Obama's cloudy legacy [Commentary]

It's often said and written that presidents, to achieve greatness, require great challenges. Washington had the challenge of creating a new nation; Lincoln had the Civil War; FDR faced the Great Depression and World War II. All clearly qualified by that standard and achieved greatness.

By contrast consider Bill Clinton, who had two successful terms marred mostly by a personal scandal that brought him impeachment but acquittal. It has been noted that he encountered no major national crisis during his presidency, the resolution of which might have brought him greatness in history's annals.


According to that yardstick, Barack Obama has more than enough crises right now to make him a candidate for greatness, if only he can manage to extricate himself and the nation from some of them. Beyond the two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that still won't go away, he has the new war against the self-styled Islamic State just getting started, not to mention the Russian threat to Ukraine, which could potentially trigger NATO engagement.

In all of these crises, the president seems stymied, and not only by realities on the ground. His own lack of a clear and decisive foreign policy strategy appears to depend on a heavy dose of wishful thinking that halfway military measures may suffice on each of these fronts.


What Mr. Obama has called America's permanent war footing originated with the legitimate military response in Afghanistan to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and then was expanded by the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Mr. Obama pledged to end the wars upon taking office, but now he has invited sharp criticism for his withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq and the ongoing pullout from Afghanistan.

He is accused of not doing all he could to persuade the Iraqi government to allow the U.S. to maintain ground troops in its country, and of doing little in the face of the Islamic State's occupation of Fallujah and serious threats to Baghdad itself and, most recently, the Kurd-controlled Syrian town of Kobane on the Turkish border.

Critics in his own Democratic Party, from Hillary Clinton to Leon Panetta, blame Mr. Obama for acting too little and too late in confronting the Islamic State in Syria, delaying in drone attacks on its strongholds. And he clings to his insistence that there will be no American boots on the ground there or in Iraq, except for training and advisory purposes — a suspect distinction.

Also, his construction of another "coalition of the willing" including partners from Arab states to fight against the well-armed and well-organized Islamic terrorist nightmare has not generated much public credibility in this country or abroad. Increasingly, the whole brew threatens mission creep toward a broader Middle East war with the Obama administration unwillingly caught in the center of it.

Far from the early hope of 2008 inspired by the historical election of the first African-American president, Mr. Obama finds himself struggling to escape from an even deeper military quagmire in the Middle East. Already charged with incompetence at home for a series of administration scandals, the president is on the defensive across the board. Survival rather than greatness is probably a more reasonable objective now for the history books.

This is the reality now despite substantial evidence that after nearly six years of Mr. Obama's presidency, his efforts to recover from the Great Recession he inherited are bearing fruit. Unemployment has dropped from 10 percent to 5.9 percent in thriving private-sector manufacturing amid a notable decline in the federal budget deficit. But such statistics have not yet erased a public sense of economic stagnation.

Perhaps the gloomy mood in the country has resulted from unrealistic expectations Mr. Obama generated by his own lofty 2008 rhetoric about the change his election would bring, and a naive appraisal of the state of the economy at home and of the challenges he would face abroad. Above all, his dream of bringing America home from foreign wars has turned out to be beyond his good intentions, and he seems likely to be bogged down by them for the rest of his presidency.

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


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