American presidents are term-limited by law, two and out. Having served his two terms, much will depend on the legacy Barack Obama leaves the next Democratic nominee. Only two months ago, it seemed he had managed to wreck everything for his party. But it’s been a long two months.
The mid-term elections of Nov. 4 were a rout. The Republicans posted gains in the Senate, in the House of Representatives, in elections for state governor and for state legislatures. By some measures, they won the strongest hand they’ve had since 1928. It was a chastening day for anyone who assumed Republicans had worked themselves into an extremist rut that made the party unelectable.
Most of all, it seemed to confirm that the Obama presidency was dying a listless, distracted death. It’s hard to remember the “Yes We Can” candidacy of 2008, when millions of Americans, and millions more around the world, felt caught up in a moment of historic change. The electoral results seemed only to ratify the judgment of history, delivered, in one instance, by Walter Russell Mead: “Rarely has any American administration experienced so much ignominious failure, or had its ignorance and miscalculation so brutally exposed.” Mead was writing about the rise of the Islamic State terrorist group, while other critics have used similar language to describe Obama’s handling of Syria, Israel, Iran, Russian President Vladimir Putin, health care reform, immigration or the Keystone XL pipeline.
But mid-term setbacks for presidents in their sixth year are routine. In taking back the Senate, the Republicans simply reversed the loss it suffered in 2006, when George W. Bush was in his catastrophic second term. The only president since the Civil War to post gains in his sixth-year mid-terms was Bill Clinton in 1998. It turned out that being impeached did wonders for Bubba at the ballot box.
Congressional Republicans have so far resisted the temptation to impeach Obama, perhaps because it’s not exactly clear what they’d impeach him for. So he has had to rely on his own wit to cobble together the elements of a comeback. So far, on the heels of the worst defeat of his short political career, he’s on a hell of a roll.
Start with Islamic State, “the most powerful and hostile jihadi movement of modern times,” Mead wrote, “a movement that dances on the graveyard of [Obama’s] hopes.” Not so fast: Recent reports suggest that Obama’s modest campaign of air strikes, performed by a broad coalition of Western air forces, including Canada’s, has rocked Islamic State back on its heels, permitting Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq to push the insurgents back on the ground. This fight is far from over, but the momentum has shifted. Any graveyard dancing is premature.
Then there is the President’s use of executive action, with no help or hindrance from Congress, to push the elements of an aggressive domestic agenda. There is also his executive order on immigration, and a climate deal with China, unenforceable, with timelines too long to have much meaning, but an important signal to the Democrats’ environmentalist base. And then, the dramatic overture to Cuba: A reversal of a half-century’s failed isolationism, it managed to put the cat among the Republican pigeons as various factions in that party debated the wisdom of Obama’s move.
Then there is the economy. Here, it’s possible to overstate things. Sure, U.S. GDP grew by five per cent in the third quarter, and by 4.6 per cent in the second—the best half-year of growth in more than a decade. But the economy shrunk by 2.1 per cent in the first quarter, so, on balance, the year to date still looks anemic. But good news is accumulating on other fronts. After 57 straight months of private sector job growth, unemployment is at 5.8 per cent. Running for president two years ago when unemployment was at eight per cent, Mitt Romney promised to cut it to six. Obama beat that target.
And, like successful politicians since the dawn of time, Obama has also been lucky. The Cold War ended when a global collapse in oil prices exposed the unsustainable absurdity of the Soviet economy. That began in 1986, the year Ronald Reagan suffered his sixth-year mid-term election setback. The decline in oil prices in 2014 isn’t yet as steep as in the late ’80s, but it’s having a similar effect.
Vladimir Putin’s policy of letting his St. Petersburg lackeys suck billions out of the Russian economy while he annexes Europe’s rotten boroughs is sustainable only as long as he can export oil and gas at extortionate prices. As soon as the oil price drops, the cost of cronyism and adventurism becomes clear, and Obama’s reaction to Putin’s adventures in Ukraine becomes a lot more successful.
The last element of the Obama comeback is the first: Obamacare, a moderate Republican answer to an age-old Democratic dream, modelled on what Romney did in Massachussetts when he was its Republican governor. By 2016, the clumsy implementation of the policy, which cost a lot of Democrats their seats, will be a distant memory. What will remain will be expanded medical care at sustainable cost, a key ingredient in a general economic recovery.
Obama remains a hard guy to like, distant and diffident, cautious, rarely a stirring speaker. Most of his victories in 2014 were a loner’s victories, the result of executive action instead of legislative or foreign-policy coalition-building. You get the impression that by the time he’s done, he’ll be delighted to get out of Washington. It’s nearly a certainty that Washington won’t miss him. But even after the rout of 2014, I’m starting to like the Democratic nominee’s chances in the presidential election of 2016.