Friday, July 31, 2009

Politics: Will There Be an Obama Legacy?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - It is still quite early in the Obama administration--barely six months have passed since he was sworn in to office as President of the United States--but one thing has become increasingly clear to me. So far, no lasting legislation that will lead to an "Obama legacy" has been passed, and with his legislative priorities conceivably to be thwarted by Republicans and "blue dog" conservative Democrats, a distinct possibility seems to be emerging that there might not be one.

For good reason, most of President Barack Obama's attention has been focused in the early days of his presidency on economic matters. His landmark achievement to date has been the passage of a substantial stimulus package. However, this stimulus package will not have a long-term legacy, since most of its spending takes place in 2010 and then ends. In fact, the only way it will have a long-term legacy is if Republican spinmeisters succeed in pinning the entire national debt on the Obama stimulus. Republicans have for years tried to dodge the reality that the national debt ballooned under the Reagan administration and that the Clinton administration had been the most fiscally prudent in my lifetime, but Obama has now given them the opportunity to place all fiscal blame on the Democrats.

The president's foremost other domestic initiative, health insurance reform (I actually find the administration's re-phrasing from "health care reform" to accurately reflect what they are trying to do, whether it was crafted as spin or not) did not appear to be headed for a passable consensus before the summer recess started. A distinct possibility exists that nothing will pass, or that reforms that do pass will not have a significant impact on the functioning of the health care system for those who are currently not well-served by it. (See Nate Silver's analysis for details.)

Meanwhile, the nation's foreign policy has changed little since the previous administration. Grumblings in the editorial pages throughout Latin America are complaining that Barack Obama hasn't changed their realities, that the United States continues to be a cultural beacon, but not helpful to them politically, and the war in Afghanistan has intensified.

In his early days with a Democrat-controlled house and senate, President Clinton passed the Family and Medical Leave Act. The North American Free Trade Agreement, the Brady Bill, and later welfare reform were all elements that clearly help to create a positive legislative legacy for Clinton. President George H.W. Bush left the Americans with Disabilities Act and the re-authorization of the Clean Air Act as positive parts of his legacy. Most presidents have been able to start their legacies in a first or single term.

The very election of a multi-racial individual as President of the United States, and Barack Obama's demeanor in office (admitting mistakes, emphasizing consensus) will of course be legacies in themselves. It matters to the rest of the world that someone other than a white person could be elected to the presidency, and that the US president uses a rhetoric of respect in dealing with other nations instead of arrogance. However, in my opinion, it would be a shame if that proves to be the only legacy of the Obama administration, and I'm starting to wonder if it will be.

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