As his presidency winds down, the Obama legacy is still unclear

The economy is in better shape but tumult in Middle East has made the world a more dangerous place.

When Barack Obama was inaugurated president of the United States in January of 2009, the economy was shedding 600,000 jobs a month, General Motors and Chrysler teetered on collapse, and 181,000 American soldiers were stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As he leaves office next week, the nation’s gross domestic product continues to expand, the stock market has soared to an all-time high, and more than 150 million people are employed.

Yet the Obama presidency will likely get mixed reviews from historians because of the tumult that has occurred in the Middle East, the expected dismantling of his controversial health care law and even the election of Republican Donald Trump, which many see as a repudiation of the Obama presidency.

Presidential legacies get cemented over time, however, and it is entirely too early to know how history will judge Obama’s two terms.


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Edward Hill, a professor of public policy at the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at Ohio State University, gives him strong marks for his stewardship of an economy that was reeling when he took office.

“He could be one of the best presidents on the economy since Franklin Roosevelt and Kennedy,” said Hill, noting economic measures — some hugely unpopular — taken at the outset of his presidency. “It took courage. But courage is easy to find when you have no other choice. The other choice was to be the re-incarnation of Herbert Hoover.”

Obama’s foreign policy decisions haven’t been nearly so well received. Even as just 8,400 American troops remain in Afghanistan, Obama departs with a Middle East in chaos as brutal Islamic State militants hold a slice of Iraq, an estimated 470,000 people have died in the Syrian civil war, and another million refugees flooded into Europe to escape the Syrian turmoil.

Russia has also re-entered the Middle East in substantial force for the first time in four decades, leaving longtime allies to fear that American resolve – which has kept the peace in Europe since 1945 – is crumbling.

“His foreign policy vis-à-vis the Middle East has been unsuccessful,” said retired U.S. Army Colonel Peter Mansoor, the General Raymond E. Mason, Jr. of Military History chairman at Ohio State University.

“Although he has kept United States ground troops out of the conflicts raging there, by his failure to act the president has damaged U.S. credibility with our allies and partly enabled the chaos in Syria to spread across the region and into Europe.”

The economy: Two views

Obama’s defenders say he rescued the economy from the brink by pushing for an economic stimulus package of nearly $1 trillion — a much-needed stimulus, they say, that revived a shattered banking system and gave a pulse to a faltering economy.

“The economy he inherited in 2009 was in terrible shape,” said Kate Bahn, an economist at the left-leaning Center for American Progress in Washington. She indicated Obama was bold “because you don’t want to be conservative when it comes to preventing a second Great Depression.”

RELATED: How Obama’s jobs record stacks up

Yet even as the nation’s unemployment rate has tumbled from 10 percent in October of 2009 to 4.7 percent today, critics such as Lee Ohanian, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, complain, “The economy is not as healthy as it could be.”

Credit: Joe Raedle

Credit: Joe Raedle

He and other conservative economists contend that the new regulations from the 2010 financial overhaul law have made it more difficult for small companies to obtain loans, which led to a dip in the launching of new small companies from 2008 through the end of 2014.

“In an average year, all (long-time) businesses shed jobs,” Ohanian said. “The only reason we have job growth every year is because of entrepreneurship and new business start-ups.”

Foreign policy missteps

Like George W. Bush and Donald Trump, Obama entered office largely unschooled in foreign affairs. And while he ordered the raid that killed al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden in 2011, analysts say his inexperience and unwillingness to listen to some advisers hampered him at times.

The same year bin Laden was killed, Obama decided not to pressure Iraq into keeping U.S troops in the country, rejecting advice from then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta who later wrote, “It was clear to me — and many others — that withdrawing all our forces would endanger the fragile stability then barely holding Iraq together.”

Credit: Joe Raedle

Credit: Joe Raedle

In August 2012, Obama warned that use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against Syrian rebels would be “a red line for us” — only to reverse himself a year later when it became clear Assad was using chemical weapons.

Declaring the “Cold War’s been over for 20 years,” he mocked Republican Mitt Romney in a 2012 presidential debate for asserting Russia was a geopolitical foe. Today, most experts believe Romney was correct.

And in 2014, Obama called the Islamic State militants in Iraq “a JV team,” a sign he failed to grasp the seriousness of the threat posed by the militants to Europeans and Americans. He also refused to intervene in any major way to help the Syrian rebels topple Assad.

“During the Obama administration, U.S equipment and training efforts (of Syrian rebels) were pathetic,” said David Phillips, director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University. “Clearly by not coming to the aid and support of moderate Sunni opposition, we contributed to their radicalization and drove them into the embrace of the Islamic State.”


Phillips blames Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry for reversing U.S. policy dating back to 1972 that minimized intrusion into the Middle East by Russia, which has often backed radical regimes such as in Iraq and Syria.

“When Secretary Kerry proposed the United Nations be responsible for Damascus to disarm chemical weapons, he threw the door wide open to Russia to re-establish its influence in the region,” Phillips said.

Other analysts, and Obama himself, say it’s not that simple. In an interview last year with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, Obama defended his decision to steer cautiously around Syria, saying “the notion that we could have—in a clean way that didn’t commit U.S. military forces—changed the equation on the ground there was never true.”

But others say Obama – and Americans and Europeans – have paid dearly for the inaction. “Our failure to do anything about the Syrian conflict has hurt our credibility,” Mansoor said.

“While that may not matter with most Americans, it should because an unstable Middle East is a Middle East that exports terror to the rest of the world, and a Middle East where one of our allies, Israel, sits in the middle of this stew of radical Islamism,” Mansoor said.

Health care

The final grade on the Obama presidency may depend on what happens to health care.

By gaining congressional approval to overhaul the nation’s health care system — from Democrats alone — Obama helped an additional 20 million Americans obtain health coverage either through federally subsidized private plans or Medicaid.

But the law became anathema to Republicans in Congress and many Americans in general, who blamed the law — and Obama — for escalating health care costs.

Obama last week met with Democratic congressional leaders to gear up for a fight to preserve key elements of the law, even as Republicans vowed to dismantle it in its entirety.

Credit: Dayton Daily News Archive

Credit: Dayton Daily News Archive

“The American people have sent new leadership here because Obamacare has failed and has been rejected by the American people,” Vice President-elect Mike Pence said as he met with Republicans on Capitol Hill.

But replacing the law may not be so simple, particularly since it is not at all clear what it would be replaced with.

In an interview with CNN last week, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said health care access and cost won’t be improved by dismantling the system already in place.

“I’d be willing to walk from this interview and sit down immediately with Republican colleagues, we’ve been trying to for six years, and say, ‘Let’s improve on this system,’” Stabenow said. “But you don’t do that by burning down a house when you say you want to renovate it. You don’t start by burning it down. And that’s exactly what you’re doing.”

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