Barack Obama is not a modest man, but when it comes to assessing his or any president’s place in the long American story, he has been heard to say, “We just try to get our paragraph right.” Yet the way a raft of recent events have broken sharply in his favor, Obama suddenly seems well on his way to writing a whole page—or at least a big, fat passage—in the history books.
From the Supreme Court decisions upholding his signature health care plan and the right of gay Americans to marry, to contested passage of fast track trade authority, the opening of normal diplomatic relations with Cuba and an international agreement to curtail Iran’s nuclear weapons program, Obama is on a policy and political roll that would have seem unimaginable to many in Washington only a few months ago.
“Obama may be singular as a president, not only because of his striking background,” says Kenneth Adelman, who was Ronald Reagan’s arms control negotiator with the Soviets three decades ago, and who has his doubts about the Iran deal. “It may turn out that unlike virtually any other president, his second term is actually better than his first.”
Rallying his cabinet in January in the wake of the Democratic Party’s decisive defeat in last fall’s midterm elections, Obama himself maintained, “Interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter.” This president has always been something of a clutch player, but his command of recent events—from his soaring eulogy for the victims of the Charleston church massacre, to his commutation of more sentences for non-violent criminal offenders than any president since Franklin Roosevelt—goes a good way toward proving the prescience of his words.
For much of the last five years, it had seemed Obama’s peculiar misfortune that the biggest achievement of his time in office—the adoption of his health care plan—might also prove his biggest defeat, because of the bitter and unyielding political and legal backlash unleashed by its narrow passage on a strict partisan vote.
Simultaneously, Obama’s ability to take decisive unilateral action on foreign policy—often a source of succor and satisfaction to second-term presidents—seemed highly limited, if only because he remained saddled with the ugly aftermath of the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the rise of the ISIL threat.
Not so long ago, much of the chattering class was reading the last rites over the Obama administration, and turning to the 2016 election as a test of whether anything would be left of the president’s legacy if a Republican succeeded him. That’s still an open question, of course. But the Court’s recent rulings and Obama’s own seemingly unplugged and swing-for-the-fences attitude on questions from race to criminal justice has given his presidency a sharply re-invigorated viability and relevance.
“It’s an unfinished chapter,” says presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, who is writing a new biography of Gerald Ford. “But he has already defied the second-term curse and the wisdom of just six months ago. ‘What can a president do if he doesn’t have either house of Congress?’ Well, guess what, he can reverse a 50, 60-year-old policy toward Cuba. But, more than that, he can still, even without the traditional televised Oval Office version of the bully pulpit, to a large degree set the terms of the national debate.”
The president’s very demeanor in his White House news conference on Thursday bespoke a renewed intensity and determination to make the most of the time he has left. Much of the time, he fielded questions in a relaxed posture, leaning on the lectern with one elbow, but some of his answers were emphatic bordering on brusque. As the session wound down, he canvassed the East Room for more questions about the Iran agreement with a kind of “Hit-me-with-your-best-shot” bravado, as if to show how important he believes it to be. With a blithe air that belied the seriousness of the issue, he quoted that noted diplomat Ricky Ricardo to say that if Iran mined more uranium than it was supposed to, “They got some ‘splainin’ to do.”
“It is a measure of the times in which we live that we start the legacy discussion a year and a half before the end of a presidency,” says David Axelrod, Obama’s former longtime strategist. “But he’s had the most productive period he’s enjoyed since the first two years: Cuba, the climate agreement with China, action on immigration, fast track on trade, the SCOTUS decisions on health care and marriage and now this agreement on Iran. These are big, historically significant developments, in most cases the culmination of years of commitment on his part.”
Obama himself said he hoped Congress would debate the Iran agreement on the facts and the merits, but added, “We live in Washington and politics do intrude.” The sharp and instantaneous denunciation of the president’s comments by Republicans was a sure sign of the parallel universes that constitute American politics these days. Former Gov. Rick Perry of Texas said on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show that Obama was a “very, very naïve man,” who “cannot put the dots together,” while Glenn Beck’s daily email newsletter subject line was, “Obama continues to destroy the country.”
The Republicans are not the only obstacle that Obama faces. He won his fast track Asian trade authority with largely Republican support, and the Iran agreement has stirred significant Democratic skepticism, among even the party’s leaders in Congress. If the Greek financial crisis engulfs Europe and spreads to Wall Street, there is no telling what the American economy might look like when Obama leaves office in 18 months.
By definition, the success or failure of the Iran agreement will not be known until long after Obama has left office, and critics like Adelman worry that even if Iran cheats on its obligations, international sanctions will never be re-imposed, because violations will be so hard to prove and the global investment in Iran will be so entrenched that it cannot be unwound.
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