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Unfulfilled Hopes: President Obama’s Legacy

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Stanley Renshon explores Obama as both a candidate and a president. Obama campaigned as a thoughtful pragmatist with populist overtones. The president said he wanted to move beyond the divisive politics of Washington. Yet, Obama also wanted to be a “great” and “transformational” president and modeled himself after those predecessors he thought had been. In doing so, he committed what Renshon characterizes as basic political faults—hiding his true ambition behind his moderate persona and campaign rhetoric. As a result, he allowed himself to contribute to the decades long decline in trust in government. The public wanted Obama to concentrate on the economy. Yet, he was focused on being a great, transformative president. The Democratic majority in Congress gave him a significant victory in the Affordable Care Act but his legislature successes slowed considerably when the Republicans took over the House and then the Senate. Accordingly, Obama then sought national transformation through the use of Executive Orders. These efforts are a cautionary tale of how personal ambitions, however necessary or benevolent they appear to a president, can be interpreted differently by the American people, especially if that was not what they voted for or wanted.

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  1. 1.

    Some portions of this analysis draw on the author’s book on President Obama. See Stanley Renshon. 2012. Barack Obama and the Politics of Redemption. New York: Routledge Press.

    There are now a small number of books that purport to assess the legacy of the Obama presidency. They can be divided into two distinct groups. The first of these include books with strong and a priori political views.

    On one side of the political divide are Obama legacy books by progressive pundit Jonathan Chait. 2017. Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Created a Legacy That Will Prevail. New York: Custom House, whose title reflects his wish. Another of this kind is by Trump biographer and stridently anti-Trumper Michael D’Antonio. 2017 A Consequential President: The Legacy of Barack Obama. New York: Thomas Duane. That book contains chapters with somewhat hyperbolic titles like “Environment: Saving the Planet” and “Education: Racing to the Top” that reflect both the book’s starting stance and its conclusions.

    On the other side of the political fence are several another books whose titles also reflect their emphasis on conclusions that match opening political assumptions. See Matt Margolis and Mark Noonan. The Worst President in History: The Legacy of Barack Obama. Victory Books, 2016 and Matt Margolis. 2018. The Scandalous Presidency of Barack Obama. Bombardier Books.

    There are also another group of more academic Obama legacy books now reaching publication. These include Julian Zelizer (ed). 2017. The Presidency of Barack Obama. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Elaine Kagan of the Brookings Institution in her 2018 review of this book in the Boston Review wrote:

    It becomes clearer every day that Barack Obama, a historic president, presided over a somewhat less than historic presidency. With only one major legislative achievement (Obamacare)—and a fragile one at that—the legacy of Obama’s presidency mainly rests on its tremendous symbolic importance and the fate of a patchwork of executive actions.

    Further, she writes, the historians included in the volume, “.. by and large, approve of Obama’s policies (although some find them too timid).” Gathering all like-minded people for a volume is a recipe for hagiology, not analysis.

    A more even-handed scholarly appraisal can be found in Steven E. Schier (ed). 2017. Debating the Obama Presidency. Rowman & Littlefield, and the current volume as well.

  2. 2.

    Cf., “Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.” Transcript: “Illinois Senate Candidate Barack Obama,” Washington Post, July 27, 2004.

  3. 3.

    Cf., Galbraith, John Kenneth. 1961. The Great Crash, Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press and Gene Smiley. 2002. Rethinking the Great Depression, Chicago: Ivan R. Dee.

  4. 4.

    Brandon Rottinghaus and Justin Vaughn, “New ranking of U.S. presidents puts Lincoln at No. 1, Obama at 18; Kennedy judged most overrated,” Washington Post, February16, 2015.

  5. 5.

