Obama's Confused Legislative Legacy

In Decision Points’ opening lines, George W. Bush said that he began thinking about writing his memoir in the final year of his administration. He read several classic presidential autobiographies – Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, etc. – to begin formulating his own narrative, but Bush surely thought about his legacy long before his final year. All presidents are concerned with their treatment in history. What will academics write in 20 years?  How will public perception change post-presidency? Will a president’s policies affect future generations? These questions plague all residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and as Barack Obama moves into his final two years, he must be having these same thoughts. 

Promising a John F. Kennedy-style vision with a legislative agenda a la Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Obama was expected to be a transformational, “post-partisan” leader in 2008. But six years into office, his programs have not gained widespread traction, they remain highly controversial, and they seem confused -- the wrong battles waged at the wrong times. 

But how will history view Obama? I’m sure he wants to be remembered in the pantheon of great twentieth-century liberal presidents -- Roosevelt and Johnson. Each pushed large-scale legislation through congress; each tackled substantial problems in his time; each packaged these programs into easily digestible, thematic terms – New Deal and Great Society; each successfully sold these policies to the public; and each significantly shaped the arc of our nation’s history. Obama wants to be part of this group, on liberal Mt. Rushmore so to speak.     

Many Roosevelt and Johnson programs are still around today -- Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid. The New Deal sought to overcome the Great Depression by addressing the 3R’s: relief, recovery, and reform. Most of the three-letter acronyms (PWA, TVA, FSA, etc.) we’ve come to associate with Roosevelt’s agenda were meant to fit into these broad categories. Johnson passed a series of reform laws, including the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, and instituted the War on Poverty. Most passed by wide margins. Even the NIRA and the AAA -- eventually struck down by the Supreme Court for gross constitutional violations -- did not face the same resistance seen today, garnering plenty of votes across the aisle. We can debate the merits of these policies, but both Roosevelt and Johnson had historically significant presidencies, taking advantage of large congressional majorities and public opinion to change the size and function of government.

So where does Obama fit in? Well, he has certainly expanded the role of government, but he’s done it in a disorganized, chaotic fashion by pushing through unpopular bills at inappropriate times.

It’s silly to equate significance with historians’ ability to categorize and define presidential agendas in a clean, logical fashion. It’s certainly not the only measure of success, yet these labels (New Deal, Great Society) capture the zeitgeist and mood of a generation. Obama, however, has no theme. There’s no grand blueprint. Elected amid a devastating financial crisis, he chose to place the economy in the rearview mirror and expend his political capital elsewhere. 

While the unemployment rate hovered around double digits, the White House passed the Affordable Care Act. Democrats admired the law for its symbolic significance, but many Americans were concerned with its content and implementation from the onset. Its botched rollout and King v. Burwell (pending before the Supreme Court) underscore its sloppy composition and patchwork nature. Maybe Nancy Pelosi should have read it beforehand?

Obama’s other major legislative “achievement” was the Dodd-Frank Act. A politically necessary maneuver for Democrats who watched billions of taxpayer dollars flow to big banks and not consumers, the law -- from a regulatory perspective -- lacks the strength to do much at all. But it does create enough red tape to negatively impact small businesses and banks.

What will the Obama legacy be? Unnecessary bureaucracy? Massive debt? In recently proposing free community college, it’s as if he’s aimlessly throwing darts to see where they land. Obama likes the idea of massive legislative programs and government expansion, but there is no strategy, no end game. The result of this governing style is no mandate for permanent change and the likelihood that a Republican administration could undo much of what Obama built. Obviously, the history books are yet to be written, but when they are, they’ll show a disorganized agenda with neither the Kennedy vision nor the Roosevelt, Johnson results.