By Jules Witcover
6:00 AM EST, December 6, 2013
When American presidents leave office, they hope they will have left behind a legacy of good works earning history's good judgment. Some, like Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and FDR, achieve that distinction, but most others fall short in one way or another.
Barack Obama, who ran on hope and a vision of change, seems destined as of now to join that majority as a result of his own leadership shortcomings, dramatically demonstrated in the botched rollout of his prized health insurance plan.
He has contributed to the confusion and disappointment with misleading and erroneous promises that enrollees would be able to keep their old insurance and physicians if they so desired. He has been obliged to apologize, and then devote weeks to making the website workable. As a result, he now has had to launch a major effort to sell the plan's virtues all over again.
It's a battle the president had already spent three years waging. First, the law's dogged foes charged it was unconstitutional, until the Supreme Court jolted them with its surprise split decision approving it. Then the opponents pressed on, trying first to "repeal and reform" it and finally to defund it. Since that failed, they have been trying to discredit it.
Mr. Obama still has three years in his presidency to turn his ambitious enterprise into the achievement that would be the highlight of his domestic legacy. But it will be an uphill struggle. The Republican obstructionism that has pushed against him for nearly five years will continue to accentuate the negative about "Obamacare."
His prospect for accomplishing a lasting positive legacy has been complicated by the fact that his presidency has been largely preoccupied over the last five years with attempting to undo the reckless policies of his predecessor.
From Mr. Obama's first days in office, he had to deal with George W. Bush's own dismal legacy: an unnecessary and calamitous war of choice in Iraq, an unfinished but necessary war in Afghanistan against the perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and a Great Recession born of Wall Street excesses.
All these inherited woes obliged Mr. Obama to govern in a defensive crouch, compounded by Republicans in Congress effectively frustrating his political and legislative aspirations at every turn. His optimistic plans for ambitious immigration reform and tougher gun control were detoured amid a partisan budget fight that led to a 16-day government shutdown.
The administration's efforts to repair the federal website for health-insurance enrollment have claimed substantial progress. But a residue of disappointment and public doubt lingers, keeping Obama on the defensive and is likely to do so for some time. Generally speaking, much of the bloom already is off the rose of his sunny and historic inauguration of 2009.
New questions of his competence and his inexperience abound, even after five years of climbing out of the morass of Bush's neglect of the economic collapse at home and disastrous invasion of Iraq based on flawed or false intelligence. But all that is water over the dam now.
Obama had no choice but to play with the cards dealt him and now must cope with those he has dealt himself, in his own most significant initiative. Perhaps his remaining three presidential years may be consumed just in getting "Obamacare" right.
The historic significance of his election as the first African-American president is already established. Nevertheless, the scope of his original inspirational pitch to the country that "Yes we can" requires more than digging it out of this hole, and the one in which he found it on taking the reins of office.
Achieving truly workable health insurance for most Americans would certainly be the crown jewel in Mr. Obama's legacy. He cannot, however, let that pursuit sidetrack him from other worthy goals, including immigration reform at home and maintaining peace through multinational commitments abroad.
Opening the doors to more immigrants could go a long way toward enhancing his presidency's standing, and also boost his party's political chances to retain the White House after he's gone in 2017. Democrats see opening the doors to more immigrants as a key to boosting the Latino vote in their favor, and that could be Mr. Obama's parting gift to them.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.
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