In one respect, presidents are like kindergartners. Well, sometimes in more than one respect, depending on the president. That aside, presidents and kindergartners have in common that one of the simplest ways to evaluate them is also one of the best: Do they clean up when they’re finished?
People who talk about presidential legacies typically have grandeur in mind. Did a president enact large new programs? Win a war? Forge a political realignment? Pass the torch to a new generation? End tyranny in the world? But the romantic ideal of the overachieving chief executive ignores the fact that presidents can much more easily do harm than good (another respect in which they resemble kindergartners). The world is full of traps and snares, and the presidency is surrounded by what the historian Gil Troy has called invisible trip wires, which are liable to snag presidents who overstep.
An older, more modest, and more mature view of the presidency was summed up by Calvin Coolidge with characteristic concision: “It is a great advantage to a President, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man.” Coolidge might have taken presidential modesty a little far, but his aphorism expresses a profound if unromantic insight. Presidents are pretty darned good if they manage to resolve old crises and avoid new ones. Everything else is gravy.
Especially nowadays, when presidents are expected to create jobs and cure cancer, voters undervalue the simple virtue of cleaning up. But history, taking a longer view, looks kindly upon presidents who pass the kindergarten test, beginning with George Washington, whose great and improbable accomplishment was to hand John Adams a start-up government in good working order. By contrast, even presidents who cut formidable figures and score significant achievements suffer in the standings if they leave a mess behind. Consider, among the presidents in my own 56-year lifetime, the four who bequeathed a major mess to their successor: Lyndon B. Johnson (who left behind the Vietnam War), Richard Nixon (Watergate and its aftermath), Jimmy Carter (double-digit inflation), and George W. Bush (economic collapse). Nixon is judged a failure, and LBJ and Carter are seen as tragically flawed, which I believe will also be history’s judgment of Bush 43 (Iraq, albeit a strategic disaster, wasn’t a crisis when he left office). By contrast, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy (although he exited prematurely), Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton left a relatively clean desk, and they maintain strong reputations despite their shortcomings.
The point is not to rank presidents’ culpability. Leaving a clean desk requires both skill and luck. The point, rather, is that we should never take cleaning up for granted and that history is right to give it great weight, because it is hard. And it is important. By leaving behind no crisis, a president like Eisenhower or Bush 41 or Clinton gives his successor the two biggest gifts a new president can ask for: time and discretion.
Of course, the desk in the Oval Office is never entirely clean. Every new administration inherits problems. Kennedy had Cuba, Clinton had Somalia and the Balkans, Bush 43 had a Palestinian uprising. What they didn’t have was a crisis: the kind of emergency that sucks up attention and resources and forces a president into reactive mode from day one. They had the luxury of setting their own agenda, rather than struggling to close out their predecessor’s. That’s the difference between a problem and a crisis.
Which brings us to Barack Obama. How does he rate on the cleanup scale? The only fair answer, I think, is: impressively high.
After years of slow recovery, the economy is chugging along. As a result, Obama’s successor will be free to focus on, or perhaps ignore, longer-term economic challenges—globalization, inequality, entitlement spending, tax reform.
On security, the situation is astonishingly noncritical. The Trump campaign’s alarums about mayhem on the streets were, in a word, unhinged. The violent-crime rate, despite a slight uptick in 2015, remains at nearly its lowest level since the early 1970s. The risk of being killed by a terrorist is a quarter the risk of drowning in a bathtub. If you had predicted, on September 12, 2001, that there would be zero major attacks within the United States over the course of 15 years, you would have been sent for electroshock. Both Bush and Obama, and many people working for them, deserve credit for the American homeland’s remarkable safety, but Obama kept us safe while also retiring the War on Terrorism and restoring America’s reputation for decency.
Health care? Before Obamacare, the health-insurance system was trapped in an adverse-selection death spiral: Healthy people lost or dropped their insurance, which drove rates upward, which in turn induced other healthy people to drop their coverage. The situation wasn’t sustainable, and Congress was running out of ways to temporize, so something had to be done. Whether Obamacare proves viable in the long term remains to be seen. We already know, however, that the uninsured rate fell from the high teens to just over 10 percent, and health-care-cost inflation slowed. Even granting that the reform needs reforming, it has bought valuable time.
Climate change is in an odd category. Environmentally, it is a crisis already, at least in some places. Politically, though, a crisis is the one thing it is not. The American public is notoriously indifferent to it; fewer than half of U.S. adults agree that it’s a very serious problem, and hardly any say it is the country’s leading problem. Americans would rather Obama’s successor not deal with it, if dealing with it imposes any inconvenience. The only policy approach that has a shot at real-world success is for many countries to use many tools in many styles over many years: in other words, to practice the sort of bottom-up incrementalism embodied in the 2015 Paris Agreement, a trophy of Obama’s second term.
Not long ago, the United States thought it might be on the brink of a shooting war with Iran, a war which would literally inflame the Middle East. Whether you like or deplore the deal Obama made with the mullahs (I like it, and I don’t believe its critics offered a plausible alternative), it has removed the nuclear issue from the crisis category, freeing the next administration to focus more attention and resources on other mischief by actors like Russia, the Islamic State, North Korea, and Iran itself. The charge that the Iran deal did not permanently block the country’s nuclear ambitions may prove correct, but it misses the point. For a president, turning a crisis into a problem is a big accomplishment.
If you accept the distinction between a problem and a crisis, then there is, I think, only one place where Obama can be fairly accused of leaving behind a crisis: the cauldron of pathologies known as Syria, Iraq, and isis. Ding him if you must, but a few reality checks are in order. Even allowing, for argument’s sake, that Obama mismanaged the situation in Syria and Iraq, he has had two meaningful successes. First, isis is on its heels. This fall, before a coalition assault on Mosul, isis had lost almost half its territory in Iraq and a quarter of its territory in Syria. Second, Obama has resisted being sucked into the conflict militarily. As a result, Iraq-Syria-isis is a major crisis for the region, but, unlike Vietnam in 1969 or Watergate in 1974 or inflation in 1981 or the Great Recession in 2009, it is not a major crisis for the United States.
The score, then, is not quite zero crises. But it is about as close to zero as modern presidents come. Obama’s successor has a lot to thank him for.
Still, there is one standard by which Obama must be judged a failure: his own. He took office on a wave of expectations inflated by his messianic rhetoric. “We are hungry for change and we are ready to believe again,” he said in a typical campaign speech (after winning the South Carolina primary in 2008). “We’re looking to fundamentally change the status quo in Washington.” Cheekily, he admitted that he didn’t have concrete plans for fundamentally changing the status quo in Washington. “This isn’t to say I know exactly how to do it,” he wrote in his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope: “I don’t.” But that didn’t stop him from claiming to represent “a new kind of politics.” Audacity, indeed.
Fortunately for the country, Obama has governed as a sober realist, pretty much the opposite of the way he campaigned. As Coolidge would have affirmed (perhaps using different terminology), “Don’t do stupid shit” doesn’t guarantee presidential greatness, but it’s the right place to start, and a lot harder than it looks. Obama presumably isn’t savoring the irony, but his most impressive legacy is just the sort of unglamorous, unrevolutionary, underappreciated achievement he promised in 2008 to transcend: He has passed the kindergarten test with flying colors.
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