German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Barack Obama at a press conference in June in Berlin
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

(The Root)—Years from now, when pundits give way to historians—and the Tea Party has imploded—Barack Obama's presidency will be judged not on the success of his national health care law, but instead on his ability to repair the damage done to this nation's image on his watch.

Since the beginning of the 20th century when the United States broke out of its isolationist shell, historians have judged U.S. presidents largely on their ability to sustain America’s dominant role on the world stage—and not their success or failure in dealing with Congress.

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Woodrow Wilson is best remembered for leading this country to victory in World War I, not for the U.S. Senate’s refusal to approve his proposal to create the League of Nations, an international body that he hoped would prevent another world war.

Franklin Roosevelt is remembered as the president who rallied this nation to battle in World War II, not for his failed effort to win Senate approval of a questionable plan to increase the number of justices on the Supreme Court. The hallmark of John F. Kennedy’s brief presidency is his Cold War challenge to the Soviet Union, not his failure to get Congress to pass a meaningful civil rights bill.

While the Teapublicans want us to think Obama’s legacy is tied to the outcome of their efforts to scuttle the Affordable Care Act, it’s a good bet historians will judge this nation’s first black president—like so many of his predecessors—more critically on his handling of foreign affairs.

And on this score, Barack Obama has a lot of work to do.

American hegemony has long depended on a delicate mix of military and economic might, and the positive image generated by this nation’s standing as the world’s leading democracy. What people around the world think of this country got a big boost in 2008 when Obama won his first presidential election. As recently of June of this year, a Pew Research Global Attitudes Project poll found that more than half the people surveyed in 24 of 39 countries say they are confident Obama will “do the right thing in world affairs.”

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But in the months since that poll was taken, America’s image has been sullied by revelations that between 2007 and 2012 the U.S. intercepted telephone calls and emails of adversarial and friendly nations alike. Even more damning, the super-secret National Security Agency allegedly listened in on the conversations of dozens of foreign leaders, including Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and German Chancellor Angela Merkel—something White House aides say Obama knew nothing about.

This country’s standing in the world also has been diminished by its long-running economic blockade of Cuba, an act of international bullying that not only bans U.S. firms from doing business with the communist nation but also penalizes firms of other countries that violate America’s so-called embargo.

Last month, the United Nations General Assembly voted 188-2, with three abstentions, against the 53-year-old financial blockade. Only Israel joined the United States in voting against the nonbinding resolution. This relic of the Cold War should have ended when Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants opened in China and Sheraton opened a luxury hotel in Vietnam, the world’s two leading communist countries.

Coming as close together as they did, the revelations of the NSA’s spying on America’s allies and this nation’s insistence on maintaining an economic noose around Cuba’s neck have greatly diminished this country’s reputation on Obama’s watch. And as Harry Truman famously said, the buck stops on the president’s desk.

Like Social Security, which was born amid charges that it would create economic doom and gloom, Obama’s Affordable Care Act will probably survive to the delight of future generations of Americans, some of whom may remember to credit him for its creation. But Obama’s more lasting legacy almost certainly will be what he does—or doesn’t do—to repair the damage done to this nation’s reputation by the NSA’s spying, and by this country’s insistence on defying virtually all of the world’s nations to continue its half-century-old effort to topple the government of a small Caribbean nation.

DeWayne Wickham is a syndicated columnist, as well as a founding member and former president of the National Association of Black Journalists. He's also dean of the School of Global Journalism & Communication at Morgan State University.

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DeWayne Wickham is a syndicated columnist, as well as a founding member and former president of the National Association of Black Journalists. He is also dean of the School of Global Journalism & Communication at Morgan State University.