Sunday, January 20, 2013

Four More Years.

On this week's Left, Right and Center show on KCRW, the panelists looked ahead to the second term of President Obama and what they expected from it. The question of a President's legacy is a complicated one. Does one piece of legislation define a President? Or a larger narrative (such as FDR's push for a New Deal, or Reagan's anti-government verbiage)?

Let's look at the most recent Presidents. For George W. Bush, the legacy seems easy... a runaway national security state and a country in a permanent state of war. Bill Clinton? For all his lingering popularity, I doubt many can satisfactorily answer this question. Sadly, in the long run, his legacy may be a financial sector freed from the protections in place since the New Deal. In terms of impact on the nation, I can't think of anything bigger. So, not a great past 20 years so far.

Now, for President Obama. Legislatively, for the first term, there's nothing bigger than the Affordable Care Act (whose ultimate legacy can't yet be known). Narratively, unfortunately, he has been obsessed with chasing the bipartisanship dragon and the idea of "fixing Washington", not by achieving some specific policy agenda, but by making everyone more polite.

To guess at his real legacy, it's important to remember what he inherited-- an economy teetering on the edge of depression, on top of an existing trend of growing economic inequality. Yes, technically speaking, the economy has recovered... albeit in a way that has only exacerbated and exposed that growing economic gap for many. In the end, I fear that is what the Obama legacy will be judged on. Did we turn back the tide on what many people see as the dissolving of the American dream? Or were we satisfied just to keep the ship afloat a little while longer?

Four years ago, on the eve of his first inauguration, I wrote about my cautious optimism for the Obama presidency, given his seeming unwillingness to make any radical changes to the nation. Four years later, with mostly a series of budget fights with Congress on the horizon, my caution remains, with slightly less of the optimism.


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