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President Obama's transformed America [Commentary]

Laws and LegislationElectionsTrials and ArbitrationBarack ObamaJustice System

On February 19, 2008, Sen. Barack Obama promised to "fundamentally transform America." This was no mere rhetoric from the telegenic man who would go on to best Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Rather, it was an audacious (to borrow a term) pledge to transform America's economy, culture and standing in the world.

Some on the right responded with unfounded allegations against candidate Obama, claiming he was a socialist, closet Muslim or racist. All were off base, but lodged often enough to allow the mainstream press to paint anti-Obama-ites with a broad brush — often laced with its own hint of racist innuendo (This defense mechanism continues to act as sword and shield for the president and Democratic leaders in Congress. But the racist indictment has begun to wear thin after six years and a decidedly difficult second term).

So where are we in measuring this most progressive of presidents?

The objective record reflects what I and many other pundits have duly noted for the past six years: By any measure the president has enjoyed considerable success in reaching his goals.

Domestically, the performance reflects what Senator Obama promised: a relentless effort to expand the scope and reach of the federal government combined with a steady demand for a more progressive tax code.

A $1.2 trillion stimulus full of pomp and circumstance was intended to prime the Keynesian pump — but found precious few "shovel ready" projects.

Also successfully passed but oversold was a needlessly complex health reform bill that has sentenced millions of Americans to smaller provider networks and higher deductibles and that continues to inflict economic uncertainty on the hearts and (wallets) of many Americans who were generally satisfied with their previous coverage.

Uber-liberal appointments to the federal bench and important federal boards will ensure an expanding federal intervention in our lives and businesses for decades to come. Mr. Obama's Department of Housing and Urban Development has moved to preempt local zoning laws in communities that aren't as racially integrated as the feds deem appropriate. And the administration's new carbon standards are aimed at fulfilling the most ambitious goal of the Obama era: "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal."

Not since LBJ has a president attempted to interject such a federal presence in our market economy — and our lives. And few Americans discuss (or understand) how the Federal Reserve's $85 billion a month purchases of treasury bills kept the economy afloat during a historically slow economic recovery.

On culture, the president has an opinion on everything from gay marriage to March Madness. And he never hesitates to express his views, particularly where the appropriate role of government is concerned.

And it is here where America's famous sense of individualism is on the decline. In the Obama era, dependence has made a comeback: 50 million people on food stamps and a quadrupling of Social Security disability beneficiaries speak to a new cultural norm.

Independence may be on the decline for another reason: a willingness to use a widely feared government agency (the IRS) to chill political speech. Dozens of potentially impactful conservative groups were silenced when Lois Lerner's office decided to snail walk conservative non-profit applications through the approval process. Alas, the president was successfully reelected with these potentially damaging right wingers sidelined.

Finally, a permissiveness regarding illegal immigration has now contributed to a significant humanitarian crisis at our southern border — a disaster the administration was warned about for the last several years but failed to prepare for.

But it is foreign policy wherein the president has had the most impact. Here, campaign pledges to close "Gitmo," prosecute captured enemy combatants in domestic courts, end American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq and improve our profile in the Muslim world appear to trump more strategic considerations impacting America's role in the post-Cold War world.

To be fair, these promises were quite explicit from Day One. But the problem begins where the promise ends. For example, the administration's failure to negotiate a "status of forces" agreement in Iraq after U.S. withdrawal let the bad guys know we would be gone on schedule. Today, the civilized world must deal with the reality of the world's first terrorist nation state in the middle of what used to be Iraq. Not exactly a presidential resume builder.

Similarly, the gradual emptying of "Gitmo" is another campaign promise fulfilled, but leaves the world a more dangerous place as former prisoners of war return to the battlefield. Witness the words of captured terrorist leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who upon being turned over to the Iraqi government in 2009 promised to "see you guys [Americans] in New York."

But the president's vision to have the Muslim world like us more may be the most problematic. Predictably, what sounded so appealing to liberal college audiences on the campaign trail is interpreted as weakness by the world's leading troublemakers.

To wit: Despite protracted negotiations and increasing Israeli nervousness, Iran, a situation once seen as intolerable in the West. On the Palestinian question, heavy-handed administration attempts to leverage Israel into a deal have gone nowhere. And now an ascendant Hamas again terrorizes Israel for its own political purposes.

In Russia, Vladimir Putin seeks to unilaterally redraw Ukrainian borders while thumbing his nose at western sanctions. So much for "reset" era goodwill that was supposed to be generated by Mr. Obama's first term decision to cancel ballistic missile deals with Poland and the Czech Republic.

Speaking of Russian expansionism, early opportunities to assist moderate rebels fighting Putin-sponsored Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were missed. Mr. al-Assad's repeated use of sarin gas supposedly crossed a "red line," but to no consequence. And today's small arms assistance to the rebels is minimal compared to the lethal assistance supplied to the regime by Hezbollah in Lebanon and the ayatollahs in Iran.

The president came to office on a wave of anti-war sentiment. Americans had tired of spending blood and money in places where sectarian strife is a seemingly permanent way of life. But simply leaving war zones is not a policy. Neither are calls for diplomatic resolution when the opposing parties neither respect nor fear you. Such fecklessness only empowers enemies while provoking concern among friends.

The bottom line: Extended civil wars, increasing instability in the Middle East, a resurgent Putin and the establishment of a radical Muslim caliphate in Iraq are the generally predictable results of "carrying a small stick."

Alas, Americans are beginning to understand that our newly acquired role of "secondary actor" comes with a price: reduced influence and respect. Generating a more effective policy will require the president to identify an American identity that minimizes "boots on the ground" but challenges serial contemptuous treatment by the world's numerous miscreants. Not an easy task for a president never quite comfortable with the projection of American power.

The Obama era has witnessed extraordinary growth in the size, scope and expense of the federal government, along with Medicaid expansion, higher taxes, historic military withdrawals from foreign conflicts and a less visible role in world affairs. This record was rewarded in a comfortable reelection in 2012. Eight years-worth of wide ranging executive orders, activist federal judges and regulatory appointees and a diminished military capacity will keep this progressive momentum going for decades. Transformation indeed.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding, the author of "Turn this Car Around" and "America:  Hope for Change" — books about national politics. His email is ehrlichcolumn@gmail.com.

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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