Like many on the left of the Democratic Party, I have given Barack Obama a hard time for a good part of the time he has been President. And he’s deserved it: from allowing Scott Brown to win in Massachusetts and thereby losing the filibuster-proof Senate majority in early 2010; to futile compromises with Republicans on health care and the budget (including the sequester); to escalating the use of drones for assassinations; to defending the massive invasions of privacy by the NSA and other agencies.
It is also important to shine a light on the many ways in which he and his administration have done well, have done the right thing. Most importantly, whatever its faults that need correction, however disastrous the rollout, the Affordable Care Act will fundamentally change the provision of health care in this country by establishing —finally— that every American has a right to adequate health care free of the risk of personal bankruptcy. Obama merits our thanks for designating this as a top priority at the start of his administration, and seeing it through.
Republicans’ strong opposition to that law, and their successful attempts to portray it as a frightening power grab (rather than the adoption of a Republican idea, which it was), cost Obama his House majority in 2010, and with it any prospect of other major legislative victories. Nevertheless, he has moved in the right direction through executive authority in many areas, including climate change and other environmental issues.
Presidents have a freer hand in foreign policy, and it is here where Obama has made a distinctive mark. It is characteristic of him that he has not staked out a particular stance that defines his foreign policy. There has been no dramatic departure from the foreign policy of George W. Bush (notwithstanding his severe campaign criticism of Bush as arrogant). But he took the security agreement that Bush concluded with Iraq and made sure that American troops really did withdraw. He is on the cusp of achieving the same in Afghanistan: he needs only to let President Karzai keep on making anti-American statements for domestic consumption, to keep on refusing to sign the agreement to keep American troops there. If he can do that (and keep resisting the pressure from hawks in the U.S. to find a way to keep troops there), then we’ll be out of Afghanistan too, without Obama ever having to make it his official policy.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, Obama’s policies have also been both novel and reasonably successful (albeit, again, without any ringing statements of those policies). He took advantage of the opportunity to help the Libyans rid themselves of Gaddafi, without committing American troops. His success here was marred, of course, by the killing of the American ambassador and other personnel in Benghazi, but the fact remains that we now have a Libya without an unstable dictator, and a successor regime that we don’t have responsibility for propping up.
The similar, but more complex Syrian civil war has been navigated about as well as one could reasonably expect. We will probably be stuck with Assad, but at least Obama has resisted the calls of the hawks to send in American troops. It has never been entirely clear where American interests lie in Syria. It would surely be nice if we could help to establish a stable, nonsectarian democracy there, but that is not one of the realistic options.
Obama has radically departed from the script in dealing with Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia (characteristically, without clearly saying that he’s doing so). He has successfully pursued an opening with Iran that has some chance to bring Iran’s nuclear program under the control of the nonproliferation regime. And at least as important, the opening with Iran could lead to normal relations with that country for the first time since 1979. No administration of either party has made such a move, until Obama.
Obama has also split decisively with both Israel and Saudi Arabia on issues of peace in the Middle East. For decades, U.S. policies in that region have ratified the positions of those two countries. The United States and Israel have had a “special relationship” that essentially amounted to the U.S. backing Israel to the hilt. Saudi Arabia has been the main Arab ally of the United States, and our policy has long been to have the same friends and the same enemies as the Saudis. But the opening to Iran and the refusal to do what it would take to oust Assad in Syria both show the U.S. operating independently of Israeli and Saudi priorities.
Given that he has worked for the last four of his six years in office with an opposition party that was determined to block his every move, to prevent him from having any successes, these are not insignificant accomplishments. There will be many more occasions to point out his shortcomings, but let’s also celebrate what he’s done well.