It is remarkable that President Barack Obama achieved as much as he did, considering that his presidency began under threat from the opposition to shut him down at every opportunity and make him a one-term president. His opponents failed, but that doesn't necessarily mean Obama succeeded.
There's no telling how Obama's legacy might have fared had an atmosphere of bipartisan cooperation prevailed. In our grade book, the outgoing president gets an A for perseverance, a solid B-plus for economic management and another A for good conduct. But he leaves office with conspicuous incompletes on foreign affairs and overall leadership courage.
Far too often, the president's admirable self-restraint gave him the public image of someone who hunkered down in the face of blatant partisan bullying. He should have fought back harder instead of allowing his office to become a political punching bag.
Some of Obama's most measurable successes came during his first two years in office when Democrats, controlling both the House and Senate, pushed through a sweeping legislative agenda that included his $787 billion economic stimulus plan. America was at a low point when Obama took office in 2009, immersed in a banking crisis and teetering on economic collapse. Poverty and unemployment were rising, and home foreclosures skyrocketing. Auto manufacturing was at the brink of collapse, and a meager 13 percent of Americans thought the country was moving in the right direction.
The outlook was similarly bleak abroad. U.S. forces were exiting Iraq exhausted and far from victorious. Afghanistan was a mess — and remains one now. In a Pew poll spanning 19 countries, two-thirds of respondents had a negative view of America. The energetic president, then 47, promised an activist foreign policy that he believed would refurbish the nation's image, especially in the Muslim world, and bring U.S. troops home.
His ambitions included outreach to Iran, better relations with Russia, and winning Chinese cooperation on regional and global issues. He also planned to broker peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Bold and audacious, yes. Not all went according to plan.
The GOP asserts otherwise, but the president has had remarkable success with his economic strategy. U.S. businesses added 15.6 million jobs, and the unemployment level dropped to 4.6 percent as of November — down from a peak of 10 percent in 2009. The stock market is at record highs. Petroleum imports are down. Median household income is up. Corporate profits are way up.
Yet a national malaise persists and played a big role in the election of his Republican successor, Donald Trump. Obama made things better, but apparently not good enough.
In foreign affairs, he restored diplomatic ties to Cuba and negotiated a landmark nuclear deal with Iran. But Islamic State terrorists gained a solid foothold across Iraq and Syria. A point of notable failure was Obama's response to Syria's civil war. He declared a red line on the use of chemical weapons, yet when Bashar Assad's government deployed them to fend off insurgent advances, Obama took no military action.
Obama lost an opportunity to impose a no-fly zone over Syria. Russia seized the opening and backed a brutal government assault that, in December, crushed the Syrian resistance in its main holdout city, Aleppo. A humanitarian disaster persists.
Terrorism spiked. A wave of humanity swarmed Europe, including hundreds of thousands of migrants from conflict zones. European governments struggled to maintain order. An anti-immigrant backlash followed, contributing heavily to Britain's decision to leave the European Union.
Much of what transpired was in the works well before Obama reached office, but it was on his watch that things fell apart.
Back at home, Obama's signature health care policy, the Affordable Care Act of 2010, had a disastrous launch but emerged on the plus side of our ledger. Obama acknowledged recently on "60 Minutes" that the online launch "was clearly a management failure," causing the program to lose crucial momentum.
Still, 20 million Americans gained health care coverage, including those with pre-existing medical conditions. Dependents gained the right to remain on their parents' insurance plan to age 26. Republicans have assailed the program since its inception, but it drove the percentage of Americans without insurance to a record low 9.1 percent in 2015. The fact that Trump and the congressional GOP leadership are working hard to preserve Obamacare's principal features is testament to the program's success.
Obama also concedes that he has not come close to achieving one of his foremost goals — reducing the strain of partisanship that is ripping the country apart. Some of the divisions no doubt are racial, but Obama's personality also played a role.
He hasn't been much of a salesman. His cool and calm demeanor often worked to his disadvantage. He's a tremendous campaigner and an impassioned speaker whose soaring rhetoric inspires Americans. He and his family have been dignified and graceful occupants of the White House. Their popularity remains high.
At the same time, Obama has been aloof and cerebral. He's been accused of talking down to people. He didn't appear at ease with congressional politics and failed to hammer home points about how his plans and policies were improving the lives of his fellow citizens.
He was too kind to Republican obstructionists and failed to make Americans understand what his own party stands for. America's white working class didn't see themselves fitting under Obama's big tent, which became apparent when the election results came in on Nov. 8. Instead of criticizing the president so heavily, Trump should be thanking Obama for helping put the White House within the controversial billionaire's reach.
REPRINTED FROM THE ST LOUIS POST DISPATCH