Obama's 5-Year Mark: More Hits Than Misses

Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images
Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

(The Root) — Exactly five years after his election, it's a tough time to take stock of Barack Obama's legacy.


In the same week in which he's had to defend Obamacare's difficult rollout and that saw his approval rating drop to a low of 42 percent, Forbes magazine is now piling on by ranking Obama the world's second most powerful. Behind Vladimir Putin.

To hear critics tell it, Obama's already a lame duck.

But only 12 months after re-election with a comfortable popular vote win and an Electoral College landslide, he's still more popular than most of those opponents, and — even now — you'd be hard-pressed to come up with more than two or three people who could seriously challenge him in a national election.

Like any politician, at times Obama's weaknesses overshadow his strengths. But even if we're a long way away from being able to rank him as great (not yet), good (sounds right) or merely average (could be) in the pantheon of American presidents, the success story Obama can tell, so far, is that in a time of war and economic tension, he has moved the American project forward.

No one's gotten everything they wanted from the first African-American president — including African Americans. Instead, it's been a something (but not everything)-for-everyone presidency.

Hawks got Afghanistan, doves got Iraq, organized labor got the auto bailout and Wall Street got TARP. The jury's still out on immigration reform, and there's still a hangover from the mortgage crisis. And as The Root's Keli Goff has tracked throughout the first year of Obama's second term, the president has only recently begun to put a dent in languishing black unemployment numbers.

Dr. Cornel West — a former supporter — calls Obama a "global George Zimmerman," and fast-food mogul Herman Cain — once a challenger — claimed that the president is not a "real black man."


But most Americans take pride in seeing for the first time a black man, from a multiracial, multifaith family, who is the ultimate husband and father, represent our country on the world stage. And though that pride is mostly symbolic, it underscores the marker laid down by Obama as a historic "first": that the job of any president — black, Mormon or Latina — is to advance the interests of all Americans.

And when it comes to that wide array of interests, here's where he has — and hasn't — succeeded:

Civil Rights

If, in Toni Morrison's words, Bill Clinton was "our first black president," then maybe Obama's the honorary first gay president. On his watch, we've seen the long-overdue repeal of "Don't ask, don't tell," and his same-sex marriage endorsement helped turn the tide in the marriage debate.


The Glass Ceiling

Obama has taken flak for having a male-dominated inner circle, but he's also tripled the number of women on the Supreme Court, and just nominated the first woman to be Federal Reserve chair, arguably the second most important job in the land.


The Dow

Friday's close of the Dow Jones Industrial Average was 15,615.55 — nearly 9,000 points higher than its low of 6,626.94 on Obama's 46th day in office. And even though no president can take all the credit for market gains, then-Sen. Obama's TARP vote in the last days of the 2008 campaign, along with his 2009 stimulus package and payroll tax cut, helped breathe life back into the Dow.


The Deficit

Congressional Republicans held Obama's feet to the fire in 2010 and 2011. But their deal to extend the Bush-era top marginal income tax rates (paving the way for that "Don't ask, don't tell" repeal), combined with the "sequester" that set across-the-board cuts in motion, has resulted in a 37 percent reduction in the deficit over the last year.



In the war on terror, Benghazi was a failure for the administration. But Obama kept his 2008 promise to "kill bin Laden" and has — ruthlessly, quite frankly — used unmanned drones to quietly "finish the fight" with al-Qaida, as he said in a speech going all the way back to 2002.


The Syria crisis allowed Putin to boost his own rep while simultaneously tweaking Obama. But call it a win for Obama now that weapons inspectors report that Syria met last Friday's deadline for taking its chemical weapons facilities offline – and that none of our troops have died there.


Obama's been embarrassed by Edward Snowden's revelations about the National Security Agency's seemingly endless snooping into Americans' phone records and email accounts. But as I wrote back in June, any president — Democrat or Republican — would prefer to be seen as too aggressive, rather than too weak, on national security.


Affordable Care Act

Which brings us to the Affordable Care Act, which could either become the crown jewel of the president's domestic record, or remain its Achilles' heel.


It's been Obama's greatest communication failure, stemming from one of his true blind spots — that Reagan advisor Bruce Bartlett correctly diagnosed a long time ago — which is the president's tendency "to feel that once he has explained himself, there is no need to keep doing so." Except, of course, there is.

It's on the president to convince a broad cross-section of the public that his health care law both expands coverage for the uninsured and brings down costs for those who already have health insurance. His inability to do so gives his opponents an "I told you so," weighs down his second-term agenda and feeds public skepticism about the capability of government.


It doesn't matter if Mitt Romney — who carped from the sidelines on Meet the Press over the weekend — was the first to tout Romneycare's individual mandate. It's called Obamacare now.

A president can only take people as far as they're willing to go. And just because Obamacare might mean that "Obama cares," it won't make much difference if its delivery — the website, the premiums and the downstream effect on the economy — doesn't build the public's confidence.


The president's job going forward is to manage his own initiatives, and hand off the country to his successor in better condition that it was handed to him.

Obama made history.

He's got three years left to determine how history remembers him.

David Swerdlick is a contributing editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter