Attempting to render summary judgment of a presidency without the benefit of hindsight and historical distance is a fool's game. Though sometimes it's easier than others.
Bill Clinton presided over eight years of prosperity, relative peace, and fiscal restraint, which seemed to mark him as a better-than-average president as he left office (sex scandal notwithstanding). George W. Bush, meanwhile, bequeathed to his successor a barely contained fiasco in Iraq and a full-fledged economic crisis at home, demonstrating that his years in the Oval Office had been ... somewhat less successful than one might have wished.
What about Barack Obama? Well, with him things are more muddled. He has triumphed. And he has failed.
Obama swept into office on a wave of tautological idealism ("Change we can believe in!" "Yes, we can!") and immediately confronted the worst financial downturn in 80 years. Eight years later, the economy has created 11.3 million net jobs and is growing at a modest but respectable rate. Unemployment has fallen from a high of 10 percent during Obama's first year in office to 4.7 percent today. Millions more are covered by health insurance than before the Obama administration began, thanks to his signature legislative achievement. And despite facing a brutally hostile Congress for most of his tenure, the Obama White House has avoided the kind of scandals that engulfed the administrations of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, let alone the one that brought down Richard Nixon's presidency.
That makes it sound like Obama has been an enormous success. And yet...
Obama leaves the country far more deeply divided than it was eight years ago, with his party a "smoking pile of rubble," having suffered significant losses at every level of government, and the country having just elected a man singularly unqualified to serve as president, a man who ran for office on a wave of populist anger, stirring up ethnic and racial animosities, and whose administration will quite likely push the boundaries of corruption in high office beyond the limits of anything Americans have ever endured.
Donald Trump is the diametric opposite of Barack Obama in nearly every way. Where Obama comes off as the proverbial Cool Cat floating dispassionately above the partisan fray, Trump is a one-man polarization machine. Where Obama is forever acting as a Man of Reason, the Great Conciliator, who aims to bring opposing sides together in mutual understanding — a both/and president in an either/or era — Trump dismisses everyone but the most loyal sycophants as "haters and losers." Where Obama is a thoroughgoing progressive who sees his own (and the government's) role as helping to bend the arc of history toward justice, Trump promises to return the nation to a vaguely defined vanished moment of past greatness. Where Obama ultimately sees himself as a citizen of the world working to build a cosmopolitan community of nations working in concert for the benefit of all, Trump is a nationalist who believes in closed borders and zero-sum negotiation and deal-making among mutually antagonistic nations and leaders.
What unites all of Obama's qualities is a tendency toward high-minded superiority, a knowing aloofness and self-regard. These are traits more common in a world-class professor at an elite university than in a president. And it is this characteristic that has caused him his greatest problems as head of the executive branch — and inadvertently contributed to the rise and implausible triumph of his political bête noire.
As a neoliberal and a political moderate, it pains me to admit that Obama's most fateful mistake may well have been his cautious, level-headed response to the financial crisis. Though countless millions of Americans lost their homes, jobs, savings, and investments due to the astonishingly reckless behavior of bankers, hedge fund managers, and others in the financial sector, no one was punished. Most of the perpetrators came through the crash with barely a scratch. Hardly anyone went to jail. And none of the big banks were allowed to fail or were broken up after the fact. On the contrary, they were bailed out by taxpayers.
I understand why. I supported those policies at the time. Had I been in charge, I almost certainly would have done exactly what Obama did. It was the prudent thing to do. Allowing banks and massive companies like AIG, General Motors, and Chrysler to collapse risked far worse damage to the global economy. It could have plunged the world into something as bad as or worse than the Great Depression. But the result was a massive injustice. Americans learned the lesson that if you're a middle-class homeowner and things go wrong, you're screwed, while if you're wealthy (and even if your actions created the problem in the first place), Uncle Sam will come riding to the rescue. Trump and Bernie Sanders each tapped into this resentment in his own way, expressing, channeling, and purging the anger that the president never adequately acknowledged or legitimized. In that respect, Obama's professorially cerebral and even-tempered response to the crisis helped to prepare the way for the anti-establishment, populist wave that has now capsized his party and the legacy of his own presidency.
If Obama's mistake in responding to the financial crisis was understandable, his decision to provoke a backlash in the culture war was an unforced error. Obama ran for president as an opponent of gay marriage, showing that he understood the need to act with restraint when it came to hot-button social issues. Four years later he famously "evolved" on the issue while running for re-election, surprising no one. But what was surprising was how quickly and severely he (and Hillary Clinton, who underwent the same transformation) flipped not just to support gay marriage but to treating with contempt those whose sensibilities were merely a little slower to evolve.
And not just when it came to gay rights. From micromanaging sexual behavior on college campuses to policing public bathrooms in the name of transgender civil liberties, moral busy-bodies in the Obama administration, from the professor-in-chief on down, have been eager to expand the scope of federal regulations into broad new areas of American life — an agenda that plenty of voters have found bossy, intrusive, condescending, and contemptuous of ways of life that diverge from the secular progressivism that is so often the default presumption among the country's intellectual elite.
In foreign policy, Obama has had a very different problem. Far from being too straightforwardly aggressive, the president has combined extreme rhetorical restraint (that has often made him sound weak or passive when discussing national threats, including terrorism) with over-extension. As my colleague Michael Brendan Dougherty recently pointed out, the Pentagon has reported that in 2016 the U.S. military dropped more than 26,000 bombs on seven Muslim countries. That's an awful lot of (undeclared) wars to be waging simultaneously.
And half-heartedly. Compared with George W. Bush's invasions and long-term occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama can look like someone skeptical about the use of military force. But he's really only skittish about deploying large numbers of ground troops. Using air power to overthrow the government of Libya is perfectly fine. As is unleashing special operations forces, drones, and other covert forms of violence to intervene in theaters across the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.
This is what Obama notoriously described as "leading from behind" — the U.S. acting boldly in the world but behind the scenes and with modesty, keeping our heads and voices down to avoid inflaming perfectly understandable anti-American sentiments. But is leadership that is never defended, explained, justified, or even acknowledged really leadership at all? Or is it simply ... drift?
Similar questions arise when we contemplate the signature foreign policy achievement of Obama's second term: the Iran nuclear deal. What grand strategy lay behind Obama's concerted drive to reach an agreement with Tehran? I can't see one, and I'm not alone. The result has been a sense of foreign policy aimlessness, as the eminent professor executes his great, elaborate plan without ever quite getting around to explaining how it advances our interests or fits together with the multitude of other seemingly contrary policies he simultaneously pursues.
The virtues of a top-notch professor are different than those required of a president. I would eagerly sign up to take a course with Barack Obama, emeritus professor of American studies. But I'm not at all sure how much the country has benefited from having been enrolled in his seminar for the past eight years.