Vail Daily column: The Obama legacy |

Vail Daily column: The Obama legacy

Butch Mazzuca
Butch Mazzuca |

On Tuesday, in Chicago, President Obama will deliver his farewell address, at which time he’ll certainly talk about his legacy. But history, not the outgoing president will assess his legacy. So just how might future historians judge the Obama years?

President Obama will leave office with an almost unheard of 55 percent personal approval rating, but at the same time, 59 percent of the country feels we’re on the wrong track. It’s also somewhat paradoxical that even with such a high approval rating during his tenure the Democratic Party lost 65 House seats, 13 Senate seats, 12 governorships and more than 900 state legislature seats.

Irrespective of the above, history will note that the president withdrew forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, used only multilateral/multi-national efforts in his foreign policy dealings, established the United States as the driving force behind the fight for climate change and restored a faltering economy.

Comprehensive health care reform was passed on Obama’s watch making it possible for millions of previously uninsured to buy health insurance. At the same time however, the Affordable Care Act brought higher premiums, larger deductibles and fewer choices to millions of others.

Meanwhile, on the day Donald Trump takes the Oath of Office the new president will inherit a deeply divided nation, begging the question of whether the nation is more or less divided than it was when President Obama took office. Disunity is difficult to measure, but judging from how the left accepted the results of the past election, one can make a reasoned argument that the national divisiveness quotient is on the upswing.

Then there’s the national treasury. When President Obama entered office the national debt stood at approximately $10 trillion — when he exits the Oval Office our debt will stand at approximately $20 trillion.

To be fair, those are raw numbers that must first be put into context. To do that, we should look at the debt to Gross Domestic Product ratio. A ratio that affects our borrowing power, the yield of government bonds, our ability to rebuild our military, pay entitlements, repair a crumbling infrastructure, etc., etc.

Between 1940 and 2016, our debt to GDP ratio averaged 62 percent, reaching an all time high of 122 percent in 1946 immediately after World War II and a record low of 31.7 percent in the year former President Richard Nixon resigned.

When Obama took office he inherited a debt to GDP ratio of 83 percent, which was higher than our 75-year average. Meanwhile since 2009 that ratio has deteriorated significantly and now stands at 104 percent.

All presidents inherit the economy from their predecessor, and in this case Obama will leave President-elect Donald Trump with a debt and deficit trending higher than what he inherited from former President George W. Bush.

In light of the above we should ask what did we get for all that money; did the nation’s military grow stronger or become weaker relative to potential adversaries? Were the issues at the Veterans Affairs resolved and are America’s veterans receiving the care they deserve? How did the nation’s schools perform vs. the rest of the world?

Are our borders more or less secure? Were more people added or deleted from welfare roles? Are there more people in the workforce or are there fewer? And given all the talk about foreign governments hacking into our systems, what did the administration do to tighten the nation’s cyber-security?

While historians look to answer those questions, the president’s handling of foreign policy more than any other factor will determine his legacy. The Chinese hack American industry with impunity while its military becomes more aggressive in the South China Sea. Unresolved problems regarding the North Korean and Iranian nuclear capabilities fester, the Islamic State group continues to expand its terror network and our relationship with the Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, could not be more strained.

But of far greater importance than the aforementioned, history will neither forgive nor forget the president’s inaction regarding the Syrian crisis. In 2011, Obama told the world “Assad must go,” in 2014, he drew a red line regarding the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing as thousands died and millions were driven from their homes.

What could or should have Obama done differently in Syria? We can only speculate. But this much is certain; we had many more options five years ago than we do today — options that did not require boots on the ground. Nonetheless, history will record that the president failed to use all the political levers at his disposal. He exercised neither hard nor soft power. He did nothing to develop consensus among our allies and never used the implicit influence, power or “clout” that accompanies the Oval Office.

Regardless of one’s personal feelings about the president’s legacy, the fact remains that through the president’s inaction history will have no choice but to acknowledge that 400,000 died while the world is experienced its most massive and heart-rending refugee crisis since the end of World War II.

Quote of the day: “Never ascribe to malice, that which can be explained by incompetence.” — Napoleon Bonaparte

Butch Mazzuca, of Edwards, writes regularly for the Vail Daily. He can be reached at