tight races are running away from him. Most Americans have not felt the country has been moving in the right direction since he came to power; most still think they are in a recession.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the question about the potential of his presidency is rapidly shifting from a matter of opinion to one of time. He’s had six years. Notwithstanding events, whatever he was going to do he’s done already. Claims that he is dealing with the mess of his predecessor or being obstructed by unreasonable Republicans now sound weak, even when they’re true. History will judge him by his achievements, not his obstacles. His campaign slogan was “Yes we can”; those who defend him by blaming others carve a presidential epitaph that reads: “At least he tried.” After the midterms, when the entire House of Representatives and a third of the Senate are up for grabs, it won’t just be his performance that’s in question but his relevance.

First, people will be looking over his shoulder at candidates for 2016. With more than a year to go before primaries, the media class is already obsessed by who’s eating steak in Iowa, breaking bread in New Hampshire or throwing rubber chicken fundraisers in South Carolina (three key early-voting states). Moreover, those Democratic candidates will have to both distinguish and, arguably, distance themselves from the unpopular incumbent. Hillary Clinton has already started. Last month she berated the administration for failing to back the Syrian rebels earlier in the civil war, which, she argued, facilitated the rise of Islamic State: “The failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” she said.

Second, because Congress – the very body that Obama blames for stymying his agenda – will become more oppositional, not less. Republicans already control the house and are not likely to lose it. They need a net gain of six seats to win the Senate. They can safely count on three. If they don’t lose any (an increasingly big if) there are seven more states from which they might win the rest. With states as varied as Alaska and Louisiana in play, the situation is too volatile to predict if they will succeed. But one can say with near certainty that by Thanksgiving there will be more Republicans in the Senate than there are now.

Obama has a legacy. A survey last week showed the number of Americans without medical insurance fell by 8% in the first quarter of this year. Even poor conservatives don’t hate him more than they like having healthcare, which is why Republicans have not made Obamacare the focus of their campaigns this year. Also, under his tenure “cultural” issues such as abortion and gay marriage have become a liability for Republicans, not Democrats. With the liberals on the offensive, Conservatives are having to prove their moderation and tolerance. A decade ago gay marriage was a wedge issue; today bigotry is.

With Congress less popular than head lice, clearly disaffection with Obama cannot be divorced from disillusionment with the broader political class. But he promised to be both better and different. At this stage his problem is not that people are disappointed; it’s that they have long ceased believing.

Once again this is not something he doesn’t know. After his woeful first presidential debate against Mitt Romney, his aides told him he needed to sound less defensive and more hopeful. Obama bristled. “You keep telling me I can’t spend too much time defending my record,” he said. “And that I should talk about my plans. But my plans aren’t anything like the plans I ran on in 2008. I had universal healthcare plan then. Now I’ve got … what? A manufacturing plan? What am I gonna do on education? What am I gonna do on energy? There’s not much there.”

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