During his eight years in office, Bloomberg View has published hundreds of columns about President Obama, critiquing his policies, assessing his successes and analyzing his failures. As he delivers his parting shots this evening in a farewell address, our columnists are returning the favor, remarking on things they will miss, others they will not, and moments that have left a mark no matter what you think of him or his administration.
The cost-benefit president
What I will most miss about President Obama is his staggering capacity to evaluate trade-offs — to identify the multiple effects of competing courses of action before making a decision. Insisting on evidence, objectivity and counterarguments, he was the cost-benefit president.
Obama’s attention to trade-offs was on clear display during the Great Recession, where he undertook bold action and prevented a depression, even as he calmly resisted the left’s calls for nationalizing banks and jailing bankers. In the domain of regulation, he declared that the benefits of rules must exceed the costs, not because politics can be reduced to arithmetic, but because officials need to focus, every hour of every day, on the human consequences of what they do.
Because of that focus, Obama improved the lives of many millions of people — rich, poor and everywhere in between, in the U.S. and abroad. If most of them will never know how much he helped them, well, that’s unimportant; what matters is that he did so.
The love affair between our nation’s commentariat and Barack Obama has given us a decade of sidelong glances, fierce blushes, extravagant praise. Fundamentally, he is simply one of us: bookish, possessed of middling-high technocratic ideals, fonder of clean ideas on paper than of the sordid business of making them reality.
This has been his great strength as president: He ran an administration on evidence and principle, unplagued by major scandals. This academic approach has also been his great weakness, because the engine of democracy does not really run on ideas. It works by the kinds of relationships that breed scandal. Obama managed to get by without those, ultimately retreating to executive rulemaking and, more than occasionally, a petulant resentment of the plebs who didn’t appreciate his magnificent logic. And in part because of that, he bequeaths the presidency to a man who may undo basically everything the Obama approach achieved.
Ferocious about free speech
Like his predecessor George W. Bush, Obama inspired a derangement syndrome in opponents. To many, he couldn’t just be wrong. He had to be illegitimate, of consistently bad character and motives, and not entirely human.
It’s all the more impressive, then, that Obama broke with much of his base to speak eloquently and repeatedly in favor of freedom of speech on college campuses and that he did so not with a legalistic First Amendment argument but an appeal to the ideals of liberal inquiry and practical democracy. He told students to listen to, learn from, and argue with those with whom they disagree rather than trying to shut them down. It’s a message that now more than ever his admirers — and his detractors — need to hear.
Two hallmarks of President Obama’s have been the caricature of his opponents’ views and the denial that anyone can disagree with him in good faith.
Thus he claims that only “ideology” and “politics” keep Republicans from working with him to spend more money on Obamacare. He says that everybody knows how to solve the problems of Baltimore and other distressed urban communities, but some of us just aren’t willing to help.
He suggests that critics of his Iran policy don’t like diplomacy. He tells us, as if anyone disagrees, that “U.S. military action cannot be the only — or even primary — component of our leadership in every instance.”
He inveighs against “a philosophy that says every problem can be solved if only government would step out of the way; that if government were just dismantled, divvied up into tax breaks, and handed out to the wealthiest among us, it would somehow benefit us all.” He even makes up stories about the Republicans’ supposed spurning of his efforts to court them on the stimulus.
There may be some things I will miss about this presidency during the Donald Trump administration. This kind of self-righteous dishonesty won’t be one of them.
That 21st-century bridge
Bill Clinton once promised a “bridge to the 21st century.” Obama built it. He built it with policies, from the biggest advance in public health since the advent of Medicare. And he built it, more subtly but perhaps more consequentially, by his insistence on the nature of America and its vast and rickety promises.
Obama expanded American history to include those left out without glossing over their sacrifice. He cast the fraught American present as prelude to better days — if only we have the patience to build, sometimes by the smallest increments, a more perfect union. For evidence of history’s generous arc, he offered himself.
That idealized America will suffer as the Trump reaction takes hold. But it won’t be destroyed. As Obamacare opponents in Congress are learning, when Obama built the bridge, millions of Americans began crossing.
Russian ignorance triumphant
I liked Obama because he was hated by people I hated — the ones who, for the president’s birthday, projected an image of him with a banana in his mouth onto the facade of the U.S. embassy in Moscow. Fans of Russian President Vladimir Putin were openly contemptuous of Obama, and yes, race had a lot to do with it. Against that background, Obama was at ease with himself, eloquent, statesmanlike. And yet he ended up losing to Putin everywhere they came head to head — in Ukraine, where Obama’s sanctions failed to deter Putin, in Syria, where Russia unceremoniously shunted the U.S. aside, and even in the U.S. itself, if Russian interference in the last election was as important as many say. I’m not sorry to see Obama go — I’m sorry he failed to do more to shame his ignorant Russian detractors.
