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Our Transformational President: A Mixed Legacy Thus Far

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Regardless of how he originally defined his mission as a transformational leader, President Obama has yet to transform America, and there are serious questions about how he will be remembered in history.

Speculation about Obama's legacy at mid-point of his tenure has been positive, but restrained. As Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, put it very succinctly: "First African-American president and enacted health care reform."

There is less excitement in the air this time, and everyone knows that rough times lie ahead regarding the budget, the economy, immigration, the Middle East and other volatile issues.

Tentative Assessment.

Some commentators seem appreciative of what Obama accomplished during a contentious first term.

The Atlantic correspondent James Fallows summarized the president's record this way in an NPR interview ("The Accomplishments, Shortcomings of Obama's First Term"):

I think that in the purest objective way, we can say there were more successes than failures for President Obama: number one, the disaster that didn't happen in terms of the world financial crisis; number two, getting the health care bill passed. And now since he's been re-elected, that's going to be enacted. And I would say number three, doing something that did not seem a gimme four years ago, which is winding up the wars both in Iraq and Afghanistan. If you recognize how contentious and traumatic those were five and six years ago, and to have them essentially both on the exit path for the U.S., I think those are significant achievements.

Others are disinclined to grant him much credit. As Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin wrote on the day of his second inauguration (Obama's Search for Greatness"):

Today's proceedings seem underwhelming in part because Obama is already president (quite literally since he was actually sworn in yesterday). It is also the case that the president hasn't given a truly good speech since the Arizona memorial. Expectations and interest are therefore low. But it is also the case that Obama has helped devalue his own words by governing not as someone pursuing greatness but as someone spurred by partisan animosity. Despite his sycophants' claims to the contrary, Ronald Reagan he is not.

Partisan Posturing.

Liberals and conservatives have taken their best shots in anticipation of a rough second term:

John Dickerson, Slate's political correspondent, advised Obama that, if he aspires to greatness, he must declare war on the Republican Party ("Go for the Throat!"):

Enhancing the president's legacy requires something more than simply the clever application of predictable stratagems. Washington's partisan rancor, the size of the problems facing government, and the limited amount of time before Obama is a lame duck all point to a single conclusion: The president who came into office speaking in lofty terms about bipartisanship and cooperation can only cement his legacy if he destroys the GOP. If he wants to transform American politics, he must go for the throat.

Karl Rove, scarred strategist of the losing side in 2012, seemed satisfied that Obama and the Democrats will squander their current strength in the second term ("About That 'Permanent Democratic Majority'"):

Demography isn't destiny because nothing is permanent in politics--and Democrats' insistence to the contrary will likely lead them to overreach, ignoring issues such as jobs, anemic growth and deficits in order to tackle gun control and climate change. That would be good for Republicans. Governing from the hard left sunk Democrats in 2010 and would cost them again in 2014.

A Forward But Limited Legacy.

As for the long run, serious analysts credit Obama for his progressive politics; but they seem reticent about predicting greatness for the president in this critical second term.

Stanford University's David M. Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, figures that cumulative obstacles will limit President Obama's ability to do much more than what he accomplished during his first term ("Obama's Victory Won't Transform America"):

From all appearances we are most probably in for a repeat performance of the last two years: a remarkably disciplined and decidedly intransigent Republican party dominating the House, a paper-thin and fragile Democrtic majority in the Senate, and a diminished, dispirited, and check-mated president with little or no room for maneuver--and this in the face of perhaps the greatest fiscal challenge in the history of the republic, an increasingly volatile international environment, and a raft of unfinished business like devising coherent national energy and immigration policies.

The real problem, in Kennedy's opinion, is not the fault of Obama alone. "But in the last analysis we have no one to blame but ourselves, and our inherited political system - and we have no plausible reason to expect anything substantially different in Obama's second term."

Perhaps Mr. Obama should pay attention to some journalistic counsel, from National Journal's Major Garrett "Obama at the Hinge of History"):

Obama must accept the election verdicts of 2008, 2010, and 2012, different though they are. He won a modern-day landslide in 2008 and saw a national repudiation in 2010. He clawed back to reelection but with a popular-vote margin that shrank considerably and conspicuously. Comprehendiing the supple and subtle signals of reelection is a particular burden. It could also be among Obama's greatest tools to change his presidency and move the hinge of history, to coin a familiar word, forward.

Looking Ahead in This Series.

President Obama's mixed record at midpoint of his White House tenure has everyone guessing about his eventual legacy in American history. Will he lead us to economic recovery? Will he resolve our stubborn social divisions? Will he make his mark as a skilled politician? Will he be fondly remembered by "Obama Nation" or will he be cursed for "Obamanation"?

These are important questions. But there is another, different standard by which we should hold this president: Whether and how he addresses the uncertain future of American democracy. He promised fundamental transformation of the Great Experiment; and we must hold him to that promise.

As I have written elsewhere in this series, America is changing in ways that are important and unsettling for the future of American democracy. Inevitable systemic developments and growing philosophical tensions over historic ideals, cultural values, and principles of govenance are transforming our national democratic experiment. Our civic mix of people, politics, and government no longer works the way it has in the past; and we seem to be tiring of the Great Experiment itself. Therefore, it is time for serious national dialogue about America--including some alternative scenarios and the possibility of a transformational "New America" in the Twenty-First Century.

In my next post, I will continue this transformational discussion with some alternative options for evolving America.

(For previous posts in this series, click here.)

Author's Note: This post is part of a series of discussions about "Election 2012, Barack Obama, and the future of American democracy." This series includes edited, updated material from my book, The Future of American Democracy: A Former Congressman's Unconventional Analysis (2002). I'm grateful to University Press of America for allowing me to borrow from that publication for my discussions on Huffington Post.