On Monday, Associate Professor of Political Science Justin Crowe ’03 moderated a panel on President Barack Obama’s leadership and legacy with Andrew Rudalevige, professor of government at Bowdoin College; Annie Lowrey, contributing editor at New York Magazine and Alvin B. Tillery, Jr., associate professor of political science at Northwestern University.
“Obama: Leadership, Legacy, Lessons” was part of the James MacGregor Burns Distinguished Speaker Series.
Crowe introduced the panel by acknowledging that there is still over a year left in Obama’s term. Considering that he is garnering much less attention than the candidates seeking to replace him, Crowe said, this felt like an optimal moment to discuss his legacy.
“We’ll look at the leadership he exercised,” Crowe said, “the legacy we’ll remember and the lessons we should learn.”
Rudalevige spoke about what he considers Obama’s “unilateral legacy.” He opened with a quote from an aide to President John Kennedy: “Everyone believes in democracy – until they get to the White House.”
Rudalevige proposed that in 2008, Obama fully “believed in democracy.” With the idea of a “reconstructive president” on the horizon, he thought Obama seemed poised to deliver. He described some of Obama’s successes in 2008 and 2009, during the period in which Democrats held a majority in Congress, including the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Dodd-Frank Act.
“He was extraordinarily successful in roll call votes in Congress,” Rudalevige said. “But the Obama agenda prompted a lot of pushback.”
Rudalevige quoted Nancy Pelosi: “He wants to get it done and be loved, and you can’t do both.” He suggested that in 2009 and 2010, the President chose to “get it done,” and that this led to the largest net loss of seats for the President’s party in Congress since World War II during the 2010 midterm elections.
By 2011, Obama’s success in roll call votes dropped and his bills stopped passing. As Rudalevige said, “there is gridlock and his agenda goes nowhere.”
This spurred the beginning of Obama’s unilateral use of presidential power, sidestepping Congress to enact his own agenda, a strategy President George W. Bush employed and one that Obama disapproved of in 2008. By 2011, however, he had declared that the nation couldn’t “wait for Congress,” and he began to employ what Rudalevige called his “unilateral toolkit.”
This toolkit consisted of, among other things, executive orders, prosecutorial discretion, administrative clarifications and guidance, appointments and recess appointments and waivers.
Rudalevige said that all of Obama’s administrative policy built on past precedent, but may be more aggressive in certain areas. He proposed that there is an argument that Obama had no choice, as polarization between political parties is higher, by some measures, than that of the Reconstruction Era.
“If he is governing alone,” Rudalevige said, “he is in good company,” naming other Presidents who had stretched executive power. Whether good or bad, he believes “unilateralism will be a big part of [Obama’s] legacy.”
Lowrey spoke about the legacy of Obama as “an astonishing policy success and a tremendous political failure.”
She believes Obama’s presidency was unusual, as his victories were front-loaded in the short period when he had a majority. In her view, the stimulus package was successful in stopping the recession and avoiding “outright catastrophe.”
She also said that the ACA was a huge success that could not have passed except in that moment.
“Democrats had wanted this for a very long time,” Lowrey said. “It was a huge and extremely painful win.” She pointed out that healthcare is 15 percent of the U.S. economy, and prior to the ACA there were many uninsured people. But she added that the bill essentially “closed the window for other major policy victories after it.”
After the legislative window was shut, Lowrey considered Obama’s executive actions, which ranged from deportation to the environment, successes. Still, she said, this method was not the one that the administration had intended at the outset.
“Obama came into office wanting to change Washington,” she said. “His legislative victories were not hard fought … He has arguably made polarization worse.” She believes that Obama was neither good at partisan outreach, nor did he succeed at reaching legislators within his own party.
“The White House is now convinced that when they enter into issues, they make things worse and polarize people even farther,” Lowrey said. She posited that Congress is broken, and suggested that it is an open question whether or not the White House could have alleviated the problem.
Tillery spoke on Obama’s legacy from a bottom-up perspective with respect to race relations and civil rights policies. In his research, he looks at editorial opinions of presidents from mainstream media and from historically black outlets, and he has found that only seven of the previous presidents are “above water.” That is, that they have a positive ratio of good to bad editorials.
“Obama will undoubtedly be the eighth president on this list,” which consists of Lyndon B. Johnson and Bill Clinton, among others, Tillery said. He noted that the President has a 91 percent approval rating from African Americans. “But he doesn’t deserve to be there on substance,” Tiller said. “There is a tension between symbolic racial politics and substance.”
Tillery said that in 2008 Obama used his talents as a rhetorician to appease both his black and white constituents, and that, in general, Obama has good public opinion ratings: this week, he is at 47 percent, compared to the 53 percent average over the course of a modern presidency.
Tillery pointed out that the majority of the Obama coalition is people of color and progressive young whites, and yet, Obama “has done nothing substantive for race relations and civil rights.” He pointed out that when the Roberts court rolled back planks of civil rights architecture, Obama offered no rhetorical pushback.
“I’ve seen him marching at the 51st anniversary of Selma,” Tillery said, but he had not seen Obama act as he imagines Lyndon B. Johnson might have on similar issues. Though Obama has “entered into some moments of rhetorical leadership,” he has always backed away rapidly.
“He is limited, in part,” Tillery suggested, “because the blacks who support him haven’t really asked him for anything.” He proposed that the country needed Obama to act on race relations “as if he was in the most powerful office in the world,” and that the President had not done so.
“Historians will be kind,” Tillery said. “Civil rights historians not so much. But I’m not sure if it matters because nine out of 10 is a pretty good number.”