When he was running for president in 2008, Barack Obama pointed to Ronald Reagan as a model for what kind of president he would like to be, not because he agreed with Reagan politically, but because Reagan "changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not." We won't know about America's long-term trajectory after the Obama years for some time, but as he begins his last year in office, it's not too early to say that Obama will probably turn out to be one of the most consequential presidents in recent history, if not of all time. This will be true even though his most important victories are partial and incomplete.
I use the word "consequential" and not something like "great" because we usually assign greatness only to those whose achievements most of us can agree were positive — Lincoln holding the Union together, FDR guiding the country through the Great Depression and World War II — or to those we think were great because they succeeded in achieving our own partisan goals. In this most polarized age (and in the midst of the administration itself), no president could be judged great by all, at least not for long.
But even many of Obama's opponents could probably agree that he has accomplished a great deal during his presidency. In October 2008, anticipating his victory, I wrote that he had four great tasks before him. "If he sees the country through the current economic crisis, brings the war in Iraq to an end, passes health-care reform that actually achieves something close to universal coverage, and sets the country on a course away from a reliance on fossil fuels, Obama would be considered the most important president since Franklin D. Roosevelt."
To varying degrees he has done all four. He saw the country through the Great Recession, got us out of Iraq, passed health care reform, and is aggressively moving to address climate change. The trouble is that each victory has come with extraordinary complications.
Upon taking office, Obama quickly passed a large stimulus bill to mitigate the effects of the recession. Since the economy finally reached its bottom at the beginning of 2010, we've seen the creation of 14 million private sector jobs. In 2012, Mitt Romney confidently predicted that if he turned Obama out of office and we followed the Romney economic program, unemployment would plummet to 6 percent by the end of 2016. Today under Obama's policies unemployment stands at 5 percent. Yet wages remain stagnant and economic insecurity is still widespread, despite the availability of jobs. Obama wasn't able (and arguably didn't attempt) to reverse the decades-long trends that hamstring Americans' economic fortunes.
On Iraq, Obama followed through on his promise to remove American troops and end George W. Bush's catastrophic war, but the country has not released its hold on us. The corrupt sectarian government of Nouri al-Maliki alienated and oppressed its Sunni citizens, allowing ISIS to thrive. Obama is still struggling with the aftermath of the war, as will his successors.
On health care, by passing comprehensive reform, Obama did what Bill Clinton failed to do and what Democrats had spent decades trying to accomplish. But though the Affordable Care Act is a huge success in many ways, with millions of Americans newly insured and all people able to get coverage regardless of their health history, the fact that it was essentially a gigantic kludge — a complicated fix laid on top of an already absurdly complicated system — has limited its ability to provide universal coverage or eliminate the pathologies of a profit-driven health care system.
And on climate change, Obama got something of a late start, but he has moved aggressively, with new regulations on auto efficiency and power plant emissions, along with an historic agreement just signed in Paris which committed virtually every nation on earth to a common effort to reduce carbon emissions. While environmentalists disagree about the long-term impact of these moves, with many arguing that they won't be sufficient to solve the problem, the administration has been taking strong action despite the objections of the opposition.
There are hundreds of other decisions and accomplishments one could point to over the last seven years as being of great consequence, but any list would have to include the nuclear agreement with Iran, the normalization of relations with Cuba, new Wall Street regulations, saving the American auto industry, ordering the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, ending discrimination against gays in the military and pushing for the legalization of same-sex marriage, and avoiding the kind of major scandal that plagued so many of his predecessors.
That isn't to say that there haven't been plenty of mistakes, just as there are with any president. It remains to be seen what Obama can accomplish in his final year with a Congress that opposes him on virtually everything and in the midst of a race to determine his successor. And much depends on who that successor is; if it's a Democrat (presumably Hillary Clinton), then what Obama achieved can be reinforced and expanded. Any Republican, however, would devote himself to reversing everything Obama did.
And we still don't know how these partial victories will evolve. Perhaps we and our allies can make enough progress against ISIS that America won't have to worry about Iraq anymore, and perhaps one day Republicans will stop trying to repeal the ACA and agree to make the changes that would improve it. Or it could all get worse. But the contours of the next presidency, and maybe even the one after that, will be determined by what happened between 2009 and 2016. Whatever you think of him, it's looking like Barack Obama did indeed change the country's trajectory, by doing pretty much what he said he would.