Follow the Debate
National Journal reporters Ron Fournier and Jill Lawrence discuss President Obama's legacy.
- Read the Rebuttal: Obama Has Already Cemented His Legacy -- Like It or Not
By Jill Lawrence
- See How the Debate Started: Obama Has 3 Shots at Immortality
By Ron Fournier
Perhaps we should wait until his second term begins before carving Barack Obama's face in Mount Rushmore. Is that asking too much?
The other day, I wrote that Obama has a shot at immortality if he leads the nation to substantial progress on gun violence, the national debt and climate change. My colleague and old friend Jill Lawrence filed a provactive rebuttal today: "What does a president have to do these days to get his face carved into a mountainside?"
There are limits on what Obama can do, Jill wrote, and he "already has notched two or three accomplishments that cement his legacy."
In other words, break out the chisels!
I had expected conservatives to criticize me for having the audacity to hope for our president's immortality. And they did. But I was surprised to hear from many liberals, as well as Jill, who think I sold Obama short.
To be fair, my analysis failed to spell out Obama's first-term accomplishments, although I did acknowledge his "enormous skills" and tried to focus readers on the distinction between good and great presidencies.
That may be where Jill and I disagree -- over the definition of immortality, a phrase that in my mind, like Mount Rushmore, is reserved for the very few presidents who strode into extraordinary times (like ours today), out-foxed uncompromising rivals and solved intractable problems.
It's not insult to say Obama hasn't achieved immortality. Actually, it's a compliment to say he could.
Based on Jill's commendable piece, here are five reasons why I think Obama is not Rushmore-ready (at least not yet):
1. The Affordable Care Act was a major political triumph: Passing a bill that promises health care to all Americans has been a goal of presidents, on and off, since Theodore Roosevelt. But you can't call it a policy success, nor should you immortalize Obama, before knowing whether it works. Simple counter to Jill: The bill has not taken full effect.
2. Ending the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gay troops certainly earns Obama a spot in history books, but not the pantheon. It's a small-bore regulation that affects only a minority of the population. Symbolically, of course, it's an important piece of social change, but Obama has hardly led on gay rights (google "Biden" and "gay marriage").
3. Historians will likely give Obama credit for steering the country away from the brink of economic collapse in 2009. He's got a good legacy-in-progress. But, really, Mount Rushmore? Franklin Roosevelt led the nation through a long Depression and world war, and yet you don't see his face carved into a South Dakota mountain. At the opening of his second term, FDR had his hardest work ahead of him. So does Obama.
4. Jill makes the fair point that "not even Superman or James Bond" could get this Congress to seriously address globe-choking pollution. You could say the same about guns and the national debt. Let's stipulate for a moment that House Republicans are obstructionists; they will defy anything Obama wants. Okay, now what? Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and the Roosevelt faced adversities that, in their times, seemed impregnable. Great presidents overcome great odds.
5. Jill says that Obama victories on guns and debt would be "transitory" and thus not worth Rushmore. True, Obama would need enduring success to be lionized forever. Which points to the problem with hinging immortality, as Jill does, on the Affordable Health Care Act: What is more transitory than a polarizing law that hasn't taken full affect?
Jill's headline is: "Obama Has Already Cemented His Legacy, Like it or Not." The closing clause suggests that anybody who hasn't immortalized Obama doesn't like him. I don't think that's what Jill meant, but I want to make it clear that this isn't about liking or not liking Obama. Debating whether Obama might be a good or great president is, after all, a distinction that about 47 percent of the U.S. population would think gives him too much credit.
Update: To make it easier to follow and join the conversation with Jill and me, here are the first two takes:
Guns, Debt and Climate Change Give Obama Shot at Immortality, By Ron Fournier
Obama has Already Cemented His Legacy, Like It or Not, By Jill Lawrence.