Advice to Obama: Save Your Legacy


Barack Obama is on track to become remembered as another Jimmy Carter. Which is OK, in a sense. I thought Jimmy Carter was a good man, and a better president than he got credit for. He was just weak. Not as weak as the contrast with Reagan made him seem, and in some ways much better for the country than Reagan was. But weak in appearance, and therefore in power. And in a president, that’s fatal.

So now we have Barack Obama, giving us a new demonstration of Carter-style MEOW (Moral Equivalent of War) leadership. He’s not a fighter. He keeps talking compromise when what he means is surrender. Maybe that’s why we didn’t want him bowing down to the Chinese leader. It was just a bow, in itself no worse than a sneeze. But the fact that a president would do it — that was the worrisome part. It was like an advance peek into ineffectuality. You can’t stand tall if you’re bending over.

Month after month, Obama demonstrates that he is just not into this president thing. Again, he’s not alone in that. Bush was the same, with his busy vacation schedule and My Pet Goat and the impression that Dick Cheney was pulling the strings. But the Bush Administration was somehow able to get things done nonetheless — again, as with Reagan, often to the country’s detriment — and the Obama Administration just isn’t.

One thing Carter did well was to remain a good man after leaving office. Leading Habitat for Humanity isn’t quite on a par with leading the free world. Yet in a way, that was exactly the point. Ultimately, Carter was not a glory hound. Like Bill Clinton, and in some ways like Richard Nixon, but largely unlike Reagan and the Bushes, Jimmy Carter stayed in the game long after the sun set on his presidency. He has been an active and often highly visible humanitarian on multiple fronts — not only in Habitat, but also on any number of peacekeeping missions and other activities over the years.

In the 2008 election, Barack Obama was great at giving speeches and getting people excited about change and hope. That game won’t go the same way, the second time around. He cried wolf, and now we know he didn’t mean it.

At best, the U.S. economy is headed toward another unpleasant winter, with avoidable deaths for thousands who are cold, hungry, and sick. At worst, as I warned during the early months of the Great Recession, one bad winter could take us back to the Great Depression in earnest. We are almost at the point where we desperately need a great leader, and Obama is not it. He just doesn’t have the fire and determination.

What Obama might have the ability to do, however, is to decide on some objectives that will be good for the country even if they are bad for his re-election. Unfortunately, it is beginning to seem optimistic to think that he might actually listen to his own party and get serious about jobs and other social needs. As a second-best, if he wants to continue to be essentially a moderate Republican president, he could at least make himself known, like Fed chairman Paul Volcker in the early 1980s, as the man who decided on something that had to be done, and did it. Volcker gave us severe recession in order to defeat inflation. Volcker stood firm and won that battle. As a result, he has been respected for a generation.

I am pessimistic that Obama can do anything like that. But not completely pessimistic. Sometimes it is easier to focus on an objective and pursue it doggedly. Having already used up much of his political capital, he may find that he really has very little to lose by becoming, for example, the president who finally began to reform Social Security or the military-industrial complex.

When I recommend that he save his legacy, I mean that now would be a good time to start laying the groundwork for his career after the presidency. He has undoubtedly meant well, in his emphasis upon political cooperation and, where feasible, consensus. Those are admirable objectives for a different America, past or future.

The mission at hand, as recommended here, is to move away from mere speechifying and complaining, and find a way to make consensus concretely appealing and meaningful in the long run. There is, perhaps, one issue — Social Security, defense spending, or something else — where Obama can commit and position himself for a deep struggle, continuing long after 2012.

I hope Barack Obama will choose such a target, choose it well, and pursue it effectively. I hope this positions him as an excellent vice president with portfolio on Hillary Clinton’s 2012 ticket — not because she is the greatest, but because she has proven competence.

Done properly, this sort of transition could give Obama a long and admirable career in the future, doing Jimmy Carter one better. Worse things could be said about former president Obama than that he was not only a mediocre president, and a good man, but also a great success with respect to his chosen issue.


2 Responses to “Advice to Obama: Save Your Legacy”

  1. This presidency really has turned out to be such a disappointment, almost from day one. I agree very much with your article: Obama, like Carter, is a highly educated, very intelligent, compassionate man, but seems to lack the grit and power to be a true leader of such a weird, diverse country. But I also wonder a little at the collision between the interweb, the economy and the state of education. I wonder if perhaps our society has reached a super critical point that plays into this; the failures may not be entirely his doing. The next decade or so may be telling; we may have reached an important point in our history. People in 2120 may look back on this era as “when the wheels began to fall off the cart.”

  2. Another post updates this comment on Democratic ineffectuality, offering an explanation for Hillary Clinton’s failure to win the 2016 election.

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