Jack Colwell: Obama's legacy under Trump attack
Thursday, January 05, 2017 10:06 AM
SOUTH BEND – Political analysts told us that President Obama’s legacy was at stake in the 2016 election. He said that himself.
If Hillary Clinton won, the conventional political wisdom was, Obama’s legacy would be secure. Obamacare would survive, finally with vital improvements a Republican Congress had refused to provide. His efforts on climate change, immigration and foreign policy, including tough sanctions against Russia, would continue.
If Donald Trump won, Clinton and Trump sides agreed, Obamacare would be gone. Promoting coal would be more important than concern about climate change. “Soft” immigration policy would be replaced by deportation. There would be a far different approach to Russia and elsewhere from Iran to Cuba. A Trump victory would constitute voter repudiation of Obama initiatives and Obama himself, it was said, with the outgoing president sinking in historical evaluations.
As 2017 begins, with Trump to be inaugurated as president, the expected changes loom, but Obama’s approval rating climbs. His 56-percent approval rating by Gallup at year’s end is one of his highest ratings, culminating steady approval gains throughout a year which he began in disapproval territory.
How could that be? Shouldn’t Obama be headed down in approval in accord with the political wisdom that a Trump victory destroys his legacy and diminishes his place in history? After all, when Obama won the presidency in 2008, the outgoing Republican president, George W. Bush, sank to only a 29-percent approval rating. It seems, however, that Obama looked better as voters looked at the replacement choice, Trump or Clinton.
What Obama inherited from Bush and future success or failure of Trump will be important factors in determining how Americans and the historians who rate the presidents come to regard Obama. Evaluation of any president includes comparison with presidents and conditions before and after the administration. What did a president inherit when taking office? What did he leave for the incoming president to deal with or build upon?
Obama will look good in comparison with Bush, now generally ranked among the poorest of the presidents. A Siena poll of 238 presidential scholars in 2010 ranked Bush 39th among the 43 presidents who had completed their service by then. He finished just below Millard Fillmore.
Obama inherited from Bush an economy on the brink of a second Great Depression. Bush also was in charge when the nation was hit by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He then blundered in invading Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11, destabilizing that nation, once a balance against Iran.
While Obama critics give him little credit now for quick action to stave off depression, historians will look at the results, a steady, even though slow, turn-around in the economy. He also will benefit in history for personal achievement as the first African-American president.
The comparison with Trump could be an even bigger factor in how Obama comes to be regarded in history. What if Trump, so underrated politically before his presidential election, is also underrated by his critics now in their predictions of disaster? What if he produces significant “great again” goals? What, however, if Trump, who appears to be inheriting a sound economy, messes things up in trade, spending and tax policies that don’t work? What if bluster brings multiple military conflicts?
Will Trump, in dismantling Obamacare, improve health care or just drive more millions from insurance and into hospital emergency rooms for a medical meltdown? Will Trump in foreign affairs work effectively with allies or end alliances? Deal effectively with Vladimir Putin or be suckered by Putin?
If Trump is regarded as a success, at least successful enough to win a second term, Obama won’t seem to have been as vital as his supporters now think. If Trump fails to produce, sinks to George W. Bush approval ratings and loses or doesn’t even try for a second term, Obama years could look golden in comparison.
Colwell has covered Indiana politics over five decades for the South Bend Tribune.