A President’s Legacy Is Far More Than Their Biggest Failure

How should we evaluate a president’s legacy with all of its complications?

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By Saadat Rafin

We should have high standards for our elected officials. These individuals hold massive amounts of power and their decisions are often felt across the nation. This concept is especially true for presidents, as a single misstep could lead to widespread chaos or death. Nonetheless, forcing past and present political figures to undergo extensive purity tests is rarely productive. While I usually support taking a hard look at every politician’s career, we have begun creating standards that disregard the realities of leadership. Far too often, events from years ago are robbed of their context and forced under a microscope in order to paint a political figure as corrupt or destructive. Politicians who were once remembered fondly are now persona non grata among the left, and there is no better example than former President Barack Obama.

President Obama was far from a controversial figure among young liberals a few years ago. It’s not hard to remember the ever-present Joe Biden memes or Obama’s once-ubiquitous support among millennials. President Obama even won the 2008 primary with a groundswell of youth support, racking up huge victories in college towns and urban areas. Now, however, he enjoys far less unanimous acclaim among young people. It is not uncommon to see young leftists calling President Obama a war criminal, and he is now seen as a corporate sellout for being too soft on Wall Street. But the fact of the matter is that while Barack Obama was an imperfect president, he always tried to do the right thing.

Arguably, the greatest area of scrutiny for the Obama administration is their use of airstrikes in the Middle East. President Obama dropped over 26,000 bombs in the region during the final year of his presidency alone. This statistic is a shockingly high number, especially when airstrikes can come with civilian casualties. Many people use this information as an excuse to paint President Obama as a warmonger who bombed innocent countries for no reason except corporate interests. However, his reasoning for doing so becomes far clearer when we examine which countries received the most bombings. The vast majority of the airstrikes took place in Iraq and Syria, where the U.S. had a legitimate reason to be involved. ISIS was taking the lives of civilians in both the Middle East and the western world, as well as further destabilizing Iraq and Syria. America’s involvement in the region was not simply a result of the military-industrial complex but a fight against a real and terrifying threat. There are fair arguments to be made that President Obama did not make enough of an effort to distance the U.S. from Saudi Arabian interests in Yemen, but portraying President Obama as nothing more than a bomb-happy maniac with no regard for the safety of Iraqi citizens is misleading at best.

Unsurprisingly, being the leader of one of the most powerful countries in the world is a hard job that few people can relate to. President Obama was often faced with situations where there were no good solutions. During the fight against ISIS, President Obama had to deal with the fact that civilians were going to die no matter what he did. He could have sent in more ground troops to execute more targeted attacks, but then there was great risk of losing soldiers and further entangling the U.S. in the region. He could have left it to the Iraqi and Syrian governments, both of which were already unstable and losing to ISIS. In that case, Iraqi and Syrian civilians would have met gruesome fates under ISIS, while people throughout the rest of the world would have had to deal with continued ISIS attacks. People speak of President Obama’s foreign policy as though it is simply possible to wave a finger and create world peace. If anyone knows how to wipe out a massive terrorist group without civilian casualties, destabilizing the region, or creating a dependence on American presence, they should immediately go to the Pentagon and become one of our premier military strategists. Criticism cannot be conducted in hypothetical utopias where anything is possible. There is no world where President Obama could have neutralized ISIS without losing an unsettling amount of lives.

Furthermore, it is important to remember the successes of the Obama administration. Millions of Americans got good health insurance, he rescued the country from the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression, he fought for the legalization of same-sex marriage and protections for transgender kids in schools, he prevented Iran from building a nuclear bomb, and he served as a calming presence when the tensions of the nation were at an all-time high. Obama’s presidency, while imperfect, had far more successes than failures. Nine times out of 10, he did the right thing, and he laid the groundwork for the more progressive Democratic Party we know today. Scrutinizing a president’s record is productive when we use it to inform policy for the future, but it becomes toxic when we use one area of contention to write off eight years of solid and meaningful progress.

At the end of the day, we need to look at presidential legacies holistically and contextually. The Obama administration did far more good in the world than bad, and cherry-picking events to claim that he was a bad president does not move the country forward. Appreciating what a president did for the country does not mean that we need to return to using all of their policies. I believe that President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal was an amazing policy that should serve as a roadmap on how to boost the economy with government spending, but I also believe that Japanese internment camps are one of the most shameful parts of American history. I applaud President Lyndon B. Johnson for signing the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, but I believe that American involvement in Vietnam serves as a cautionary tale against foreign intervention.

Saying that a president did a generally good job does not mean that we need to simply repeat everything they did for the rest of time. Political figures deserve to have more than just their most contentious issues pointed out. Many of them made real, positive change, and it is inappropriate to disregard that. My rosy outlook on politics almost definitely helps me see former presidents in a more positive light, but I believe that many of them are worthy of that lens. We need to be better at taking a wider look at presidential legacies, as that is the only way to truly evaluate them.