David Chinitz

Legacy lost

When Barack Obama was running for President in 2008 my wife and I couldn’t take the pie in the sky enthusiasm of many of our friends, olim from the US.  Obama’s hollow, but PR polished exhortations about “change” were hard to take seriously, and it irked us that so many bought into them.  His obvious lack of experience and knowledge, and his flip flopping on matters like health care (from support of a public option that really would have changed the US health system, to a half baked market based competitive model) showed how quickly he would back away from principles. Actually, it foreshadowed his basic lack of any principles, but even we cynics couldn’t pick up on that at that early juncture. But there was a  subtext that quietly reverberated:” I am destined to be President.”  Combined with a slick campaign, using the latest in social media, this sense of inevitable anointment created a buzz that really fulfilled the prophecy. Parenthetically, I voted for Obama in that election, in large part because John McCain made the fatal error of choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate, almost as if Obama’s sense of destiny led his opponent to self destruction.

And, when Obama gave his victory speech, I cried out of a sense of history. America had elected its first black President. The legacy of Martin Luther King from my high school days echoed down the decades.

But from that point on, the legacy was lost. Obama passed the Affordable Care Act, but the message was more “I want, no need, to be the President who finally did it!” than this is a plan I really believe in. The great orator couldn’t really convince the American people that enacting universal health insurance was the right thing to do, and the whole process became a test of his ability to stiff arm enough Democrats to get the thing to squeak by. Hardly Roosevelt’s New Deal, or Johnson’s Great Society.

True, those policies required masterful politicking, but you knew that their shepherds really, deeply, idealistically believed in the justness of what they were doing.  After the Affordable Care Act passed, Obama dropped it like a hot potato, leaving bureaucrats to deal with the dirty details, such as how to really contain costs, while trying to live up to false, unrealistic, and uneducated promises such as “if you want to keep your insurance you can, and if you want to keep your physician you will be able to.” Providing health insurance coverage to the entire US population requires tough compromises and the setting of limits that Obama conveniently ducked. If Obamacare eventually rights itself it will be because the Supreme Court turns back extreme right wing legal challenges and state level bureaucrats get a handle on it. But it will be more despite Obama than because of him. Less than half of American support Obamacare. His legacy there is in great doubt.

It is also unclear that Obama can take much credit for the economic recovery. The bailout of the banks was initiated by the Bush Administration.  The huge government stimulus that followed has ostensibly led to recovery.  But the latter may very well be another example of growth that shows more in the stock market than in a clear picture of consistent creation of solid long term, decent paying employment.  During his first term Obama spoke of an American country side dotted with factories, seemingly out of touch with globalization that drains the US of manufacturing jobs. He failed to articulate any industrial policy, or to explain to Americans that the type of restructuring needed to solidify the US in its competition with China will take time and that there are no quick fixes or even clear answers. In a recent New York Times op-ed by Beth Macy, an expert on US furniture manufacturing, “who’s speaking up for the American worker?”

While his domestic legacy is not promising, Obama has even less to crow about in foreign policy. His Cairo speech in 2009 was another case of trying with rhetoric to stir the winds of “change”, but the Arab world didn’t come running to his door as he seemed to expect. He got carried away with the “Arab Spring” and then got bitten by it in much the same way that George W Bush linked his strategically justifiable invasion of Iraq with the misguided, and consequentially militarily misconceived,  crusade for its democratization. Obama threatened Assad and backed away. He began his Presidency by pressuring Israel to freeze settlements, but after that happened for ten months he let up. He never unequivocally dealt with Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish State, leaving that as an obstacle to the peace process he pushed and then abandoned. He first sanctified the 1967 borders and then modulated with land exchanges, trying to satisfy both Israelis and Palestinians, but creating doubts about his command of the issues.  He spoke about a desire to turn US attention away from the Middle East and towards Asia, but then became obsessed with negotiating with Iran about its nuclear program.

Re-enter the longing for legacy. In his lame duck years, Obama has tried to make up for his numerous incompetent foreign policy moves with his so called Iran Doctrine.  Nothing matters but getting an agreement with Iran, regardless of the holes in the agreement and the behavior of the Iranian regime both domestically and in the region.  The idea is that the nuclear agreement will not only prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, but will thaw relations between the US and Iran so that Iran can be coaxed to play a more responsible role in the Middle East. The fact that slick US Iranians like Trita Parsi, President of the National  Iranian American Council and the Iranian regime are so happy with the interim agreement just signed in Geneva should give the rest of the world pause. The Iran Doctrine seems all Iran and no doctrine. As Sefi Rechlevski, no great supporter of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, wrote in Haaretz today, what the US should be doing is seeking to re-draw the boundaries in the Middle East to separate Kurds from Shiites and Sunni, the latter from each other, Sunni rebels from Assad, and to keep Iran and Turkey out of the affairs of these competing ethnic groups. Instead, Obama’s doctrine puts Iran in the driver’s seat in the Middle East, and encourages its expansionist aspirations.

In watching Netanyahu’s chutzpadik, but even according to Obama understandable, behavior in opposing the Iran deal, one thing is notable. Netanyahu, whether one agrees with him or not, is acting out of real belief in his policies. Yes, he views his opposition to Iran as part of his legacy, but that is secondary to it being what he perceives to be the right thing to do now. Obama, on the other hand, seems to be acting mostly out of concern for his legacy and not out of a clear focus on what he thinks is right.  This has been the story of his Presidency. True, the Republicans have tried to block him from day one. But perhaps if he had focused on clear and consistent messages, and using the bully pulpit to sway the American people, he could have overcome that barrier that many Presidents have had to face.

Becoming President because that is how you perceive your destiny, as opposed to having strong values that lead to well articulated policies only exacerbates the problem. When it seems to the public that what the President is doing is based on his desire to be great, rather than on deep seated beliefs, his ability to overcome political opposition is vitiated.  Legacy is the result of one’s actions, and should not be their cause. When a US President seems to be acting out of a reversal of that connection, the world should be concerned. After all, the co-pilot who, a few months ago,  crashed the  German Wings plane into a mountain side was also acting out concern for his legacy.


About the Author
David Chinitz is Professor of Health Policy and Management at the Braun School of Public Health, Hebrew University-Hadassah