Who in American politics is having a better year than Barack Obama? At this point in his second term, he has a better approval rating than every post-war president except Bill Clinton and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
It’s easy to see why Clinton and Eisenhower were popular. Despite his scandals, Clinton was a gifted politician who presided over a stunning tech-driven boom. Eisenhower was a war hero who ended large-scale combat in Korea and governed through years of peaceful economic growth. At the end of both presidencies, most Americans could unequivocally declare that they were better off than they’d been eight years before.
But what about Obama? Economic growth in the last eight years lags behind post-war averages. So does GDP growth. So does job growth. Debt has grown more as a percentage of GDP, and for most of Obama’s two terms, median income has actually fallen. His signature domestic achievement — Obamacare — is unraveling before our eyes. His domestic record is far from the worst. But it’s not close to the best, either.
His foreign policy, meanwhile, has been nothing short of a disaster. Every American enemy is stronger than when he took office. Jihadists hold more territory now than they did before, and they strike allied cities across the world. Russia invaded the Ukraine and continues to advance its interests at the West’s expense. China is growing increasingly aggressive. The winner of the Nobel Peace Prize has put American troops back in harm’s way in Iraq and has engaged American forces in combat in more countries than that nasty neocon warmonger George W. Bush ever did.
Political judgments, however, aren’t made in a vacuum. They’re always a matter of contrasts. And Obama has enjoyed the enormous good fortune to be followed onto the scene by two of the most-disliked American politicians in modern political history. On virtually every score, he seems preferable to either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.
Sure, he botched the Middle East and squandered victory in Iraq, but he did it because of his ideology, without even a hint of suspicion that the king of Morocco or oil-soaked gulf sheiks were re-writing American foreign policy with gifts to a family charity.
Yes, he may have “joked” about auditing his enemies, and his minions may have urged Democrats to “punch back twice as hard,” but the 2016 race features Trump’s carnival of juvenile playground insults, not to mention all too many actual punches.
Yes, he may have violated his pledge to create the most transparent administration in history, but at least he didn’t create a private, unsecured server on which to discuss the most highly classified information. Hillary was transparent to Russia and China for the sake of being opaque to Americans. She feared FOIA more than she valued our nation’s secrets.
#related#The Obama administration has its share of scandals — the IRS’s targeting of tea-party groups is still one of the worst examples of executive abuse in modern American political history — but his White House has been mercifully grope-free. Trump puts the “T” in tawdry, and Americans know that another round of Bill in the White House means another round of philandering smoke (at best) and fire (at worst), with our popular culture further debased by the leaders of the political “elite.”
It would be hard for Obama not to look better to American voters. He’s made mistakes; if Clinton was any ordinary American, she’d be indicted. His intellect is overstated; Trump’s ignorance is bulletproof. At a time when American politics keeps lowering the bar, bad politicians become better politicians merely by being themselves.
So Obama is about to leave office on a high note, perhaps even with higher approval ratings than Ronald Reagan. But he didn’t build that approval rating. His successors did.