    Cf. “Conservatives have complained, with merit, that presidential rankings reflect a liberal bias among historians. Our profession tends to admire activist, reform-minded presidents in the mold of FDR. Indeed, when in 2005 the Wall Street Journal conducted an ostensibly ideologically balanced survey, there were marked differences in how Democratic and Republican historians viewed recent figures such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.” See Eric Foner, “Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians,” Washington Post, July 13, 2015. Foner, a historian is reviewing a book by Robert W. Merry. 2012. Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians. New York: Simon & Schuster.

  6. 6.

    Marc Landy and Sidney M. Milkus. 2000. Presidential Greatness: New Edition. Lawrence, KS; University Press of Kansas; see also Thomas Bailey. 1966. Presidential Greatness. New York: Appleton-Century.

  7. 7.

    Marc Landy and Sidney M. Milkus. Passim.

  8. 8.

    “What is different about Mr. Bannon’s stark assessments in Michael Wolff’s new book… is not that a former aide would speak out, but that it would happen so early in a presidency.” See Peter Baker, “For Trump, Book Raises Familiar Questions of Loyalty and Candor,” New York Times, January 5, 2018. The book Baker is discussing is Michael Wolff. 2018. Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. New York: Little Brown.

  9. 9.

    Matt Flegenheimer, “The Year the News Accelerated to Trump Speed,” New York Times, December 29, 2017.

  10. 10.

    “Senator Barack Obama’s Announcement for President,” Springfield, IL, February 10, 2007. Available at: (Accessed July 14, 2010).

  11. 11.

    Quoted in Richard Wolffe.2009. Renegade: The Making of a President. New York: Crown, p. 67.

  12. 12.

    Toby Harden, “Barack Obama vows to ‘change the world,’” Telegraph, October 17, 2008.

  13. 13.

    President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address, January 21, 2009. Available at: ( (Accessed January 21, 2018).

  14. 14.

    “Remarks by the President in Arnold, Missouri Town Hall,” April 29, 2009. Available at: ( (accessed January 21, 2018).

  15. 15.

    Obama quoted in Wolffe, Renegade…, p. 188.

  16. 16.

    Peter Baker, “For Obama, Steep Learning Curve as Chief in War,” New York Times, August 28, 2010.

  17. 17.

    Ryan Lizza, “Above the Fray,” GQ, September, 2007 (emphasis added).

  18. 18.

    Obama quoted in Robin Givhan, “Mussed for Success: Barack Obama’s Smooth Wrinkles,” Washington Post, August 11, 2006.

  19. 19.

    Transcript, Meet the Press, NBC, October 22, 2008. Available at: (accessed January 20, 2018).

  20. 20.

    David Paul Kuhn, “Obama models campaign on Reagan revolt,” Politico, July 24, 2017.

  21. 21.

    Barack Obama quoted in Ben Smith, “Transformation, like Reagan,” Politico, January 16, 2008.

  22. 22.

    Jon Ward, “How Barack Obama wants to be the Ronald Reagan of the left,” Yahoo, February 6, 2015.

  23. 23.

    Andrew Glass, “Bush signs bank bailout,” Politico, October 3, 2008.

  24. 24.

    Stephen Skowronek. 1977. The Politics that Presidents Make. Leadership from John Adams to Bill Clinton, Revised Edition. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

  25. 25.

    Ibid., p. 36.

  26. 26.

    Ibid., p. 37.

  27. 27.


  28. 28.

    Richard Kreitner, “What Time Is It? Here’s What the 2016 Election Tells Us About Obama, Trump, and What Comes Next,” The Nation, November 22, 2016.

  29. 29.

    “In Their Own Words: Obama on Reagan,” New York Times. (emphasis added).

  30. 30.

    Cf., “Ronald Reagan, the nation’s 40th president, became one of the nation’s most revered public figures in recent years, a distinct turnabout from the more routinely average ratings he received while he served in office between 1981 and 1989.” See Frank Newport, Jeffrey M. Jones, and Lydia Saad, “Ronald Reagan from the People’s Perspective: A Gallup Poll Review,” Gallup, June 7, 2004.

  31. 31.


  32. 32.

