What is the Obama legacy?
Academic historians discuss presidential legacies using several different measures—both positive and negative—but most of us see it in simpler terms. We remember a president’s most significant accomplishments many years after a president completes a final term and current-day criticism subsides.
President Obama established an enduring accomplishment on his first day in office when he became the Nation’s first African-American president. His next most prominent triumph, the Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare), may or may not be as enduring. Though most Americans consider universal healthcare to be an important objective, design, and execution of the law have been rocky, causing many Americans to demand repeal. A more likely scenario is that the law will undergo extensive redesign without repeal and will remain part of the Obama legacy.
The President’s next most prominent achievement is the nuclear agreement with Iran. Because the agreement is not a ratified treaty, future presidents may treat it like an ordinary executive order, and cancel it without the involvement of the Congress. A significant number of officials in both parties may press to annul the agreement if Iranian behavior remains at odds with American interests.
The final potential credit for the Obama agenda is his work on climate change. Obama’s actions in this area include EPA regulations to hamper fossil fuel usage and minor promises from China. Whether this work will become a long-term legacy accomplishment will depend on other factors, especially political acceptance or rejection of the need to counter climate change.
How do Obama’s accomplishments compare to the legacy of his predecessors?
President John F. Kennedy served less than three years before his assassination, but his legacy included history-making successes, such as:
- The Cuban Missile Crisis, forcing the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba, thereby halting communism in the Western Hemisphere.
- The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, signed by the Soviet Union, the UK, and the US.
- Establishment of the Peace Corps.
- Acceleration of the Space Race, inspiring the first manned moon landing years later.
- Forced integration of the University of Mississippi, motivating the Civil Rights Movement.
- The “New Frontier” domestic program, including the Civil Rights Act, signed by LBJ in 1964.
President Lyndon B. Johnson-Serving for only one term, along with the post-assassination year of JFK’s term, LBJ created the War On Poverty. The program created 11 separate laws, each designed to meet different objectives for people below the poverty line. They included:
- The Social Security Act 1965 which created Medicare and Medicaid
- The Food Stamp Act
- The Economic Opportunity Act
- The Community Action Program
- The Job Corps
- The Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program
- Elementary and Secondary Education Act
President Richard M. Nixon-Prior to Watergate and his resignation, Nixon’s successes in domestic and foreign affairs, included:
- Enforced desegregation of Southern schools.
- Legislation to reform healthcare and welfare.
- Established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
- Established Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
- Signed the Clean Air Act and National Environmental Policy Act.
- Ended US involvement in Vietnam through the Paris Peace Accords.
- Opened diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.
- Initiated détente with the Soviets, creating SALT I and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
President Gerald R. Ford-As an unelected interim president serving less than three years, President Ford’s administration had the following highlights:
- Granted a presidential pardon to President Nixon for Watergate, ending the crisis.
- Signed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, establishing Special Education.
- Signed the Helsinki Accords, marking a move toward détente in the Cold War.
- Officially ended US involvement in the Vietnam War following South Vietnam surrender.
President Jimmy Carter-Though his term included impediments like excessive inflation, and the Iranian Hostage crisis, President Carter’s legacy includes the following successes:
- Created the Department of Energy and the Department of Education.
- Established an energy policy including conservation, price control, and new technology.
- Initiated deregulation of the airline, trucking, rail, communications, and finance industries.
- Initiated the Camp David Accords, in which Israel, Jordan, and Egypt achieved détente.
- Initiated the Panama Canal Treaties.
- Initiated the second round of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT II).
President Ronald Reagan—Some historians call President Reagan a transformational president, based on both foreign affairs and domestic actions: His actions included the following:
- Positioned supply-side economics to control inflation.Spurred economic growth through tax cuts.
- Reduced business regulation.
- Reduced growth in government spending.
- Created the bipartisan Economic Recovery Tax Act that significantly lowered taxes.
- Increased spending on national defense and diplomacy to force an end to the Cold War.
- Reauthorized the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for another 25 years.
- Signed the Civil Liberties Act to compensate Japanese-American interned during WWII.
- Fired 11,345 striking air traffic controllers who illegally went on strike in 1981.
- Appointed Sandra Day O’Connor as the first female Supreme Court justice.
- Developed the Reagan Doctrine to support anti-communist rebel movements.
- Invaded Grenada after a 1979 coup d’etat by a Marxist-Leninist government.
- Negotiated with the Soviets to reduce in armaments levels.
- Negotiated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) later known as START I
Comparing legacies of the earlier presidents to President Obama’s achievements of the past seven years makes the Obama legacy appear relatively sparse. Nevertheless, the quantity and quality of accomplishments may depend on factors other than the president. These include the political makeup of the Congress, the worldwide economy, and military threats.
In Part Two of this legacy comparison, we’ll compare the Obama years to those of Presidents George H. W Bush (AKA Bush-41), Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush (AKA Bush-43). Like President Obama, each of the more recent presidents had fewer accomplishments than their predecessors.
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