There’s been a lot of liberal hand-wringing over Obama’s performance in office: He didn’t make a strong case for the Affordable Care Act; he underestimated the size of the stimulus needed and he didn’t act nearly as quickly as people wanted on a range of issues, including the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and marriage equality.
For anyone caught up in the Hope and Change rhetoric of the 2008 election, the actual Obama presidency looks a lot like a boyfriend who seemed really great when you were dating him and turned out to be a disappointment when you moved in together.
But disappointment about Obama may say more about the expectations that people placed on him than on his performance. If you looked closely at Obama in 2008, he was never the most liberal of candidates (that really was Hillary) or the one likeliest to radically transform the political landscape. He’s an incrementalist, cautious about risk and not willing to overturn the status quo.
All that said, Obama has accomplished great things, far beyond the record of most other presidents. The economy may not exactly be humming, but Obama steered the country through the worst financial crisis in 80 years. He undertook a series of foreign policy decisions that put the U.S. on the right side of change. And he signed a federal law to transform health care, which will provide insurance to tens of millions of people who currently don’t have it. With that accomplishment alone, Obama succeeded where every Democratic president since Harry Truman had failed.
But if you do want to look at transformation, look at Obama’s record on gay issues. He shepherded through the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which resulted in images like this. He refused to defend DOMA and then came out in favor of marriage equality, inextricably linking the Democrats to the issue forever and giving it the seal of political acceptance. No Democrat running for president after this will be able to reverse course without seeming out of the party mainstream.
Now you can argue, with good reason, that Obama hasn’t been at the forefront of these changes: He didn’t jump on halting discharges under DADT, preferring instead to wait for its repeal to play itself out over the course of more than a year. He dragged his feet on marriage equality until his vice president apparently backed him into it. In general, Obama doesn’t seem all that fired up about gay rights. He says the right things, but you can’t quite picture him as the Grand Marshall in a Pride Parade, waving as floats of muscle boys and drag queens drift by.
For all the lack of drama and fanfare, Obama has done the right things, and that’s what counts. He’s accomplished more on gay rights than any other president before him and by extension more on civil rights than any president since Lyndon Johnson. Consider the last Democrat who was president. Bill Clinton gave us Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell inadvertently because of his bungled attempt to repeal the ban on gays in the military. He also gave us DOMA and used it as a cudgel against the community to win reelection. Obama’s way of doing things may not be exactly what we would wish for or as quickly as we would wish for them, but what matters is that he did them and did so in the face of a Republican opposition determined to stop him in his tracks.
Obama is not a great politician. Anyone who watched his first debate performance could tell you as much. But history doesn’t judge presidents on how great they are at politics. They get judged on what they did. On that score, there’s every reason to believe history will treat Obama very kindly. It may even determine that Obama was, indeed, a great president. We’ll find out soon if the voters agree.