The second term of a US presidency usually goes worse than the first. Lyndon Johnson had Vietnam, George W Bush had Iraq, and – because the 1990s was a clownish decade – Bill Clinton had Monica Lewinski. The first two years of President Obama’s final term have been a failure. With the mid-term elections now over, his hunt for a legacy has begun.
After the mid-terms, my colleague at the Heritage Foundation, Stephen Moore, described Obama as “the last Democrat standing at the end of his presidency”. That’s apt, because, like the Conservatives in 1997, the Democratic bench is remarkably thin.
It’s also increasingly grey. Hillary Clinton will be 69 in 2016, Vice-President Joe Biden will be 74, and Senator Elizabeth Warren, the latest progressive idol, will be 67. The American left doesn’t just have old ideas: its standard bearers are senior citizens.
And given the left’s decline on the state level, this liberal weakness is likely to compound: Republicans now hold 4,111 of the 7,383 state legislative seats, and 31 of the 50 governorships. The fundamental question for the left going forward is whether the Democratic majority in 2008 and 2012 was really just an Obama majority. The evidence of 2010 and 2014 implies it is.
Of course, in a way, that testifies to the fact that Obama has already secured his legacy. In an era of declining faith in government and rising world tensions, he won two elections on the platform that government needed to do more and America needed to do less. That’s remarkable.
So is being the first African-American elected to the Oval Office. I used to believe that, just as the first female Prime Minister had to be a Tory, the first minority president would be a Republican. Obviously, I was wrong.
But those who believed that Obama’s election would herald better race relations were also, sadly, incorrect. An early December poll showed that 50 per cent of adults now disapprove of his handling of race issues. He has 33 per cent approval from whites, and only 57 per cent from African-Americans.
True, the majority is often wrong; an Obama supporter might argue that if everyone’s unhappy, the President’s got the balance about right. But the fact remains that a majority also believes that race relations are not getting better, and in this case, perceptions shape reality.
In Britain, Obama remains remarkably – to my mind, inexplicably – popular: a 2014 Pew survey found 74 per cent of the British public had confidence in him. But the example of Tony Blair is relevant: Britons like Obama, but Americans have a much higher opinion of Blair.
Admittedly, that wouldn’t be hard: almost half those polled in Britain in 2013 regarded their former Prime Minister as a war criminal. And, true, most Americans are not well informed about the activities, in and out of office, that have lowered Blair’s reputation in the eyes of his compatriots.
But of course the reverse is also true: Britons actually know little about Obama, largely because they get their news from the BBC. And whatever your politics, Blair was clearly a more consequential political leader than Obama: the Conservative Party hasn’t won a national majority since 1992. It seems that a baseball-style trade of Obama for Blair would make both our nations happier.
The comparisons between Obama and Blair go deeper than their polling numbers. Both rose in large part because they symbolised a cause bigger than themselves. Both had no serious experience outside politics.
Both were applauded as gifted orators. And both turned increasingly to foreign affairs. In Blair’s case, this was partly because of his deeply-felt reaction to 9/11. In Obama’s, it reflects the less noble consideration that presidents facing a hostile Congress find foreign policy congenial, because they can do it on their own.
Obama’s executive initiatives are part of a larger pattern: When presidents get in trouble, they double down on what got them elected. When a U-2 spy plane was shot down in 1959, Eisenhower acted like the military man he was by accepting responsibility. After the 1994 mid-terms, Clinton harkened back to his experience as the once-defeated governor of Arkansas and moved to the centre.
In time, Obama will get the ridiculous mausoleum of a presidential library. But that’s not enough. He’s in trouble now, and by using the power of the Oval Office to extend the hand of friendship to yet another tyranny – this time in Cuba – he’s just doing what got him elected: blaming his predecessors and believing his own magic will make things right.
However it doesn’t change the fact that shaking hands with Fidel is a small and shabby way to build a legacy.
- Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in Anglo-American Relations, based at The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation in Washington.
Originally appeared in The Yorkshire Post