Is it too late for Obama to rescue his legacy?


President Obama
(Image credit: (CC BY: The White House))

Barack Obama will be remembered as a historic, transformational president. But he probably will not be remembered a half century from now as one of the great presidents.

That's something he's clearly still hoping to change — even though it's getting awfully late for him to move the needle.

Take, for instance, Obama's response to the disgraceful mess at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The actual problem, which Obama and his team should be ashamed of, isn't going to be fixed anytime soon. But now that VA Secretary Eric Shinseki is out, the waiting list scandal at VA medical facilities will disappear from front pages sooner rather than later. The media are already moving on to something else. And Obama desperately needs them to.

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The November midterms are fast approaching. The president knows Democrats look to lose a few House seats, and could possibly lose the Senate as well. Another drawn-out mess, like last year's botched rollout, could have made November's losses even worse. That's why even Democratic lawmakers piled on last week, calling for Shinseki to go. Obama listened.

But Obama is clearly already looking beyond November. He's also focused on his legacy. At this stage of any two-term presidency, it's top of mind with any chief executive. Legacy factors into just about everything he does. Coming just months after the website embarrassment, which helped drag Obama's approval into the low- to mid-40s, where it has hovered since Christmas, the last thing the president needed was another high-profile display of incompetence in his administration.

Bumbling on this scale creates an image that's hard to shake. Just ask George W. Bush, whose legacy will forever be tarnished by (among other things) the perception that he was out to lunch while Hurricane Katrina, a Category 5 storm, smashed head on into New Orleans.

Obama knows mistakes will contribute to his legacy as well. And they help validate the view of critics who have sneered for years that this president didn't have any management experience. The last few months have given them ample opportunity to say "I told you so." It's just more proof, they claim, that Barack Obama is a horribly incompetent president, unfit to lead.

The fact is, Obama's legacy will ultimately be determined by things much bigger than the VA scandal or the ObamaCare rollout — and by things that have already happened. The VA is gradually fixing its decades-in-the-making problems, and the website mess will be remembered as nothing more than a footnote in the long saga of the Affordable Care Act itself, whose long-term success or failure won't be known for years (there are today both ominous and encouraging signs). It's like asking in 1935 to define Franklin Roosevelt's legacy after the rollout of Social Security, or Lyndon Johnson's after Medicare began in 1965. And just like those two gargantuan programs, which Republicans eventually came to support, ObamaCare is already setting deep roots in the U.S. economy. It's notable that more Republicans are now scaling back talk of repealing it, and talking more about how they can work with it.

Also critical to any talk of Obama's legacy: He was elected amid a devastating economic crisis and two break-the-bank wars. Has the economy grown fast enough since collapsing in 2008 and bottoming out in 2009? Not fast enough, everyone agrees, but given that the U.S. economy averaged a 2 percent growth rate from 1860 to 2007 (after inflation), how much faster are we truly capable of growing over the long term?

Obama will also be knocked for running up the national debt, though in relative terms Reagan's tripling of it — worse than Obama —didn't stop him from making the top 10. And Obama's efforts to slow carbon emissions, controversial in conservative circles now, might be seen years from now as visionary and farsighted. Even today, a majority of Republican voters favor limiting carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants.

As for the wars he inherited, Obama got us out of Iraq, a war most Americans now say was a big and costly mistake; most also want to wind down our presence in Afghanistan, which he is doing. What's the impact of all this on his legacy? Critics charge that Obama's winding down of these wars is based more on political and calendar considerations than on national security. They may be right. But it's too early to say.

So where will Obama end up? Being elected to two terms is an early indicator of how most Americans may judge him over the long run. Of the top 10 men generally considered to be our greatest presidents, all but two passed electoral muster with the American people more than once:

1. Abraham Lincoln

2. Franklin Roosevelt

3. George Washington

4. Theodore Roosevelt

5. Thomas Jefferson

7. Woodrow Wilson

8. Dwight Eisenhower

10. Ronald Reagan

The list, a composite of four separate surveys of presidential historians over the years, notes two exceptions: Truman (6th), who was elected only once, in 1948, but served for nearly eight years after FDR's death in 1945, and John F. Kennedy (9th), who was murdered and didn't serve long enough to have a long-term record.

But winning a second term doesn't mean a president will wind up in this elite group. Examples include:

23. Ulysses S. Grant

38. George W. Bush

Although Obama was elected twice, his re-election was far less impressive than many of the men in the elite top 10. And his accomplishments don't merit inclusion in that group either.

Those who call him (as others labeled Bush) "the worst president ever" are apparently unfamiliar with U.S. history, and duds like James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, and others. I would predict that Obama will eventually land somewhere in the neighborhood of Ulysses S. Grant, in 23rd place. But again, time will tell.

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Paul Brandus

An award-winning member of the White House press corps, Paul Brandus founded (@WestWingReport) and provides reports for media outlets around the United States and overseas. His career spans network television, Wall Street, and several years as a foreign correspondent based in Moscow, where he covered the collapse of the Soviet Union for NBC Radio and the award-winning business and economics program Marketplace. He has traveled to 53 countries on five continents and has reported from, among other places, Iraq, Chechnya, China, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.