    Pew Research Center, “Public Trust in Government: 1958–2017,” May 3, 2017.

  33. 33.

    Jim Norman, “Americans’ Confidence in Institutions Stays Low,’ Gallup, June 3, 2016.

  34. 34.

    “DECONSTRUCTING DISTRUST: How Americans View Government,” Pew Research Foundation for the People and the Press, March 10, 1998, p. 6.

  35. 35.

    Ibid., p. 8. For example, Pew found that “Looking at a comprehensive analysis based on the results of many questions, we also find that criticism of political leaders is a principal driver of distrust in government. The Pew survey found that criticism of political leaders is as important an element in the distrust equation as the view that government does a poor job in running its programs. Cynicism about political leaders and the political system is more crucial to distrust than concerns about the proper role of government, worries about its power and intrusiveness, misgivings about its priorities or resentment about taxes.” (emphasis added).

  36. 36.

    Robin Toner, “Obama’s Test: Can a Liberal Be a Unifier?” New York Times, March 25, 2008.

  37. 37.

    Alec MacGillis, “In Obama’s New Message, Some Foes See Old Liberalism,” Washington Post, March 26, 2008, A01.

  38. 38.

    Peter Slevin, “Obama Forged Political Mettle in Illinois Capitol,” Washington Post, February 9, 2007.

  39. 39.

    Eli Saslow, “From Outsider to Politician,” Washington Post, October 9, 2008.

  40. 40.

    David Mendell. 2007. From Promise to Power. New York: Amistad, p. 7.

  41. 41.

    Brian Freil, Richard E. Cohen and Kirk Victor, “Obama: Most Liberal Senator in 2007,” National Journal, January 31, 2008.

  42. 42.

    The composite reflects 99 key votes and assigned scores in three areas: economic issues, social issues, and foreign policy. See Brian Friel, Richard E. Cohen and Kirk Victor, “Obama: Most Liberal Senator in 2007,” National Journal, 31 January 2008.

  43. 43.

    Toner, “Obama’s Test: Can a Liberal Be a Unifier?…

  44. 44.

    David Remnick. 2010. The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama. New York: Knopf, p. 433.

  45. 45.

    Michael Powell, “For Obama, a Pragmatist’s Shift toward the Center,” New York Times, June 27, 2008.

  46. 46.

    Howard Kurtz, “Pretzel Logic,” Washington Post, June 27, 2008; see also Liz Sidoti, “McCain Backs Gun Decision, Obama Straddles Issue,” Associated Press, June 26, 2008.

  47. 47.

    Jose Antonio Vargas, “Obama Defends Compromise on New FISA Bill,” Washington Post, July 4, 2008.

  48. 48.

    Nina Easton, “Obama: NAFTA Not so Bad After All,” Fortune, June 18, 2008.

  49. 49.

    David S. Broder, “Getting to Know Obama,” Washington Post, June 22, 2000.

  50. 50.

    Jonathan Weisman, “Obama May Consider Slowing Iraq Withdrawal,” Washington Post, July 4, 2008.

  51. 51.

    Daniel Dombey and Edward Luce, “Obama Camp Signals Robust Approach on Iran,” Financial Times, July 1, 2008.

  52. 52.

    Jonathan Karl, “Obama’s Evolving Position on Iran,” ABC News, June 4, 2008.

  53. 53.

    Teddy Davis, Sunlen Miller, and Gregory Wallace, “Obama Kisses Millions Goodbye,” ABC News, June 18, 2008.

  54. 54.

    Ruth Marcus, “Patriot Games,” Washington Post, June 25, 2008.

  55. 55.

    Jonathan Weisman, “In Campaign, One Man’s Pragmatism Is Another’s Flip-Flopping,” Washington Post, June 28, 2008.

  56. 56.

    Teddy Davis, “Obama Dubs Himself a ‘Pragmatic Progressive,’” ABC News, January 8, 2009.

  57. 57.

