The Skeptics

Barack Obama: The Most Partisan U.S. President Ever?

With each day that ticks off the calendar, President Obama gets closer and closer to handing the reigns of executive power to his successor. After eight tumultuous years battling congressional Republicans on everything from healthcare and government spending to Planned Parenthood and the Iranian nuclear agreement, it's probably not a stretch to assume that Obama is looking forward to a few months off with his family in Hawaii—even if there is a lingering thought in the back of his mind that he could have won a third term if the Constitution allowed him to.

Historians will look back at Obama's tenure and likely come to the inescapable conclusion that his was one of the most partisan in America's existence—a time when government shutdowns were just a regular cost of doing business. It is far too soon to determine with any accuracy where President Obama stands compared to his colleagues in the annals of U.S. history. But it is still nevertheless appropriate to say that Obama, like all presidents before him and all of the presidents that will come after, made mistakes that will muddy his legacy.

Whether justified or not, here are the five biggest failures that will at least partially color President Obama's two terms.

1. Guantanamo Remains Open: Some presidential candidates, like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, chose to run on a law-and-order platform. Barack Obama ran as a rule-of-law candidate, someone who argued during his first presidential campaign that the United States was traveling further and further away from the international laws, norms and conventions that America helped establish. The detention facility at Guantanamo Bay was Enemy Number One for the constitutional law professor, a prison that incarcerated people based on mere suspicion of terrorist activity without recourse to the rights that typical defendants are given in the U.S. justice system.

On day one, Obama drew a line in the sand: Guantanamo will be closed in a year, and detainees too dangerous to release will be transferred to maximum security prisons in the United States. That order has proven to be a distant aspiration; the White House vastly underestimated how resistant lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are to bringing terrorists into their backyards. A near-miss terrorist attack on Christmas Day 2009, the administration's PR debacle on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the acquittal of Ahmed Ghailani on all but one count was all Congress needed to pass transfer restrictions of Gitmo detainees. As soon as Obama signed that law, Guantanamo's future was all but determined.

2. No Mideast Peace Deal: Obama appeared different from other American presidents on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; he had far more empathy for Palestinians suffering in the occupied territories and was much more honest on the subject of settlements. He appointed former senator and Northern Ireland peace negotiator George Mitchell as his special envoy to the conflict on his second full day in office. And five months later, he spoke to a packed house at Cairo University, declaring that “[t]he situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable,” and that “America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.”

Obviously, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict bedeviled Obama just as it defeated every other American president over the past five decades (Clinton to his credit came the close). The administration's demand that Israel suspend all settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, even within the major settlement blocs that will be part of Israel anyway, riled up Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the point that the personal relationship between the two never fully recovered. One hundred thousand settlers moved into the West Bank during Obama's tenure, a fact that Palestinian leaders never let anyone forget. And when Netanyahu and Abbas finally started talking, the White House never really seemed interested in carrying the load; the task was delegated to George Mitchell and Secretary of State John Kerry, both of whom were met with finger-pointing, blame-gaming and an unwillingness to compromise from both the Israeli and Palestinian delegations. By the last few weeks of Obama's second term, his administration was relegated to warning about the dark days ahead if the situation stays the same.

3. The Syria Red Line: When Syria's Bashar al-Assad disregarded Obama's warning that any use of chemical weapons would be met with a U.S. military response, the eyes of the world trained on the 44th president to see whether he would in fact scramble the B-2 bombers. Obama seemed deadly serious, telling the American people that he made the decision that the use of military force was required to defend some of the most sacred laws in the international community.