During the last two years of a president's second term pundits begin discussing his "legacy." How will historians judge Barack Obama? Conservatives believe he will be loathed. Liberals tend to be more generous, however many of us believe Obama will be remembered as a mixed bag, a mixture of good and bad policies.
At this writing, the president's approval ratings are the highest they've been in months and his favorability ratings are positive. 72 percent of those who watched Obama's State-of-the-Union address believed the administration's policies "will move the country in the right direction."
Whether you believe Obama has done a good job or a bad job depends upon your party affiliation. The Gallup organization observed that the president's approval ratings are historically polarized: "Throughout President Barack Obama's sixth full year in office, an average of 79% of Democrats, compared with 9% of Republicans, approved of the job he was doing."
Typically, Democrats grade the president's performance issue by issue and grade him positively for his handling of the economy. Most voters agree that the Obama administration guided us out of the great recession. A recent Associated Press-GFK poll found there is growing support for the president's economic policies and "51 percent approve of his handling of unemployment."
But that doesn't mean Obama gets an "A" for his economic leadership. Even though the economy is recovering, there's record inequality. A recent report by investment bank Credit Suisse found that the ratio of wealth to disposable income is at its highest level since the Depression. And, as Senator Elizabeth Warren is fond of pointing out, Wall Street is back to business as usual. The president missed a historic opportunity to make fundamental changes to the US financial system.
On the other hand, Obama managed to get the Affordable Care Act passed. 11.4 million Americans are enrolled in Obamacare. (87 percent receiving some sort of cost assistance.) The latest Kaiser Tracking Poll found that while more Americans have an unfavorable view of Obamacare (46 percent) rather a favorable view (40 percent), the outcome is heavily influenced by political affiliation (64 percent of Democrats like it versus only 11 percent of Republicans.) Moreover most voters want to "fix" Obamacare rather than junk it. (64 percent fix versus 27 percent get rid of.)
In addition, President Obama also gets positive marks from most voters on his handling of immigration and the environment. The latest polls indicate 55 percent of voters support Obama's executive actions on immigration. A November Pew Research Poll found that voters trusted the president more than Republicans to protect the environment.
Nonetheless, President Obama has promoted some bad policies. Since 2010, the United States has been negotiating a secret trade deal, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). If approved by Congress, this pact between the U.S. and 11 of America's Pacific Rim trade-partners would govern 40 percent of US imports and exports. US trade negotiators want TPP to get special, "fast-track" treatment from Congress, where it would simply get an up or down vote without Congress delving into the details. Polls indicate that voters do not want the president to have fast-track authority. Voters in blue states will likely oppose the entire trade deal.
Furthermore, the president is a mixed bag on foreign policy. Obama was elected, in part, because of his promise to extricate the U.S. from Afghanistan and Iraq. While he's removed most of the ground troops the "War on Terror" persists. As a result, voters disagree with President Obama's handling of terrorism , 54 percent disapproval compared to 44 percent approval, and an even larger margin don't like his handling of the Islamic State (ISIS), 57 percent disapproval compared to 40 percent approval.
On February 18, the president asked Congress for an authorization for the use of military force against the Islamic State. There are three issues with this request: whether or not the president is authorized to send ground troops into Iraq/Syria (the domain of the Islamic State), whether or not the authorization has an expiration date, and how broad the authorization is.
Writing in Foreign Policy, law professor Ryan Goodman observed, "The decision on [the definition of "associated forces" of the Islamic State] may determine whether this [authorization for the use of military force] gives the next president the power to embroil America in conflicts and in countries that no current member of Congress could predict."
What will Barack Obama's legacy be? If a judgment were made today, it would be positive: the economic recovery and Obamacare. But the Transpacific Partnership trade agreement and the authorization for the use of military force threaten the president's legacy; could turn it negative.