    Lydia Saad, “Americans Unsure About ‘Progressive’ Political Label,” Gallup, July 10, 2010. Available at: (accessed January 21, 2018).

  58. 58.

    Walter Russell Mead, “Liberal Internationalism: The Twilight of a Dream,” The American Interest, April 1, 2010.

  59. 59.

    Robin Wright, “‘Progressive realism:’ In search of a foreign policy,” New York Times, July 18, 2006.

  60. 60.

    C-Span Interview, “President Barack Obama,” May 22, 2009.

  61. 61.

    Michael Balint. (1968) 1992. The Basic Fault: Therapeutic Aspects of Regression (3rd Edition). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

  62. 62.

    William A. Galston, “President Barack Obama’s First Two Years: Policy Accomplishments, Political Difficulties,” The Brookings Institution, November 4, 2010.

  63. 63.

    Lydia Saad, “In U.S., Majority Now Say Obama’s Policies ‘Mostly Liberal’,” Gallup, November 4, 2009.

  64. 64.

    Susan Paige, “1-year poll shows changed view on Obama,” USA Today, November 28, 2009.

  65. 65.

    Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Obama’s Ratings Little Affected by Recent Turmoil,” June 24, 2010. Available at: (accessed January 21, 2018).

  66. 66.

    Obama quoted in Jonathan Weisman, “Obama May Consider Slowing Iraq Withdrawal Candidate Says He Remains Committed to Ending War,” Washington Post, July 4, 2008.

  67. 67.

    Galston, Op. Cit.

  68. 68.

    Obama quoted in Ron Fournier, “Essay: Obama’s transcendence is beyond race,” Associated Press, November 5, 2008 (emphasis added).

  69. 69.

    Gallup, “Among Recent Bills, Financial Reform a Lone Plus for Congress,” September 13, 2010.

  70. 70.

    Galston, Op. Cit.

  71. 71.

    “VOTERS DIVIDED ON OBAMA’S FIRST YEAR, WANT FOCUS ON ECONOMY AND JOBS TONIGHT,” NPR, January 26, 2010; Judson Berger, “Obama Gets Second Chance to Stress Jobs Focus at State of the Union,” Fox News, January 21, 2011.

  72. 72.

    Gerald F. Seib, “In Crisis, Opportunity for Obama,” Wall Street Journal, November 21, 2008.

  73. 73.

    “Rahm Emanuel on the Opportunities of Crisis,” Wall Street Journal, November 19, 2008. (Accessed January 22, 2018).

  74. 74.

    Obama quoted in Lukas Pleva, “No big push in first year,” Politifact, August 13, 2010.

  75. 75.

    Office of the Press Secretary, “Remarks by the President at Univision Town Hall with Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas,” September 20, 2012.

  76. 76.

  77. 77.

    David M. Herszenhorn and Carl Hulse, “Deal Reached in Congress on $789 Billion Stimulus Plan,” New York Times, February 11, 2019.

  78. 78.

    Andrew Fieldhouse, “5 Years After the Great Recession, Our Economy Still Far from Recovered,” Huffington Post, June 26, 2014.

  79. 79.

    Catherine Rampell, “The Recession Has (Officially) Ended,” New York Times, September 20, 2010.

  80. 80.

    United States Department of Labor, “The U.S. economy to 2022: settling into a new normal,” Bureau of Labor Statistics, December 2013.

  81. 81.

    Damien Paletta, and Jeff Stein, “Sweeping tax overhaul clears Congress,” Washington Post, December 20, 2017.

  82. 82.

    “Remarks by President Trump to the World Economic Forum,” Davos, Switzerland, January 26, 2018.

  83. 83.

    Cf., “Mr. Trump intuitively understands just how much attitudes and expectations can shape economic decisions.” See Patricia Cohen. “In Tax Overhaul, Trump Tries to Defy the Economic Odds,” New York Times, December 20, 2017; see also Terry Morgan, “Analysis: It’s the ‘economy, stupid’. And right now, the Trump economy is blasting off,” ABC News, January 26, 2018.

