Barack Obama: A Good, Bad or Just Mediocre President?

The 2016 election—and history—provides clear methods to grade our current president's performance. How will he stack up?

If presidential elections are largely referendums on the White House incumbent or incumbent party, as I have argued in these spaces and in my most recent book, Where They Stand, then the man who will exercise the greatest impact on the outcome of next year’s general election is President Obama. If his second term is adjudged by the American people to have been successful, then Democrats likely will retain the White House; if not, they won’t.

Under this analytical thesis—which, I acknowledge, raises skepticism among some political scientists, political journalists and political professionals (but they’re wrong)—presidential elections don’t turn on frivolous matters such as candidate gaffes, clever slogans or negative ads. Rather, the electorate operates on a higher plane, sorting out the unimportant debris of campaigns and rendering decisions based mostly on more fundamental questions of national direction and the performance of the incumbent (or incumbent party). In other words, there is a collective judgment in the electorate that emerges at the end of campaigns and brings a certain logic to the process.

That logic turns on serious matters of governance—the state of the economy, the position of America in the world, the degree of presidential initiative, and the like. The most serious lapses that, in combination, bring down presidents or parties in power are these: a sputtering economy and lack of per capita income growth; lack of any serious and successful initiative in domestic affairs; lack of any serious accomplishment in foreign relations; a serious foreign affairs fiasco; serious scandal that reaches the upper levels of government; and sustained civic unrest that leads to blood in the streets.

These tests are explored by Allan J. Lichtman and Ken DeCell in their book, The 13 Keys to the Presidency. The authors also note that, when parties in power lose House seats from a baseline of the previous midterm elections, that tends to erode their standing as well.

Assessing Obama’s second term through the prism of these tests, we can say that he is challenged on a number of them. The economy isn’t sputtering currently (though that could happen before November 2016), but per capita income has declined on his watch. It’s difficult to argue he has brought about any significant domestic accomplishment, in the nature of Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights legislation or Ronald Reagan’s new-direction tax policies. One can argue, and Obama supporters often do, that it wasn’t his fault; the Republican Congress just wouldn’t play ball with him. But voters don’t parse these questions in such ways. For them, it’s no excuses; he either produced accomplishments or he didn’t. Obama didn’t.

On the matter of a significant foreign policy triumph, there’s no question that the Iran nuclear deal represents such an accomplishment, assuming that he gets it through Congress (as appears likely). Many would argue that it is a terrible deal and he shouldn’t get any political capital out of it. But, again, that’s not how our system works. The deal represents a major new direction in foreign affairs, and a difficult one to bring off, and the collective electorate takes note of such things. Thus, a net plus.

What about a serious foreign policy defeat or fiasco. There’s no question that the rise of ISIS represents such a development. The 9/11 terrorist attack on America demonstrated that Islamist radicalism represents a serious national threat, and that threat became substantially more dangerous on Obama’s watch. That gets charged to him. The irony is that he didn’t support George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion in part because he didn’t think that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was part of the Islamist threat. He was right. And there’s no doubt that the civic chaos unleashed by that invasion contributed to the ISIS emergence.

But the American people already expressed themselves on that matter—by voting against the GOP candidate in the 2008 presidential referendum and by voting in Obama. But Obama took his eye off the ball when he concluded that the challenge represented by 9/11 had dissipated significantly. Now it’s a mess, and it’s his mess.