The Syria promise
I will always remember Aug. 18, 2011, as Obama’s iconic moment. That’s when he finally took a bold stand on Syria. For months the president had condemned Syria’s dictator, and at last Obama called on him to step aside. He announced sanctions. He called out Bashar Assad for “imprisoning, torturing and slaughtering his own people.”
But Obama in that moment also hinted at the limits to what he would do. He said the Syrian people have expressed “their strong desire that there not be foreign intervention in their movement.” But he said he would support their desire for a democratic future. With five years’ cruel hindsight, we know this promise would be unfulfilled. Assad has quashed the democratic spasm that nearly toppled him. Iran and Russia proved they are fully committed to his side of the fight. Obama proved he would bear witness to Assad’s atrocities, but not stop them.
Learning to love the bomb
What I will miss most about Obama is his hypocrisy. I don’t mean that as an insult. On any number of issues — from closing Guantanamo Bay to shutting down the government-lobbyist revolving door — the impossibly idealistic candidate of 2008 got mugged by reality while in office, and often responded with smart, pragmatic choices. The one that stands out to me, as a national-security wonk, was his kick-starting a $1 trillion modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. I don’t agree with every step — we don’t need to refurbish all our Cold War-era intercontinental ballistic missiles, for example. But it was an astonishing turnaround for a guy who came into office fresh off a Nobel Prize for his naive vision of a world without nukes. For the nonproliferation movement, this was a sellout. For me, it was a triumph of good judgment.
He kept things in perspective
He didn’t much care for the present. That’s how I’ll remember Obama. In his worldview, early 2009 was a good time to buy stocks: The world was in the grip of the financial crisis, but he was (correctly) anticipating the recovery. As unemployment was peaking later that year, one of his top priorities was expanding health care coverage — a long-term investment for the American people, but not the most pressing issue for many voters. He kept things in perspective. In October 2014, as some cases of Ebola appeared in the U.S., Obama saw beyond the panicked headlines and urged people not to give in to hysteria. He called the jihadists of Islamic State the JV team. This perspective is what Americans loved and hated about him. He was focused on the world that we should have, that we would have — sometimes at the expense of seeing the world we did have.
A president like me
I get why a guy named Barack Hussein Obama seemed foreign to many Americans. But for me he was so familiar. I could have gone to college with that guy! In fact, I did go to college with his wife (I was two years behind her, and didn’t know her), and with several people who went to law school with him. He was one of us — us being Americans of late-baby-boom and early-Gen-X vintage, middle-classish backgrounds, impressive educational credentials and technocratic political leanings who pay through the nose to live in walkable neighborhoods (the Obamas found a clever way out of that for eight years) and obsess over our children’s schooling. We’re mostly good people — patriotic, civic-minded, taxpaying, well-informed, capable of separating plastics from metals from paper. I’m less sure than ever that we’re really suited to politics, though.
The competent steward
Obama was the greatest president of my lifetime. That’s a dramatic claim, but I think the facts back it up. He steered us through the Great Recession, making difficult but unpopular choices on bailouts and temporary deficits. He enacted sweeping financial regulation and health care reform that, while not without problems, look like improvements over what came before. He killed Osama bin Laden and ended the war in Iraq, increasing U.S. prestige from the lows of the George W. Bush years. And he pushed for positive social change on issues like policing reform and marijuana decriminalization. But despite his competence in the moment, Obama was unable to define a truly new direction for American liberalism, to halt America’s decline in relative power or to stem the flood of ennui and anger that led to the election of Trump. I’ll miss him greatly, but Democrats need to move beyond the Obama era.
I’ll miss his humor. Like Abraham Lincoln, Obama could tell a good joke. But if humor for Lincoln rested on self-deprecation, for Obama it was about precise timing, deadpan expressions, and a distance from the laughter he provoked. At times, this seemed too cerebral, too detached. But looking back, it makes more sense. Indeed, Obama was at his most amusing when weighed down by deliberations of the most grave and dark nature, most famously when he ordered bin Laden’s killing hours before the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2011. Obama’s preternatural powers of self-control bred this paradoxical mix of gravity and levity. As we welcome a new president who is impulsive, superficial, and not especially funny — and who sought elected office after the comedic drubbing Obama administered at that now famous dinner — we will soon realize what we’ve lost.