  84. 84.

    History and Timeline of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), September 22, 2016.

  85. 85.

    Galston, Op. Cit., p. 7.

  86. 86.

    Greg Sargent, “Book: Rahm ‘begged’ Obama for days not to pursue ambitious health reform,” Washington Post, May 14, 2010.

  87. 87.

    Lisa Myers and Hanah Rappleye, “Obama admin. knew millions could not keep their health insurance,” NBC News, November 2, 2015; see also Glenn Kessler, “Obama’s pledge that ‘no one will take away’ your health plan,” Washington Post, October 30, 2013.

  88. 88.

    Angie Drobnik, “Lie of the Year: ‘If you like your health care plan, you can keep it’,” Politicifact, December 12, 2013.

  89. 89.

    Duberson quoted in Louise Radnofsky and Kristina Peterson, “The Year for Trump and GOP Lawmakers: Rocky Start, Smooth Finish,” Wall Street Journal, December 22, 2017.

  90. 90.

    Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “After a Chaotic Start, Congress Has Made a Conservative Mark,” New York Times, December 24, 2017.

  91. 91.

    Cf., Sean Sullivan, Julie Eilperin and Kesley Snell, “Senate GOP effort to unwind the ACA collapses Monday,” Washington Post, September 25, 2017; see also Jonathan Easley, “2020 Democrats vote against Schumer deal,” The Hill, January 22, 2018.

  92. 92.

    Noland D. McCaskill, “Trump falsely claims he broke a legislative record,” Politico, December 27, 2017.

  93. 93.

    Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “After a Chaotic Start, Congress Has Made a Conservative Mark,” New York Times, December 24, 2017.

  94. 94.

    Jonathan Bernstein, “What President Trump Has Accomplished,” Bloomberg, December 19, 2017.

  95. 95.

    Sidney Hook. 1950. The Hero in History: A Study in Limitation and Possibility. Boston, MA: Bacon Press.

  96. 96.

    Gary C. Jacobson, “The Republican resurgence in 2010.” Political Science Quarterly, (126:1), Spring, 2011, p. 28.

  97. 97.

    Gary C. Jacobson, “Obama and Nationalized Electoral Processes in the 2014, Midterm,” Political Science Quarterly, (130:1), Spring, 2015.

  98. 98.

    Obama quoted in Andrew Ross Sorkin, “President Obama Weighs His Economic Legacy, New York Times Magazine, April 28, 2016.

  99. 99.

    Elena Kagan, “Presidential Administration,” Harvard Law Review, 114, 2000–2001.

  100. 100.

    Gregory Korte, “Obama’s executive action rollouts increasing in pace,” USATODAY, April 22, 2014.

  101. 101.

    Obama quoted in Korte, “Obama’s executive action rollouts increasing in pace.”

  102. 102.

    “Obama on Executive Actions: ‘I’ve Got A Pen And I’ve Got A Phone’,” CBS News, January 14, 2014.

  103. 103.

    Korte, Op. Cit., “Obama’s executive action rollouts increasing in pace.”

  104. 104.

    Gregory Korte, “Obama issues ‘executive orders by another name’,” USATODAY, December 17, 2014.

  105. 105.

    Micheal D. Shear, “Obama, Daring Congress, Acts to Overhaul Immigration,” New York Times, November 20, 2014.

  106. 106.

    Micheal D. Shear and Robert Pear, “Obama’s Immigration Plan Could Shield Five Million,” New York Times, November 19, 2014.

  107. 107.

    Michael D. Shear and Julia Preston, “Appeals Court Deals Blow to Obama’s Immigration Plans,” New York Times, November 9, 2015.

  108. 108.

    Michael D. Shear, “Obama to Appeal Immigration Ruling to Supreme Court,” New York Times, November 10, 2015.

  109. 109.

