Barack Obama is fond of the idea that history has an “arc,” a dubious proposition, born of Obama’s belief that human relations and events, ordered by politics, move in only one direction—upward, according to a modern progressive’s notion of what that word means. In fact, the passage of time has a habit of sanding down the flaws of history’s gods and monsters, sanitizing the bloody and dehumanizing cost of war and conquest, and turning even the worst actors into mere points on a timeline. Was Alexander the Great on the right end of the arc of history? To ask the question is to acknowledge that there is no such thing. History doesn’t play favorites.
Obama’s frequent appeals to history’s judgment reflect his confidence that history will be kind to him. In the short run, it will: liberals will canonize Obama. Like the faithful Catholics chanting “santo subito” after the death of Pope John Paul II, Obama’s liberal boosters will turn him into Saint Barack, savior of health care and slayer of bin Laden. You might see hints of this already in your liberal friends’ wistful Facebook posts: “I’m really going to miss this guy.” If liberals are calling the shots, Obama’s name will shortly be inscribed on statues and state buildings, and his face will someday appear on coins and currency, while the divisions he sowed and exploited in pursuit of personal glory will be papered over. Generations of schoolchildren will learn about the beloved, barrier-shattering college professor with the megawatt smile who could tell a joke and make a jump shot—not the ambitious, polarizing ideologue whose disdain for half the country was palpable. No mention will be made of his habit of insulting supposedly lazy, ignorant Americans who cling bitterly to their religion, guns, and “antipathy toward people who aren’t like them,” and who fall prey to “anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
In the long run, however, history will give Obama less credit than his supporters believe he deserves. He will be remembered as the first black president of the United States—and not much more. He was no statesman. He did nothing to expand America’s influence in the world. From Russia to China to Iran to ISIS, he accommodated threats to American hegemony and fostered the impression of a great power in decline. He was, by consensus, a foreign policy failure.
At home, he over-interpreted his mandate in the wake of an historic recession. Passing his signature legislative achievement—the Affordable Care Act—cost his party control of Congress. He spent the next six years whining about “obstructionism”—a rhetorical slap in the face to the American people who thrice voted (in 2010, 2012, and 2014) to balance his domestic power by handing the House of Representatives to the Republicans and, in 2014, gave the GOP control of the Senate as well. Obamacare seems soon to be repealed and replaced. Even if a version of the law somehow survives, it won’t elevate Obama into the first rank of history’s supermen. Otto von Bismarck, grandfather of the welfare state, may be a hero to political science professors and Germans on the dole, but history remembers the Iron Chancellor mainly for his empire-building. Obama chose decline.
Obama was content to govern domestically as a 51-percent president. He made few efforts to reach across the aisle and compromise with Republicans. He demonized his opponents and relied on a compliant media apparatus to sell his agenda. He degraded America’s military readiness while doubling the size of the national debt. If America is better off, nominally, than it was when he took office in 2009, it’s only because there was nowhere to go but up. That’s no recipe for sainthood.
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