There has long been a pattern to Barack Obama’s political career on the national stage. There are moments of soaring moral clarity and inspiration; there are long periods of drift or laziness or passivity; and there are often very good fourth quarters. The 2008 campaign was an almost perfect coda: the sudden initial breakout, then a strange listlessness as he allowed the Clintons to come back in New Hampshire, turning the race into a long and grueling battle for delegates, then a final denouement when he made up with the Clintons and stormed into the White House. Or think of healthcare reform: a clear early gamble, followed by a truly languorous and protracted period of negotiation and posturing, and then a breakthrough. Or marriage equality: an excruciating period of ambivalence followed by a revolution. On climate: a failed cap and trade bill … followed by real tough fuel emissions standards, new carbon rules from the EPA and an agreement with China.
If you were to track this pattern – strong start, weak middle, winning final streak – throughout his entire presidency, you might have expected his worst year to be the one when he was just re-elected and had the wind at his back. And you would be right. 2013 was truly awful. But you’d also expect his final years to be strong. Until recently, much of the Beltway was engaged in a rather sour judgment on this score. He was an anachronism, shellacked for the second time by the midterms, a crippled fowl hobbling toward mediocrity. The future belongs to … Mitch McConnell!
Or not. The latest reports on economic growth suggest that Obama is now presiding over the strongest economy in more than a decade. Back in 2009, this was in no way predictable, or even likely. Compared with America’s international competitors, it’s powerful evidence that Obama’s early measures to save the US economy from the abyss were more successful than many will concede. The country, meanwhile, has experienced an energy revolution – a win-win (apart from the planet) which has also given both Putin and Khamenei the collywobbles. Sure, this was not an Obama initiative, but he didn’t get in the way. The potential for solar power has also never seemed brighter.
Crime remains at historic lows; the deficit has been slashed; healthcare costs – the key indicator of future debt – have been falling; inflation remains low; interest rates have not soared as many conservatives predicted; and unemployment is half what he inherited.
Millions more have reliable and portable health insurance coverage in a program performing somewhat better than anyone predicted a year ago. Although the right-wing media noise machine has done its best to obscure all of this, it will surely eventually sink in, even though polarization has made big shifts in opinion highly unlikely. And on the politics of it all, Obama’s coalition remains a demographically formidable one as you look ahead. His bold unilateral move on immigration turned out to be a political winner (against my judgment at the time). Latinos, African-Americans, gays, unmarried women all remain a powerful base for the GOP to counter. And Obama’s persona was and is critical to keeping that coalition together.
On foreign policy, we end the year with Putin reeling, Netanyahu facing re-election, Syria’s WMDs removed and destroyed, withdrawal from Afghanistan almost completed, and a nuclear deal with Iran still possible. Yes, we have one huge step backward – the decision to re-engage in the sectarian warfare in what remains of Iraq. But so far at least, the engagement has been limited, the Islamic State has been contained, a new Iraqi prime minister holds out more hope than Maliki, and the Kurds and the Shiites have a much better relationship. The new relationship with Cuba is also a mile-stone toward a saner, less ideological foreign policy.
Obama likes the final stretch. It’s liberating for him, quite clearly. And clarifying for the rest of us. My point is a simple one: the long game has always mattered to this presidency, and we are now very much in the fourth quarter. That’s when Obama has always been strongest. And the story of this presidency isn’t close to being told yet.
(Photo: President Barack Obama holds a press conference during which he discussed Sony Pictures’ decision not to release “The Interview” in wake of the alleged North Korean hacking scandal at The White House on December 19, 2014 in Washington, DC. By Leigh Vogel/WireImage via Getty.)