Empty Chairs and the Potemkin Presidency

On Tuesday, President Obama delivered his final State of the Union address, marking his final year in office.  News outlets, politicians and political pundits have provided and will continue to provide their opinions and assessments of the content of his address, his invitees, and the now famous empty chair.  But as we enter the president's final year, it's time to provide more important assessment and review: the legacy of President Obama.

Perhaps the best way to evaluate that legacy is to look to an interesting story from Russian history.  According to Russian lore, a man by the name of Grigory Potemkin erected a series of fake village settlements along the bank of the Dnieper River in an effort to fool Catherine the Great's entourage during her tour of the Crimea in 1787.

Potemkin and Catherine were well known to be romantically involved, and one of the "perks" of his position was a governorship appointment of the Crimea region.  Crimea had been decimated by a previous war, and Potemkin was tasked with rebuilding the area.  In an effort to secure support for a pending war against the Ottoman Empire, Catherine made a six-month trip to "New Russia."

As Catherine's party of ambassadors moved down the river, Potemkin would be one step ahead, setting up the mobile villages on the banks of the Dnieper, and then Potemkin would have his men dress up as villagers to interact with the party.  Once the visitors left, Potemkin and his men would disassemble the village and travel through the night to set up the next village.

In modern politics, the exploits of Potemkin (and his Potemkin villages) have come to describe a situation constructed to give the outward appearance that things are much better than they really are.

While the empty chair was meant, no doubt, to pay tribute to gun violence victims, the president may have ironically given America the most succinct assessment of the legacy of the current president.  Obama is the Potemkin President.

While the Potemkin label has been applied at various times to policies or actions the president has taken during his two terms, a close examination of major areas of his presidency shows a pattern much more pervasive than just a few isolated presidential actions.

To illustrate the point, here are just five prime examples – racial/political environment, Wall Street, health care, foreign relations, and the economy – of where the president touts his successes – Potemkin successes that mask a much less flattering reality.

1. Obama's Brand as the Great Unifier.  While his approval rating remains slightly under 50 percent according to Gallup (which is much better than his predecessor), the promise of hope and change has been more of lost hope and change as it relates to America being more unified.

The racial and political climate in America is at a boiling point.  Incidents in Ferguson and Baltimore, the Black Panthers polling incidents, and the battle over immigration are just a few illustrations of the pent up frustration of Americans because of a president who talked unity but sowed the seeds of contention with his penchant for divisive rhetoric.

Further, Washington remains deadlocked.  And while a healthy part of the blame lies at the feet of Republicans for this, a real leader would have found ways to build bridges and consensus rather than ramming through legislation that passed only along party lines or turning to the executive order every time he failed to get his way.

2. The Clean-Up of Wall Street.  Upon taking office, President Obama was quick to blame former President Bush for the latter's failure to check Wall Street, but he had no issue taking credit for the passage of a litany of regulations, including Dodd-Frank, that were going to clean up Wall Street.

Is Wall Street really "cleaned up"?  We need only look to the president's own party to find the Potemkin village in this situation.  At a recent Cato event, Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren noted that nine trillion in tax dollars went out the "back door" to just three financial institutions at a rate amounting to nothing those institutions could get anywhere else.  Instead of solving the problem, the "too big to fail" banks are now even bigger and even more risky.  And according to Mark Calabria's insider federal sources, Congress has no idea if any of the large banks are currently insolvent.

3. The Affordable Care Act.  One of President Obama's biggest policy objectives when he took office was to reform the health care system, so that all Americans could have access to affordable health care.  As such, the passage of the Affordable Care Act has been touted as one of the president's greatest policy achievements.

From the infamous campaign promise of "If you like your health plan you can keep it" to continuing delays in the implementation of various parts of the law to costly websites and technical investments that haven't worked, the ACA has led to one broken promise after another.  Perhaps the most Potemkin-like aspect of the ACA is that Americans are now getting less coverage at a higher cost and are more dependent on government assistance to pay for their new "affordable" care.

By the numbers, the average American household now depends on a $2,890 government subsidy, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, to help offset the cost of rising premiums, which are poised to rise 12 to 13 percent this year, according to ACAsignups.net.  And these increases tell only half the story.  As premiums have gone up, so have deductibles.  The average American household's deductible has risen by $400 since 2010 (from $900 to $1,300), and for small business owners, that deductible number is $1,800.  It is as if the president took a page from the cereal and cracker companies, who kept prices "low" but reduced the amount of food in the box.  As with Obamacare, Americans were led to believe they were getting a good deal until they starting reading the fine print on the box.

4. The Peace Prize President.  Shortly after his inauguration, Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  The president can't be blamed for the timing of the award, but the award now stands as a rather ironic piece of evidence confirming the Potemkin President's legacy.

A quick look at the news in just the past year is all one needs to pull the curtains back on what's really going on behind the village cutouts.  The Russia/Ukraine conflict continues to fester.  France has endured a horrific terror attack.  North Korea appears to have conducted a successful nuclear test.  The Arab world ebbs closer to major conflict, with continued issues in Syria and ISIS conflicts in Iraq.  Finally, trust in the current president's foreign policy in the Arab world is at historic lows according to research by the Pew Foundation.

5. The Obama-Led Recovery.  Based on his 2012 campaign, President Obama was responsible for helping to pull the U.S. out of one of the worst recessions since the Great Depression.  In fact, the president just a few months ago made the claim on The Daily Show that "by every metric, the economy is better than when he took office."

While some numbers have improved slightly from the bottom, the underlying fundamentals of the economy tell a different story.  According to Gallup research, small business growth is in a death spiral, and the U.S. now ranks 12th among developed nations in business start-up activity.  The percentage of the adult population that is fully employed is at its lowest level in 30 years.  The small growth we have seen pales in comparison to the economic recovery initiated by Reagan that didn't require trillions in new debt.  Finally, the Fed has been forced to keep the gas pedal down on its quantitative easing strategy, which may be the clearest sign that there has been no real recovery. 

This list could be significantly larger.  But each additional example would only confirm the original premise that the best way to summarize the leadership legacy of our current president is that he would have made Potemkin proud.

Lyall Swim is the managing partner of Junto Strategy and leadership development enthusiast.  (Email: lswim@juntostrategy.com; Twitter: @lyallswim.)

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