Politics & Policy

How Obama Transformed America

President Obama addresses the Democratic National Convention, July 27, 2016. (Reuters photo: Mike Segar)
The presidency of Barack Obama brought America the presidency of Donald Trump.

Any summation of Barack Obama’s impact on domestic policy and politics should begin with this: In 2008, he assured supporters, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” Soon he will be replaced by someone who says, “I alone can fix it.” So, Americans have paid Obama the compliment of choosing continuity, if only in presidential narcissism.

 

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The nation has now had, for only the second time, three consecutive two-term presidencies. (The other was “the Virginia dynasty” of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe.) The first trio culminated in an “era of good feelings” (Monroe was reelected unopposed). The second not so much.

Obama, who called health-insurance reform the “defining struggle of this generation,” was semi-right, in two senses. Because Obamacare demonstrates the perils of trying to micromanage 18 percent of the economy (America’s health-care sector is larger than all but four national economies), it might be the last gasp of New Deal/Great Society–style government hubris.

On January 16, 2008, Obama told the Reno Gazette-Journal, “I want to make government cool again.” His paragraph in our national epic did not do that. On the other hand, Obama might have catalyzed a conviction already forming in the American mind, but in any case he leaves a nation that now believes public policy should enable everyone to have access to insurance.

Obama has been among the most loquacious of our presidents, but can you call to mind from his Niagara of rhetoric a memorable sentence or even phrase? If power is the ability to achieve intended effects, his rhetoric has been powerless to produce anything but an empty, inconsequential reputation for speaking well.

He assured congressional Democrats that they could safely vote for Obamacare because “you’ve got me.” He would demonstrate his magic when campaigning for it and for them. Seven years after he said this, it remains unpopular, and they are fewer than they were. There are eleven fewer senators and 62 fewer representatives than on January 20, 2009.

Obama seemed to believe there is an article in the Constitution that says presidents may make or amend laws that Congress will not make or amend.

Three presidents — George Washington, Ulysses Grant, and Dwight Eisenhower — were world figures before becoming president and are remembered primarily for what they did before. Eisenhower rebuffed his aides’ requests that he make more use of a new medium for marketing himself: “I can think of nothing more boring, for the American public, than to have to sit in their living rooms for a whole half-hour looking at my face on their television screens.” Eisenhower left office very popular.

A former colleague of Obama’s on the faculty of the University of Chicago Law School described him as someone who never learned anything from anyone with whom he disagreed. He also never learned anything from anyone about constitutional etiquette.

He combined progressivism’s oldest tradition and central tenet — hostility to the separation of powers — with a breezy indifference to the Take Care Clause (the president “shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed”) and to the first sentence of the Constitution’s first article (“All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress”).

He began pioneering new dimensions in presidential lawlessness when, taking over George W. Bush’s bailout of the automobile industry, he shredded the rights of secured Chrysler bondholders. He seemed to believe there is an article in the Constitution that says presidents may make or amend laws that Congress will not make or amend. Perhaps this is the mysterious Article XII that his successor has referred to.

Obama’s adventures in green energy produced the $535 million bankruptcy of Solyndra and 60 percent fewer electric cars on the road in 2015 than he had predicted. Gulliver on his travels met someone like Obama:

He has been eight years upon a project for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers, which were to be put in phials hermetically sealed, and let out to warm the air in raw inclement summers. He told me, he did not doubt, that, in eight years more, he should be able to supply the governor’s gardens with sunshine, at a reasonable rate: but he complained that his stock was low, and entreated me to give him something as an encouragement to ingenuity, especially since this had been a very dear season for cucumbers.

In 2007, Obama said, “Let us transform this nation.” Judging by the nature of his successor, Obama somewhat succeeded.

George Will — George Will is a Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist. His email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

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