With his time in the White House growing short, with the country a month away from electing his successor, it’s time to state the obvious: History is going to be very, very kind to President Barack Hussein Obama.
That kind of assessment must of course begin by considering the conditions that a president inherited upon taking office. In Obama’s case, he faced an economy that was in free fall here at home and across the globe, with more than 800,000 American jobs disappearing the month that he took the oath of office, and with the stock market in a historic collapse.
Overseas, the consequences of our Iraq invasion, the single worst foreign policy decision in American history, were already wreaking havoc. Against its will, the outgoing Bush administration had been forced to sign a deal committing the United States to withdraw from battle-torn Iraq with its goals unmet and the situation deeply unstable, leaving its successor to manage the aftermath.
Given all that, what Obama has accomplished in the subsequent eight years is impressive in its own right. The unemployment rate is below 5 percent; the stock market has almost tripled in valuation; some 15 million more jobs have been created. Overseas, the signs of progress are admittedly less obvious, especially with tragedy playing out in Syria. But meeting the challenges of fundamental Islamic extremism, complicated by our previous bungling, was always going to be the work of a generation or longer, and in the end will have to be resolved internally, by the Muslim world itself, rather than by Western outsiders.
However, Iran’s nuclear-weapons program has been dismantled, thanks to a concerted international effort led by the United States, and the caliphate that ISIS attempted to create in portions of Iraq and Syria is well on its way to disappearing. As our next president will also find, the Middle East is a problem that can never be resolved but can at best be managed.
But when you put those various accomplishments in their political context — when you consider that Obama has been forced to deal with those daunting challenges without a scintilla of support or assistance from what ought to have been his Republican partners in governance — that’s when they become almost remarkable.
In fact, history’s assessment of Obama’s Republican opposition is likely to be brutal. Future students of American politics will look at the challenges that our country faced, then at the GOP’s refusal to cooperate or compromise in any way in addressing those challenges, and they will be confounded. Its incapacity to govern, its willingness to court major damage to the country rather than validate Obama as president, will be as inexplicable to historians as it has been to many of us who have lived through it.
In a lengthy interview with Jon Chait in New York magazine, Obama calmly, dispassionately explains how he attempted to deal with that situation. As a relatively young ex-president, he should be on the scene for many years to come to tell his side of the story, and as a practical matter that too will help guide history’s verdict. There is no competing conservative articulation of what drove conservatives to react as they have reacted. Blind, stubborn refusal to compromise or cooperate does not lend itself to a thoughtful narrative or explanation.
And of course, historians trying to comprehend the Republican Party of the last eight years will see the candidacy of Donald Trump as the culmination and final proof of the GOP’s dysfunction. He is without precedent in American history, at least in terms of a major party’s presidential nominee, and the contrast between Trump and Obama can only redound to Obama’s benefit.
Already, you see that phenomenon playing out in the polls, with Obama’s job-approval rating rising each month as his fellow Americans reflect on his tenure and consider what otherwise might have been without his leadership. He has been a president of historic importance, a fact that makes his status as our first black president almost — but not quite — an interesting footnote.
That’s the most amazing thing of all.