What does a president have to do these days to get his face carved into a mountainside?
My colleague and old friend Ron Fournier contends that President Obama needs to tame gun violence, climate change, and the $16 trillion national debt to achieve immortality, and “pity his legacy” if he fails. In the spirit of the Web, and Joan Rivers, can we talk?
All of those agenda items are, of course, enormously significant. But there are limits on what even Obama’s best, most skillful self could achieve on some of them, and I’d further argue that Obama already has notched two or three accomplishments that cement his legacy.
The top item has got to be the Affordable Care Act. Love it or hate it, America next year will have a health care system that aims for universal insurance coverage and that sets up—some would say inflicts—the architecture to make that a reality. Obama has thus achieved what presidents have been trying to do on and off since Teddy Roosevelt broached the issue in 1912, and what the other wealthy nations of the world already do. That’s transformational, from the standpoint of both citizens facing illness and a nation setting its priorities.
The second potentially immortalizing item in my book is ending the military’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy for gay troops, with support from most military leaders and poignant advocacy from at least one. It was a symbolic, highly visible step that appears to have ushered in a new era of gay-rights progress.
Transformational possibility No. 3 has to do with economic survival, of individuals and a nation. Historians may determine that Obama prevented his country from spiraling into a full-scale Great Depression II. If that’s the case, his much-disparaged stimulus package—with its grab bag of state and local aid, highway projects, education grants, and green-energy subsidies—will be seen as pivotal to his presidency. So will the Wall Street bailout and the steps his administration took to ensure the health of banks. And so will the auto bailout, which preserved an iconic U.S. industry and ultimately might also be viewed, along with various aspects of the stimulus, as having rescued and rejuvenated American manufacturing.
Let’s assume Obama grows into a kick-ass leader in his second term. As Ron suggests, climate change could be another Rushmore moment. Not even Superman or James Bond could get this Congress to pass a carbon tax or cap-and-trade to limit the emissions that scientists say contribute to global warming, but Obama has a significant opportunity. It lies in a yet-to-be-released federal regulation, required by the Clean Air Act, that would limit carbon pollution from existing coal plants and oil refineries. Combined with Obama’s strict fuel-efficiency standards phasing in by 2025, the controversial new pollution limits would give Obama and the United States standing to lead when the international community negotiates a new climate treaty in 2015.
Obama also appears determined to win new laws on gun safety and gun research and may succeed. He probably will try again for a grand bargain on entitlements and taxes to counter the frightening explosion of national debt, and the whole country should hope he does.
But neither of those fronts has been a Rushmore recipe for past presidents. The problem is that achievements in those areas have proven transitory—undone by subsequent presidents or overtaken by recessions and demographics. President Reagan agreed in 1983 to raise the payroll tax and the Social Security eligibility age to extend the life of the program, for instance, and now we need to extend its life again. President Clinton managed to pass an assault-weapons ban, balance the national budget, and leave projected surpluses that he envisioned would pay down the debt. All of that was reversed during the Bush administration that followed.
Fortunately for Obama and his stated ambition to change the trajectory of America, he’s already got a couple of game-changers in the bank.
Update at 4:20 pm Friday: Just to be clear, I don't think Obama or any modern president is going to land on Mount Rushmore or some other mountain. It's more a question these days of how high you rank when historians make their lists of bad, better and best presidents. And I don't foresee immortality for anyone!