A president’s “legacy agenda” are those projects a White House wants us to treat as especially serious, above petty politics. They’re intended to improve America’s prospects and impress historians. As such, they’re always bigger and classier than the business at hand. They can also crowd out other merely worthwhile interests.
For instance, Obama’s “legacy” project of securing American leadership in the fight against climate change has been invoked by as sufficient reason to restrict energy trade with Canada. His project of securing greater American influence in Asia means less protection for vulnerable American workers and less generous investment of American power in the Middle East.
As his power fades, Obama’s work on his legacy agenda is now largely rhetorical and contingent on the uncertain support of others. What he’s penned in speeches and executive orders will need to be honored in hundreds of big and small and unpleasant decisions by China, Japan, South Korea, India and, oh yes, the courts and the next president of the United States. Nevertheless, even rhetoric can alter the future. Obama’s favorite conservative president, Dwight Eisenhower, coined that ear bug: “military-industrial complex.” The complex has kept up with the growth of the US economy, but Ike did entrench a healthy fear of it at the center of America’s political culture.
With months left as president, Obama’s legacy work will be cultural as well. While he talks with conviction about the world, he’s building his place in history at home.
His utterances on climate change and his calm crisis-management style are entrenching two powerful political memes: that today only liberals respect scientific evidence and, that since a black man can be a thought-minded, essentially conservative president of these troubled United States, then any talented outsiders can.
(Thanks to the discipline and often-tedious formality of Obama’s presidency, change in the White House is now so normal an idea that it’s possible that even a white male will beat a woman in this November’s election.)
His science project and his global pivot, however, largely rest with that woman: Hillary Clinton.
A deft Republican president (Jeb Bush or possibly Marco Rubio or John Kasich) could have consolidated major components of Obamas foreign policy: global trade agreements, restraint in the Middle East, activism in Asia, and steady collaboration with other major powers on climate change. However, a Donald Trump or a Ted Cruz victory would be humiliating. At least Woodrow Wilson didn’t live to see what the Republican Roaring Twenties did to his liberal vision of collective security.
Obama’s homilies on race and civility during the Republican primaries likely helped make Trump an irresistible hero on the right. Now that his nomination is almost unavoidable, Obama will have to move heaven and earth to make sure he is, in fact—what Democrat fantasists had idly presumed, months ago—a Republican disaster this fall.
Whatever we think of the Clinton election machine’s touch or integrity, a Clinton presidency will be compelled to guard the hardening cement at the base of Obama’s legacy. It will end up backing his trade agreements and being as careful in the Middle East. It will want to try and might do better at finding bipartisan support where Obama failed legislatively.
It is bittersweet that Obama’s most ambitious dreams need the election of another Clinton. But the world would probably be that much nicer even if Hillary Clinton doesn’t achieve much more than being the president who entrenched Barack Obama’s legacy.