by James Hilty
(Ed. Note: Dr. James Hilty, who was profiled in the Local last week, is a Lower Gwynedd resident, the former dean of Temple University Ambler, author of numerous books on U.S. presidents and a highly respected historian. We asked him for his estimate of the administrations of Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Here is his reply, edited for space:)
No president entering office since Franklin Roosevelt faced such trying times as Barack Obama did in January, 2009. His predecessor left him with two wars (Iraq and Afghanistan) and the most severe financial meltdown since the Great Depression. Adding to his difficulties, Obama was plagued throughout his presidency by a loud chorus of doubters questioning his legal right to hold the office. In retrospect, I believe it to be one of the most courageous presidencies in our nation’s history.
Rarely is a president accorded accolades for something that did not happen. But Obama’s greatest achievement was in preventing the Great Recession from becoming a Depression. Entering office, he faced a global financial crisis, a catastrophic meltdown of the financial marketplace. His policies and swift action helped stem the tide and keep the financial crisis of 2007-2008 from deepening.
The cornerstone of those policies was the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, a $787 billion economic stimulus package. Obama also secured legislation to extend loans to troubled auto makers and to purchase depreciated real estate assets, as well as the Dodd-Frank Act instituting major regulatory reform of financial markets. After a prickly negotiation with Congress, the U.S. debt ceiling was increased to prevent the government from defaulting on its obligations.
Toward the end of his second term, the economy was on its way toward full recovery. The unemployment rate peaked in October, 2009, at 10 percent. By the time Obama left office in 2017, it had fallen to 4.8 percent. Corporate profits increased by 57 percent, the S&P stock index rose 166%, and a net increase of 11.6 million jobs resulted.
Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment, passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), ultimately added 15 million Americans to the insured rolls but left 28 million still without coverage at the end of his term.
In the war on terrorism Obama gradually ended direct U.S. military involvement in Iraq, only to be drawn back in 2014 with the emergence of ISIL, a radical Islamic terrorist group operating in Iraq and Syria. He continued the war in Afghanistan, and, again, gradually drew down the number of troops but made a long-term commitment to support the Afghani government in the war against the Taliban. After the CIA finally located Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, Obama ordered a “surgical raid” on May 1, 2011 that led to the death of the leader of al-Qaeda, the one responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
Obama’s legacy is uncertain because nearly all of his achievements are now under persistent attack by Donald Trump. The 2015 Paris Accords on global climate change, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals, the joint agreement to limit the Iranian nuclear program, the normalization of relations with Cuba, arms control agreements, free trade agreements, all have been partially negated or ended by Trump. Obamacare has been crippled by attacks through the courts and by Trump’s budgetary cutbacks and deliberate administrative neglect.
One must acknowledge that Barack Obama’s two terms are historically exceptional, no matter the ideological or policy differences one may hold. Expectations were high when he took office. As the first multi-racial American to hold the office, his election itself is a significant landmark, but it did not bring the transformation in American race relations to a “post-racial America” that many hoped for.
Neither did his presidency bring any great resolution of international tensions, despite Obama’s eloquent exhortations. Awarding him the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize proved premature to say the least.
Obama carried himself with dignity and humility throughout his presidency, despite the racial taunts, personal attacks and persistent questioning of his legitimate hold on the office. There was no hint of scandal or personal wrongdoing. He was universally admired for his eloquence, graceful demeanor and biting wit. Obama’s personal popularity did not carry over to his party, however, which suffered significant losses in the off-year elections and, of course, the Democrats lost the presidency in 2016. As a party leader he merits no better than a low-average grade.
Overall, it is a somewhat mixed record, as reflected in historians’ rankings, which tend toward the high end of the scale and range from a high of 8 to a low of 18.
Regarding Trump, his strongest political attribute is his incorrigible capacity for self-promotion, which politically translates into a truly incomparable talent and tolerance for campaigning. He loves talking about himself. He can do it for hours on end. His presidency has become a perpetual re-election campaign. Trump seemingly turns each public appearance into an impromptu campaign rally, a chance to ballyhoo his thin record of accomplishments or to bash an opponent, sometimes in clear defiance of the Hatch Act prohibiting campaigning while on the government clock.
A purely political animal, Trump has a talent for finding and exposing political weakness in others. His attack-dog, take-noprisoners style obviously worked for him in the 2016 campaign. His mantra, learned from his mentor Roy Cohn, is always to remain on the attack. Never apologize, never explain. When challenged, deny and counter-attack. When such an approach is buttressed by the power of the presidency, it can be doubly effective, as shown by Trump’s success in getting Congressional Republicans to fall in line, effectively paralyzing the Republican congressional leadership. It has proven a far less effective technique for managing foreign policy.
Out of the many roles a president plays, Trump has been most successful as party leader. He has thoroughly captured the Republican Party. It is now the party of Trump, despite affronting the evangelicals with revelations of prior personal misconduct (see Stormy Daniels) and despite forsaking a cornerstone of Republican conservatism by abandoning fiscal restraint and purposely running a $1 trillion deficit.
One of Trump’s major weaknesses (to a historian’s way of thinking, but not necessarily to casual observers of the Presidency) is his total lack of prior experience in government and his limited knowledge of the history and traditions of the office he holds. A real estate developer and TV personality with seemingly little or no interest in how government worked, he seemed to expect that everyone in Washington worked for him.