President Barack Obama speaks at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., Dec. 6, 2016.
Photo by Monica Herndon/Tampa Bay Times/Pool/AP

A presidential giant exits the stage

Presidents are often judged by a historical shorthand that highlights their most historic achievements. Abraham Lincoln, for example, won the Civil War and signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Franklin Roosvelet created the New Deal, rescued the country from the Great Depression, created Social Security, and won World War II.

These are the kinds of successes that put a president in the pantheon of American leaders of legendary consequence.

The Rachel Maddow Show, 1/19/17, 11:13 PM ET

Barack Obama departs with legacy of accomplishment

Rachel Maddow runs through the litany of extraordinary accomplishments that mark Barack Obama’s presidential legacy as he prepares to leave office.
Rachel Maddow runs through the litany of extraordinary accomplishments that mark Barack Obama’s presidential legacy as he prepares to leave office.
As President Obama becomes former President Obama, the debate can now begin in earnest about his tenure. When that historical shorthand is applied to his terms, what will it include? How will it compare to those who came before him?

I’m reminded of a piece Paul Krugman wrote in the fall of 2014, a month before the GOP took complete control of Congress, when Obama’s standing wasn’t nearly as strong as it is now.
…Obama faces trash talk left, right and center – literally – and doesn’t deserve it. Despite bitter opposition, despite having come close to self-inflicted disaster, Obama has emerged as one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history. […]

This is what a successful presidency looks like. No president gets to do everything his supporters expected him to. FDR left behind a reformed nation, but one in which the wealthy retained a lot of power and privilege. On the other side, for all his anti-government rhetoric, Reagan left the core institutions of the New Deal and the Great Society in place. I don’t care about the fact that Obama hasn’t lived up to the golden dreams of 2008, and I care even less about his approval rating. I do care that he has, when all is said and done, achieved a lot. That is, as Joe Biden didn’t quite say, a big deal.
My friends at the Washington Monthly recently published a list of Obama’s top accomplishments and it’s a pretty extraordinary inventory of one of the most successful presidents of modern times. Rachel had a related segment last night, and watching the list of historic breakthroughs, it’s hard not to notice that Obama exits the stage as the most accomplished president, of either party, since FDR.

The political world often has a short memory, but when Obama took office, the crises seemed overwhelming. A global economic crash had sent the economy into free fall. The nation was mired in two costly wars. The domestic auto industry was on the verge of collapse. America’s international standing was in the trash. Much of the country felt hopeless and desperate.

Eight years later, the Democrat leaves the White House as the leader who rescued the economy, brought health security to tens of millions, saved the auto industry, imposed new safeguards and layers of accountability on Wall Street, expanded civil rights, brought U.S. troops home, brought justice to Osama bin Laden while preventing major terrorist attacks, and scored major foreign-policy victories in Iran and Cuba – to name just a few of Obama’s more notable accomplishments.

He did all of this without any scandals and while facing unprecedented obstructionism from a radicalized Republican Party.

In June 2015, Obama told the New Yorker’s David Remnick, “[A]t the end of the day, we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.” After eight years, it appears his paragraph has few modern rivals.