In early January 1999, as President Clinton’s penultimate year in office was getting underway, columnist George Will could hardly contain his “disgust” for the Democrat in the White House. He published a piece condemning Clinton – one of many similar columns for the Washington Post conservative – but he did so in a very specific way.
Clinton is “defined by littleness,” Will said, adding, “He is the least consequential president” since Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s.
It’s arguably the harshest of all possible criticisms. All presidents quickly grow accustomed to a wide variety of rebukes, but no one ever wants to be dismissed as inconsequential. It’s another way of saying your presidency is forgettable. It doesn’t matter. History won’t judge you unkindly because judgments require significance, and you’re just … irrelevant.
More than a decade later, President Obama has also received his share of criticisms, but it’s probably fair to say “inconsequential” is an adjective that no one will use to describe his tenure.
We talked the other day about the remarkable stretch of successes the president has had just since the midterm elections, and it led Matt Yglesias to note the “incredible amount” Obama has accomplished over the last six years.
It has been, in short, a very busy and extremely consequential lame-duck session. One whose significance is made all the more striking by the fact that it follows an electoral catastrophe for Obama’s party. And that is the Obama era in a microcosm. Democrats’ overwhelming electoral win in 2008 did not prove to be a “realigning” election that handed the party enduring political dominance. Quite the opposite. But it did touch off a wave of domestic policymaking whose scale makes Obama a major historical figure in the way his two predecessors won’t be.
I agree, though I’d go a bit further than just his two more recent predecessors and argue that Obama’s record makes him a major historical figure in ways most presidents are not.
This isn’t even a normative argument, per se. Obama’s critics, especially on the right, can and should make their case that the president’s agenda is misguided and bad for the country. A leader can have a wealth of accomplishments, but those deeds must still be evaluated on the merits.
What Obama’s detractors cannot credibly claim is that those accomplishments do not exist. By now, the list is probably familiar to many observers: the president’s Recovery Act rescued the country from the Great Recession. His Affordable Care Act brought access to medical care to millions of families. Obama rescued the American auto industry, brought new safeguards to Wall Street, overhauled the student loan system, and vastly expanded LGBT rights.
He improved food safety, consumer protections, and national-service opportunities. He signed the New START treaty, ordered the mission that killed Osama bin Laden, reversed a failed U.S. policy towards Cuba, and used the Clean Air Act to make strides in addressing the climate crisis. He brought new hope to 5 million immigrants living in the United States, moved the federal judiciary in a more progressive direction, and helped restore America’s standing on the global stage.
The list goes on and on.
Yglesias is right that neither Clinton nor Bush can point to a similar litany of policy breakthroughs, but truth be told, very few presidents can. Note than when Paul Krugman praised Obama in his Rolling Stone cover story a couple of months ago, he used two distinct adjectives: “Obama has emerged as one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history.”
All of this comes with two meaningful caveats. The first, as noted above, is that being “consequential” is not evidence of an a priori good. One can acknowledge a president’s accomplishments without liking them (or him). Tom Brady may be a consequential quarterback, but if you’re a Dolphins fan, you’re probably not impressed.
The second is that there’s a degree of fragility to some of this record. Next year, for example, Republicans on the Supreme Court may very well tear down the American health care system. In time, they may also derail Obama’s climate agenda. Congressional Republicans will spend the foreseeable future chipping away at everything from immigration progress to Wall Street safeguards. And if the nation elects a GOP successor for Obama, the next president may very well undo much of what this president has done.
But at least for now, we probably won’t see any columns about Obama similar to what George Will said in 1999.