Assessing the Obama legacy
Using his own mileposts, the president has failed
In his 2016 State of the Union address, President Obama summarized his achievements. That same night, the White House issued a press release touting Mr. Obama’s accomplishments. Now that he will be leaving, how well did these initiatives listed in the press release actually work out? “Securing the historic Paris climate agreement.” The accord was never submitted to Congress as a treaty. It will be ignored by President-elect Donald Trump. “Achieving the Iran nuclear deal.” That “deal” was another effort to circumvent the treaty-ratifying authority of Congress. It has green-lighted Iranian aggression, and it probably ensured nuclear proliferation. Iran’s violations will cause the new Trump administration to either scrap the accord or send it to Congress for certain rejection. “Securing the Trans-Pacific Partnership.” Even Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton came out against this failed initiative. It has little support in Congress or among the public. Opposition to the TTP helped fuel the Trump victory. “Reopening Cuba.” The recent Miami celebration of the death of Fidel Castro, and Mr. Trump’s victory in Florida, are testimonies to the onesided deal’s unpopularity. The United States got little in return for the Castro brothers’ propaganda coup.
“Destroying ISIL” and “dismantling al Qaeda.”
We are at last making some progress against some of these “jayvee” teams, as Mr. Obama once described the Islamic State. Neither group has been dismantled or destroyed. Despite the death of Osama bin Laden, the widespread reach of radical Islam into Europe and the United States remains largely unchecked.
“Ending combat missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
The Afghan war rages on. The precipitous withdrawal of all U.S. peacekeepers in 2011 from a quiet Iraq helped sow chaos in the rest of the Middle East. We are now sending more troops back into Iraq. “Closing Guantanamo Bay.” This was an eight-year broken promise. The detention center still houses dangerous terrorists. “Rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region.” The anemic “Asia Pivot” failed. The Philippines is now openly pro-Russian and pro-Chinese. Traditional allies such as Japan, Taiwan and South Korea are terrified that the United States is no longer a reliable guarantor of their autonomy.
“Supporting Central American development.”
The once-achievable promise of a free-market, democratic Latin America is moribund. Dictatorships in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua remain impoverished bullies. All have been appeased by the U.S. “Strengthening cybersecurity.” Democrats claimed Russian interference in the recent election. If true, it is proof that there is no such thing as “cybersecurity.” The WikiLeaks releases, the hacked Clinton emails and the Edward Snowden disclosures confirm that the Obama administration was the least cybersecure presidency in history.
“Growing the Open Government Partnership.”
The NSA scandal, the hounding of Associated Press journalists, some of the WikiLeaks troves and the corruption at the Internal Revenue Service all reveal that the Obama administration was one of the least transparent presidencies in memory.
“Honoring our nation’s veterans.”
Mr. Obama’s Department of Veterans Affairs was mired in scandal, and some of its nightmarish VA hospitals were awash in disease and unnecessary deaths. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki was forced to resign amid controversy. Former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano apologized for issuing an offensive report falsely concluding that returning war vets were liable to join right-wing terrorist groups.
“Making sure our politics reflect America’s best.”
The 2016 presidential campaign was among the nastiest on record. WikiLeaks revealed unprecedented collusion between journalists and the Clinton campaign. Earlier, Mr. Obama had been the first president in U.S. history to refuse public campaign money. He was also the largest fundraiser of private cash and the greatest collector of Wall Street money in the history of presidential campaigns.
“Protecting voting rights.”
Riots followed the recent presidential election. Democrats, without merit, joined failed Green Party candidate Jill Stein’s recount in key swing states they lost. Progressives are berating the constitutionally guaranteed Electoral College. State electors are being subject to intimidation campaigns. “Strengthening policing.”
Lethal attacks on police are soaring. “Promoting immigrant and refugee integration and citizenship awareness.”
The southern U.S. border is largely unenforced. Immigration law is deliberately ignored. The president’s refugee policy was unpopular and proved a disaster, as illustrated by the Boston Marathon bombings, the San Bernardino attack, the Orlando nightclub shooting and the recent Ohio State University terrorist violence.
Note what Mr. Obama’s staff omitted: his doubling of the U.S. debt in eight years, the unworkable and soonto-be-repealed Affordable Care Act, seven years of anemic economic growth, record labor nonparticipation, failed policy resets abroad, and a Middle East in ruins.
Why, then, has the president’s previously sinking popularity suddenly rebounded in 2016?
Mr. Obama disappeared from our collective television screens, replaced by unpopular candidates Clinton and Trump, who slung mud at each other and stole the limelight.
As a result, Mr. Obama discovered that the abstract idea of a lame-duck Mr. Obama was more popular than the cold reality of eight-year President Obama.
He wisely adjusted by rarely being heard from or seen for much of 2016.
So Mr. Obama now departs amid the ruin of the Democratic Party into a lucrative post-presidency: detached and without a legacy. Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.