Barack Obama leaves a mixed legacy: impressive handling of the US economy but terrible missteps in foreign policy

The Economic Times

Barack Obama gestures while giving a speech.

Content from the Brookings Institution India Center is now archived. After seven years of an impactful partnership, as of September 11, 2020, Brookings India is now the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, an independent public policy institution based in India.

Eight years ago, on a freezing January morning, I stood with over a million people on the National Mall in Washington DC to watch a 47-year-old African-American senator become the 44th US president. There was a pervasive sense at the time, particularly among young, highly educated and urban Americans, that Barack Obama could do no wrong. He campaigned on the lofty themes of hope and unity and in opposition to the economic and foreign policy overreach of the George W Bush years. He would fix the economy, heal deep societal wounds once and for all and burnish America’s image around the world. Yes, he could.

Today, as Obama’s tenure comes to an end, one can’t help but wonder the extent to which his legacy will be shaped by the election of his successor, Donald Trump. Trump campaigned on fear, outrage and grievances, and he successfully exploited fissures in American society. Even critics will accept that Obama brought a certain dignity to his office, something Trump has tarnished even before his inauguration. But however much supporters of both men will bristle at the notion, there is also a considerable degree of commonality between the two. It is possible to see Trump not just as a counterpoise but also a continuation of Obama.

It is helpful to look at Obama’s legacy along three dimensions. The first, and one he gets too little credit for, is in his handling of the economy. Obama inherited an America coming off its worst financial crisis in 70 years. The recovery has been gradual and steady; certainly not eye-catching but nonetheless impressive. The economy has grown 26% in dollar terms since 2008, it has experienced a second dotcom boom, and the US for the first time became a serious energy exporter with the shale revolution.

Unemployment, which peaked at about 10%, is now back to pre-crisis levels. This is not at all an accident or good fortune. Bailing out and restructuring the automotive industry was only one of the bolder, and more unpopular, decisions that had to be made. A lot of this gets overshadowed by the not-so-good news: growing inequality and a lower labour participation rate. Nonetheless, the foundational strength of the United States is immense; its latent power should not be underestimated.

Not Much Hope and Change
If Obama gets insufficient credit for his handling of the economy, his domestic political and social legacy is much more mixed. His eight years were marked by a difficult relationship with a Republican-dominated Congress. Obama also had few friends and allies on the Democratic side of Congress, making it more difficult for him to push his domestic agenda. Healthcare reform, his cardinal domestic policy legacy, was watered down, becoming a messy behemoth that did not sufficiently address the central issue of rising healthcare costs. Obama himself admits his failure to do anything on other matters that were dear to him, such as gun control.

And certain African-American commentators wonder exactly what his presidency accomplished to improve the standing of minorities, particularly given the large number of police killings of African-Americans. Hope and change, it turned out, proved far better slogans than governing principles.

US and Them
Finally, foreign policy could well prove the area where we will look back upon the past eight years most critically. Obama often brought a professorial, Socratic approach to key meetings on foreign policy and national security, playing devil’s advocate and questioning truisms. But professors often make terrible decision-makers.

On Syria, Libya and Afghanistan, Obama adopted middle-path solutions, which turned out to combine the worst of every possible outcome rather than the best. The Afghanistan war — the “good fight” for Obama when he was a presidential candidate — is unresolved and likely to intensify. Syria could be the most costly conflict in lives and treasure since the end of the Cold War, a humanitarian crisis that the US both actively and passively fanned rather than dampened.

But those are only the most egregious examples. The administration waffled (not once, but twice) on its approach to China, the pivot or rebalance to Asia proving too little, too late. Osama bin Laden was killed in a risky, bold operation but the underlying reasons for his presence in Abbottabad were conveniently brushed aside. The Russia reset lies in tatters, as do the much vaunted outreach to the Muslim world and the nonproliferation spirit invoked in Prague. On India, after laying the groundwork for a transformed relationship, the administration stepped back — rather than stepped up — in its last six months, in contrast to both Bill Clinton and George W Bush. The prospects of a two-state solution in the Middle East seem bleaker than ever.

Even Obama’s signature foreign policy achievements — the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear agreement, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership — all now face uncertain futures, given the opposition of Trump and the US Congress. If Franklin D Roosevelt and Harry Truman were, in the famous words of one of their top advisors, “present at the creation” of the post-World War II international order, we may look back upon the Obama-Trump years as being present at its destruction.

This is where the commonalities between Obama and Trump come into play. Both share a gift for storytelling, and a strong but sectional electoral appeal. Both have proved guilty of promising simple solutions when none necessarily exist. And both share an instinct of restraint, although motivated by very different impulses. “Don’t do stupid shit,” was Obama’s foreign policy mantra, and Trump might very well agree. But sometimes, that’s necessary. Presidential legacies take time to evolve.

Truman, John F Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Clinton were incredibly unpopular and divisive in their times, but are now remembered more fondly. By contrast, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were far more popular than many now choose to remember. Obama leaves office with an approval rating of over 55%, comparable to both Reagan and Clinton. History, like with every other president, will judge him on subsequent events.

This article first appeared in The Economic Times, on 15 January 2017. Like other products of the Brookings Institution India Center, this article is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues. The views are of the author(s). Brookings India does not have any institutional views.