With one of Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievements on the Supreme Court chopping block and his re-election bid against Mitt Romney shaping up into a close race, many conservative pundits are claiming the president’s legacy is in peril. Since their assertions have received ample play in the mainstream media, I decided it would be appropriate to offer a different perspective.
Here is a look at some of Obama’s most important achievements, nearly 1,200 days into this presidency:
Foreign policy. Per one of the central promises of his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama ended the war in Iraq, with the last U.S. troops being withdrawn in December 2011. He also presided over the tough decisions that led to the assassination of Osama bin Laden, thus helping bring closure to the emotional wounds of the Sept. 11 attacks. Finally, Obama underwent concerted diplomatic efforts to repair relations with nations that had grown alienated from America by George W. Bush‘s policies, particularly with his outreach to the Muslim world as spelled out in his “New Beginning” speech at Cairo University. Only the lingering war in Afghanistan exists as a major tarnish on his foreign policy achievements.
Domestic policy. Even if the Supreme Court overturns Obama’s health care reform law, he still will have amassed an impressive legislative record, including civil rights measures (the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act), significant financial regulatory reforms (the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act, the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act), consumers rights bills (the Credit CARD Act, the Food Safety Modernization Act), and economic relief initiatives for those struck hardest by the recession (the Helping Families Save their Homes Act, the Small Business Jobs Act).
The economy. Obama stopped the Great Recession from deteriorating into a second Great Depression. Although the first nine months of the Great Recession saw only a gradual climb in unemployment (from just under 5 percent in the last pre-recession month, November 2007, to slightly more than 6 percent in August 2008), the Wall Street meltdown of September 2008 caused it to spiral out of control. Unemployment rose at a dangerous average rate of almost 0.4 percent per month from the time of the crash to May 2009. Once Obama’s stimulus bill began taking effect, however, the jobless rate stabilized; after doubling to 9.4 percent in the year and a half since November 2007, it remained at or under 10 percent for the next 18 months. Since then it has declined, in large part due to a second stimulus Obama appended to the Bush tax cut extensions, with unemployment ranging from 8.5 percent to 9.1 percent throughout 2011 before falling to a low of 8.2 percent in March.
Overall, the president whose legacy Obama’s is most likely to resemble is the same one with whom he was so often compared only a few years ago — John F. Kennedy.
Some of the reasons for this are obvious: Like Obama, Kennedy broke long-standing barriers of prejudice by virtue of his election (Kennedy for Catholics, Obama for African-Americans) and developed a public image as a charismatic, eloquent and scholarly idealist. Just as important, however, Kennedy also racked up a number of important accomplishments during his tenure, including creating the Peace Corps, signing the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, launching the race to the moon, navigating America through the Cuban Missile Crisis, and using federal troops to help integrate the South.
Inevitably, both presidents also saw their mystiques fade during their administrations, thanks to their own blunders (Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs, Obama and the BP oil spill), the disappointment of liberals unhappy with compromises (Kennedy on civil rights, Obama on health care reform), and the venom of right-wingers who not only accused them of being socialists and/or communists but also popularized conspiracy theories fueled by prevalent prejudices, such as claiming Kennedy was taking orders from the Vatican or that Obama wasn’t born in this country.
Like all parallels between history and the present, the Kennedy-Obama analogy isn’t perfect, given the different circumstances in which they governed. In the end, though, Kennedy is still remembered for the barriers he broke and the way his policies helped America, and likely would still be recalled that way even if he had been defeated for re-election in 1964. Regardless of what happens to Obama in 2012 — at the Supreme Court or the ballot box — the same will almost certainly be true for him.