Most Washington end-of-year analyses stressed the various failures that exemplified President Barack Obama’s fifth year in the White House. Politico noted correctly that he was hardly unique and that many of our greatest presidents had even worse fifth years.
After all, that was when President Franklin D. Roosevelt, savoring his 46-state re-election landslide, launched his ill-fated plan to expand the Supreme Court. It crippled his presidency until World War II enabled him to demonstrate anew the inspired leadership he had shown fighting the Great Depression.
As 2014 dawns, Obama will undoubtedly concentrate on the measures he hopes will ensure that his eight-year tenure, and his second term in particular, further cements his place in history, beyond becoming the first African-American president.
These five factors seem crucial:
The economy: Most commentaries hardly reflect it, but the economy has gained steadily, though sometimes slowly, since Obama policies like the much-derided 2009 stimulus program took hold and reversed the downward plunge he inherited. Despite criticism that he didn’t give priority to jobs, the stimulus bill was the first measure he proposed and the first one passed, limited in scale by the need to attract three Senate Republican votes.
Obama’s ultimate record will require continuation of that trend, especially progress in helping the chronically unemployed and those forced from the labor market during his first term. Any renewed recession would be politically disastrous, but none is in sight.
Successful implementation of the Affordable Care Act: This is Obama’s No. 1 initiative and his No. 1 problem. Considering its importance to his legacy and the complexity of any effort to solve the nation’s health care problems, the ineptness of Obama and his top aides in selling the program and creating the machinery to implement it has been inexplicable.
Additionally, the administration has had to cope with harassment by House GOP investigators and efforts to undercut the program by Republican governors. But the ultimate challenge will be the extent to which the program reduces the number of Americans without health care, especially those unable to get it because of illness, and whether it curbs costs.
Enactment of a major immigration bill: The one remaining major measure Obama hopes to enact has been stalled by partisan conflict over whether to provide a path to citizenship, as Democrats demand, or merely some sort of permanent legal status that would satisfy some Republicans.
Failure to pass a comprehensive measure poses problems for both parties with the growing millions of Hispanic voters. Democrats could suffer for failing to deliver on their promises to fix the situation and their extensive deportation of illegal immigrants, while Republicans face the handicap of resisting measures seen as helping Hispanics.
Freedom from major personal and political scandals: So far, GOP investigators led by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., have failed to make Watergate-level scandals out of the administration’s mishandling of security efforts in Benghazi and the bungled effort by IRS employees to target conservative groups. Rather, the probes have affirmed that so-called Washington scandals often primarily reflect incompetence.
Election of a Democratic successor: One sure way to strengthen a two-term presidency’s place in history is to create a positive political atmosphere that helps to elect a successor from the same party. Ronald Reagan’s success helped elect George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton’s economic record would have elected Al Gore, had he not been so lacking as a candidate.
Other factors may contribute to ultimate assessments of Obama; for example, his long-term standing would benefit from an agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program or a major Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. … But it seems likely that domestic events will continue to shape his record.
Finally, Obama’s standing could be affected by his handling of the kind of unexpected crises that can confront any president, like George W. Bush’s initially inept handling of Hurricane Katrina.
For the most part, historians tend to take a lesser view of those momentary events that attract short-term headlines, like the scandals involving some Harry Truman aides or Ronald Reagan’s occasionally inaccurate comments at news conferences.
Obama’s record will depend primarily on his handling of the big issues on his plate, and he’ll need to do a much better job on them in 2014 than in 2013.