Friday, December 6, 2013


By Ronald Fox 

Numerous polls show that President Obama’s job approval rating has dropped to a new low. Over 50% of Americans now disapprove of his job performance. The recent decline in public approval appears largely a result of criticism over the ACA rollout debacle, but also reflects bipartisan revulsion over revelations about the mind-boggling extensiveness of NSA spying. Dissatisfaction with Obama encompasses the full political spectrum, from right to left. I’ve been thinking about what Obama’s declining popularity portends for Democrats in 2014 and his legacy as president.

The disastrous rollout reinforced dislike of the ACA among Republicans, but also antagonized many independents and pulled some Democrats away from supporting the plan. More importantly, perhaps, it diverted attention from the government shutdown gambit that alienated many Americans and gave a bump to the President and the Democrats. NSA spying revelations have angered liberals and conservatives alike. Those on the left are particularly vexed in light of Obama’s 2008 campaign rhetoric to conduct the war on terror with transparency and due respect for civil liberties. He promised to do things differently from his predecessor. Little did we know that this difference would mean more spying, less transparency, and more drone attacks. This comes on top of Obama’s weak response to conservative economic challenges, and his wholesale embracing of the tax cutting/austerity framework, which has also bothered many on the left.

It’s hard to predict how Obama’s dropping numbers will impact the 2014 election. Just because a growing number of Democrats and independents are dissatisfied with the president doesn’t necessarily mean they will vote Republican. They could still vote Democratic as a perceived least of evils. Changes in the opinions of 18-29-year old voters, a key Democratic constituency, however, predict potential trouble for Obama and the Democrats. A Harvard survey found that only 41% of these voters approve of Obama’s job performance, an 11-point drop from last April. And, Obamacare is not popular among the young; 40% believe it will bring worse care. Given the declining popularity of the ACA, it would seem that Democratic fortunes may well hinge on what happens with the ACA in the next year. This is a good reason why conservatives will likely step up their efforts to sabotage it (is it possible to do more?).

The outcome of the 2014 election can’t be predicted at this time, but it appears Democrats may face some hostile, or at least some less enthusiastic, voters from their traditional base. It troubles me to admit this, given that GOP has done very little policy-wise to boost their appeal among women, Latinos and young voters, three constituencies they fared quite poorly with in losing the 2012 national election. Quite the contrary, Republican reluctance to support comprehensive immigration reform and their continued opposition to gay marriage and abortion, among other issues important to Latinos, single women and young voters, seemed to predict future election failures for the GOP. Their insensitivity to these voters was clearly visible last March when several Republicans in the Senate and House tried to bloc re-authorization of the Violence against Women Act (WAVA) due to concerns about its required equal treatment of gays, immigrants and Native Americans. Adding to this public outrage at the government shutdown, I had come to expect a nation-wide dawning of a Democratic-dominated era, much like what has occurred in California. This seems a passing fantasy now, a victim of the Obamacare rollout and the short-term memories of American voters.

Harder yet is to predict how the imploding ACA and NSA spying will effect Obama’s legacy as a president. Presidential legacies can never be accurately predicted while they’re in office, or immediately after leaving office, for that matter. Nuanced assessments take time, and can even change over time. Truman was very unpopular as president, yet now he is ranked in the top ten by many historians who do such ranking. Eisenhower was popular as president, but dropped to near the bottom of rankings soon after he left office, largely due to his meager domestic legislative output, but has more recently become favored by academic historians. Kennedy was glorified after his assassination, but received mixed reviews in later years, as was noted in several recent programs commemorating the 50th anniversary of his death.  Nixon left in scandal, but his image has improved in recent years. Reagan was popular with the public, but vilified by academics. Since he left office, however, he has received better press from many of the same circles that were previously critical of his presidency. Carter and Clinton were not popular as presidents, but have since grown in popularity and stature, not in the least part as a result of their post-president activities.

What about Obama’s legacy? Only time will tell, and maybe quite a bit of time. In the culture of complaint era we now live in, where complaining is magnified via mainstream and social media, it’s hard to imagine any president emerging from office as a popular figure. In the end, we may assess our presidents not so much according to what they did in office, but what they didn’t do, like avoiding a policy disaster or political scandal. Obama may leave office tarnished, but who knows  how history will judge him?

What do I think about Obama’s legacy? I offer this preliminary assessment as a disillusioned liberal. While I can excuse his meager legislative and diplomatic achievements as a product of an unprecedented obstructionist Congress and hostile conservative media, there is no excuse for the NSA transgressions. The seemingly limitless domestic spying regime he initiated may forever compromise the free society so many Americans have struggled and died to protect. Thanks to Edward Snowden, at least we know about these violations of liberty. Let us hope awareness will lead to reform. As significant as NSA spying may prove for Obama’s legacy, an equally big transgression in my mind may be his role in legitimizing the austerity agenda that threatens to unravel decades of social progress and leave millions of Americans hopelessly removed from enjoying the American dream. His most damaging legacy may be his putting a final nail in the coffin of John Maynard Keynes. As one who believes that government can and should play a constructive role in ensuring economic fairness and social progress, Obama’s capitulation to the austerity agenda may earn him a prominent place in my liberal’s hall of shame


  1. I am a pretty staunch defender of President Obama. I feel he has been undermined at every turn, and he has handled it with enormous personal dignity.
    Despite that, I am appalled at the continuing "Global War on Terror" (GWOT) which includes the NSA spying and the unprecedented expansion of the use of drones and special operations forces. The fact that this "War"is carried out in secret and resembles an assassination program makes it all the worse. Finally, there is the cynical reason behind it. I think he is somewhat motivated by domestic political considerations. I am sure he thinks that by pursuing the GWOT vigorously he insulates himself from much right wing criticism and gives him breathing room to pursue other foreign policy initiatives like opposing Mubarak and negotiating with Iran. I think this belief is a poor reason to perpetuate a program that is morally reprehensible and largely ineffective. It clearly creates greater rage in the Muslim world against America and gives rise to real opposition in places like Yemen and Somalia.
    In light of this, I think his legacy can at best be a mixed bag and could likely be much worse.

  2. Yes the GWOT and the NSA spying May leave a stain but is legacy will be mostly defined by the success of the
    Affordable Care Act. I believe in time it will evolve and succeed. As access to health care becomes easier to achieve the "short memory" Americans will start to jump aboard. The GOP offers no options, but to go back to where people are denied insurance for pre-existing conditions or dropped when they get sick. Remember Social Security was thought to be the beginning of a socialist state and Medicare was the beginning of the end of our freedom!


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