    Adam Liptak and Michael D. Shear, “Supreme Court Tie Blocks Obama Immigration Plan,” New York Times, June 23, 2017.

  110. 110.

    Memorandum: Janet Napolitano, Secretary, DHS to David Aguilar, Acting Comm’r, CBP, et al., “Exercising Prosecutorial Discretion with Respect to Individuals Who Came to the United States as Children,’” Department of Homeland Security, June 15, 2012.

  111. 111.

    Maria Saacchetti, “Kelly revokes Obama order shielding immigrant parents of U.S. citizens,” Washington Post, June 15, 2017; see also Elaine Duke, “Rescission” of the June 15, 2012 Memorandum Entitled “Exercising Prosecutorial Discretion with Respect to Individuals Who Came to the United States as Children,” Department of Homeland Security, September 5, 2017.

  112. 112.

    Michael D. Shear, “Trump Must Keep DACA Protections for Now, Judge Says,” New York Times, January 9, 2017.

  113. 113.

    Richard Wolff, “Supreme Court agrees to speed up ‘Trump’s DACA appeal,” USATODAY, January 23, 2018.

  114. 114.

    Vanessa Romo, Martina Stewart, and Brian Naylor, “Trump Ends DACA, Calls on Congress to Act,” NPR, September 5, 2017.

  115. 115.

    Katie Sanders, “Boehner: Obama said ‘22 times’ that he couldn’t do immigration executive action,” Politifact, March 1, 2015.

  116. 116.

    Joby Warrick, “Obama administration, citing climate risks, plans steep cuts in greenhouse-gas pollution,” Washington Post, March 31, 2015.

  117. 117.

    “President Obama: The United States Formally Enters the Paris Agreement,” The White House, September 3, 2016.

  118. 118.

    Valerie Volcovici, “Republicans warn world that Obama U.N. plan could be undone,” Reuters, March 31, 2015.

  119. 119.

    Michael D. Shear, “Trump Will Withdraw U.S. From Paris Climate Agreement,” New York Times, June 1, 2017.

  120. 120.

    The administration’s view and its narrative of why it is in the country’s best interests can be found at:

  121. 121.

    Carol Morello and Karen DeYoug, “Nuclear deal with Iran scrutinized by experts,” Washington Post, July 17, 2017; see also Anthony Cordesman, “The Need for a Serious New Strategy to Deal with Iran and the Gulf,” CSIS, October 13, 2017; and David Albright and Andrea Striker, “Analysis of the IAEA’s Eighth Iran Nuclear Deal Report: The JCPOA two years after Adoption Day,” ISIS, November 13, 2016.

  122. 122.

    Anne Gearan and Karen DeYoung, “Trump announce plans to pull out of Iran nuclear deal despite pleas from European leaders,” Washington Post, May 8, 2018.

  123. 123.

    Mark Lander and David E. Sanger, “Trump Disavows Nuclear Deal, but Doesn’t Scrap It,” New York Times, October 13, 2017.

  124. 124.

    Mike Pompeo, “After the Deal: A New Iran Strategy,” The Heritage Foundation Washington, DC, May 21, 2018.

  125. 125.

    George C. Edwards. 2015. Overreach: Leadership in the Obama Presidency. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  126. 126.

    Shirley Anne Warshaw, director of the Fielding Center for Presidential Leadership Study at Gettysburg College quoted in Peter Baker, “Can Trump Destroy Obama’s Legacy?,” New York Times, June 23, 2017.

  127. 127.

    Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University quoted in Victoria McGrain, “Trump’s greatest mission: Erasing Obama’s legacy,” Boston Globe, December 16, 2017.

  128. 128.

    “Just Tell Him You’re the President” NETFLICK, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” Season 7: Episode 1, December 30, 2015 [at 10:49] [italics added]

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Renshon, S. (2019). Unfulfilled Hopes: President Obama’s Legacy. In: Rich, W. (eds) Looking Back on President Barack Obama’s Legacy. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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