“The Incomplete Greatness of Barack Obama”

Most of what we talk about here at Political Animal these days–and indeed, most of what the whole chattering classes discuss–is affected fundamentally by Barack Obama’s character, ideology, political strategy, policy initiatives, stewardship of the economy, re-election prospects, legacy–and of course, his many enemies.

But while we skirt the subject all the time, a very basic assessment of his presidency so far, and of its potential, is rarely undertaken. That’s the burden of the cover package in the March/April issue of the Washington Monthly.

The centerpiece, by editor in chief Paul Glastris, has the deliberately provocative title of “The Incomplete Greatness of Barack Obama.” It takes a careful look at Obama’s record on all major areas of domestic and international policy, and helps explain the anomaly that while experts give him relatively high marks as compared to his predecessors, the public and most people involved in day-to-day news coverage aren’t convinced that he’s done a lot. That, says Glastris, is in no small part because of his very unusual status as a president who took office in the midst of an economic calamity, facing almost universal opposition from conservatives and perhaps unrealistic expectations from liberals: “When judging Obama’s record so far, conservatives measure him against their fears, liberals against their hopes, and the rest of us against our pocketbooks.”

The other obstacle to a balanced assessment of Obama, as Glastris’ title suggests, is that his accomplishments are fragile. We don’t know exactly where the economy is headed next. The Affordable Care Act has largely yet to be implemented. And much of what has been done since 2009 could be reversed if Obama’s re-election fails.

It’s also clear that much of the public isn’t even aware of the administration’s full record. In a sidebar article by Glastris along with Ryan Cooper and Siyu Hu, “Obama’s Top 50 Accomplishments” are listed, ranked and briefly discussed, beginning with health care reform and ending with cancellation of the F-22 fighter boondoggle.

Part of the problem of fully assessing the Obama legacy, Glastris explains in his Editor’s Note for the March/April issue, is that much of his policy agenda, for better or worse, represents a continuation of the work of the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, in no small part because Obama has surrounded himself with veterans of the Clinton administration, from his Secretary of State to his economic team. This aspect of the Obama record is frustrating to some liberals and maddening to most conservatives, much like the 42d president himself.

This cover package is certain to stir controversy on the left and right, and includes judgements that will not especially please the president’s allies, either. But it is essential reading in an election year where Obama’s place in history will ultimately meet its most important reckoning.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.