Policy chops to spare
As someone who has a professional obligation to listen to politicians, I appreciated Obama’s rare ability to speak off the cuff about serious policy questions. Of the last five presidents, only Obama, Bill Clinton, and George H.W. Bush did it regularly, and Bush’s odd relationship with the English language means he didn’t really count. Trump, of course, won’t. And, yes, given that Obama repeatedly demonstrated his policy chops, it was especially infuriating that Republicans hinted or even claimed outright (in teleprompter jokes and demands to see his grades) that he was stupid.
Ability to speak coherently about policy is hardly the most important thing for a president to master; Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon were both failed presidents who did it. But it’s nice, anyway, and I’m going to miss it.
Hostage to Trump
Remember what Zhou Enlai reputedly said when asked about the French Revolution? “It is too soon to say.”
I expect Obama’s legacy will be determined by the performance of his successor, whether he likes it or not. If Trump’s foreign policy leads to a continuing erosion of America’s role on the world stage, there will be a narrative arc of Bush-Obama-Trump and a decline of American global influence, starting with the failures of the second Iraq war. If Trump somehow revitalizes America’s influence on other countries, Obama’s partial retreat won’t be seen as very significant, and his legacy will be as America’s first black president.
If the Trump years see continued economic recovery, Obama will be part of that story too. I think Obamacare will be part of a narrative of a long slog, but Obama won’t be seen as the person who solved it all.
It must be frustrating.
Without Obama’s determined leadership, I am not certain the U.S. and the global economy would have averted a multiyear depression that would have devastated the well-being of both current and future generations. His balanced analytical approach — along with his calmness, dignity and intellect — served as important anchors at a time of unusual fluidity for the world. The U.S. economy created 15 million jobs during the Obama recovery, significantly outperforming other advanced economies. The impact of his legacy will continuously grow, as will appreciation for what he has accomplished and how he has done so. I just wish he had inherited a less-troubling economy and a less-dysfunctional Congress.
Mohamed A. El-Erian
He never showed up
I never understood how a person who could communicate so effectively during a campaign was unable to carry that over to when he was actually in office. The messaging from President Obama was missing in action. It was shocking in comparison to candidate Obama.
Bitter lesson on race
Obama wished, in racial matters, to be colorblind and, like many others, I wanted him to succeed. Indeed, the election of the son of a Kenyan Muslim as America’s first black president seemed to herald universally a new age of racial equality. One of the tragedies of Obama’s second term was the devastation of his wishes and our hopes.
One atrocity after another forced Obama to confront the structural racial inequality at the heart of American democracy. I find it ironic — and depressing — that his finest moment as president came in 2015 as he sang “Amazing Grace” at the site of a massacre of African-Americans.
I will remember Obama above all for pushing against a long and tormented history of race relations — and for being a noble failure. Perhaps, as he moves out of the White House and the preferred candidate of white supremacists moves in, we should try to learn, however bitterly, why history continues to push back.
In 2004, I doubted that a fearful America could elect a black president whose name rhymed with Osama. When they did, people around the world rejoiced that American ideals and basic decency seemed to be intact. Of course, Obama’s audacity of hope soon crashed against the banality of politics, and even supporters have been disappointed that he couldn’t go further in removing private profit from health care or in tackling climate change.
Even so, Obamacare extended health insurance coverage to tens of millions, and the Paris Agreement on climate change — though it may be inadequate — is the best the world has achieved so far.
Obama is ultimately a hero to anyone who still believes that reality matters, and that presidents should try their level best to make policies that help the nation and all its people. We will soon look back on his honorable example with great fondness.
The other is Ronald Reagan
Obama, in my almost half-century in Washington, is one of two significant presidents. The other is Ronald Reagan.
He gave us cerebral intelligence along with profound poise when the nation needed it most — it’s still emotional to watch him sing “Amazing Grace” at the Charleston, S.C., memorial service. Both powers came bound up in an intrinsic sense of self that inspired a generation of young voters and people of color. As president, he was a personal exemplar and ran an honest administration that helped rescue the economy and bring health care to millions. Parts of his national security were too passive, and the red line on Syria was a disaster. Critics, including me, saw him as too aloof with Congress. Then again, the old Lyndon Johnson-style cajoling isn’t possible today. A half century from now, he will be among just a few presidents that our grandchildren will be celebrating with their children.
Albert R. Hunt