Goodbye, Mr President

Barack Obama leaves America and the world better prepared for the tumultuous years that lie ahead.

American president Barack Obama walks through a hallway of the White House in Washington DC, August 8, 2013 (White House/Pete Souza)

I wasn’t a fan of Barack Obama eight years ago, when we started the Atlantic Sentinel. It unnerved me how many people, especially here in Europe, fell over themselves to praise the new president and I disagreed with his policies.

Now I’m sad to see him go.

It’s not just that the Democrat looks like a paragon of grace and wisdom compared to his Republican successor, although Donald Trump’s shortcomings in both areas are profound.

It’s that I’ve become less right-wing and Obama was a better president in his second term than in his first.

Obamacare

If you go back far enough, you will find plenty of critical articles here about the stimulus and Obama’s health reforms.

I still think parts of the Recovery Act were a waste of money and that the Affordable Care Act contained a lot of unnecessary regulations.

But I’ve come around on the individual mandate, which was the most contentious piece of “Obamacare”.

There is a reason conservatives thought of a mandate in the first place: It is the least intrusive way to guarantee health care to all.

It was also the best Obama and his party could do.

Ideally, the whole American health care system would be overhauled. It is full of massive distortions and perverse incentives, which make it simultaneously the most expense in the developed world and one of the worst in terms of delivering care to low incomes.

But that would require a bipartisan commitment. It would require that politicians take a stand against vested interests, including hospitals and medical professionals — who naturally get more sympathy from voters than the insurance industry.

Short of that, the system can be tweaked in myriad ways to at least prevent the most vulnerable being left without adequate health care.

That’s what Obama did. It’s hardly the monumental accomplishment Democrats make it out to be. But nor is it the catastrophe Republicans speak of.

Business

My mistake was reading too many right-wing blogs and believing that Obama’s determination to expand health coverage revealed a socialist instinct.

It didn’t help that the president had never worked in the private sector and was often dismissive of complaints from businesses.

The administrative state continued to expand during his tenure. That has come at a cost. Unemployment is down, but much of the job growth in the last eight years has been in big business and the public sector. Small companies are struggling and fewer Americans are starting a business than in the past.

A president who understood enterprise might have done better. That’s one reason I supported Mitt Romney in 2012.

Wasted opportunity

The other was Obama’s refusal to reform entitlements and taxes. Trump’s looming authoritarianism now takes precedence, but those two issues remain high on the list of potential crises.

Specifically, the fact that entitlement programs are running out of money and the American tax code has become hopelessly complex.

Obama didn’t personally deny that Medicare and Social Security were on the road to insolvency, but his lieutenants in Congress, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, did.

The president, to his credit, recognized the need for tax reform. No other developed nation has such a byzantine tax code as the United States.

We all know the basic tradeoff that would be involved in tax reform: Republicans get lower rates, Democrats get to shift some of the burden from low to high incomes.

Obama achieved a little of this, some of it by stealth. The stimulus included a tax credit for low-income workers, which was later made permanent. Tax cuts on incomes over $450,000 enacted by George W. Bush were allowed to lapse.

But when Obama had the chance to strike a “grand bargain” with Republicans in 2011 to restrain entitlement spending growth, reduce personal and corporate income taxes and eliminate many tax breaks, he balked.

Democrats blamed the Republican House speaker, John Boehner, but it turned out it was the White House that spurned Boehner — who had stuck his neck out. Republican hardliners, after all, were unprepared to accept any deal that didn’t amount to Democratic surrender.

Center-right Republicans and the majority of Democratic legislators could have come to an agreement. But Obama worried he was giving away too much and wasted an historic opportunity.

Relations between the White House and the Republican Congress never recovered and America suffered another four years of government-by-crisis.

Order

Obama was more successful in his foreign policy.

A less collected man might have mistaken the few small-scale terrorist attacks America braved under his watch for a bigger threat. Not Obama. He identified terror as a security problem to be managed rather an enemy to be defeated in war.

One of ways in which he managed that problem could soon become more problematic. Obama personally ordered and sanctioned the execution of suspected terrorists with remote-controlled aircraft. On Friday, he hands that power to a man who can barely be trusted with his own Twitter account.

Obama wisely resisted calls to play a bigger role in the Syrian war. There was never an attractive option for intervention and a very real risk of making the situation worse for everyone.

Nor did he allow the self-interest of allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia to sabotage his diplomacy with Iran. Imagine what the next four years might have looked like if Obama hadn’t stopped Iran’s nuclear program.

If it seems many of Obama’s foreign-policy accomplishments are things he didn’t do, that’s because he understood the president’s priority is protecting, and where possible expanding, the liberal world order America built and nurtured in the aftermath of World War II. The stability of the world hinges on this intricate network of diplomatic, economic and military alliances.

His predecessor left it to him in a weakened state, having blundered away America’s “unipolar moment” in a misguided attempt to remake the Middle East in its image.

Obama sometimes erred on the side of caution, but he repaired transatlantic relations and presided over an expansion of the liberal regime into Asia.

Whether it was through global action on climate change, gunboat diplomacy in the South China Sea, empowering middle powers like Germany and India or boosting NATO’s troop presence in Eastern Europe, the president reinforced the world order at the same time it came under stress from challenges by revisionist powers, including China and Russia, and non-state groups, most notably the self-declared Islamic State.

Those stresses remain. China continues to test America’s commitment to a rules-based order in East Asia. Russia continues to test the West’s unity and resolve. Islamic terrorism and extremism could take many years to root out, even if the Islamic State is soon defeated.

The next four years could be tumultuous and I suspect we will one day look back on the Obama era as the calm before the storm. I’m not sure if the world is safer today than it was eight years ago, but I do know we are better prepared for what’s to come.