It Begins: The Shaping and Selling of Obama's Legacy

It Begins: The Shaping and Selling of Obama's Legacy
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Perhaps it’s the field of potential and actual candidates who claim to want his job, or thoughts of a presidential library where two terms of Barack Obama history will get tucked away, or the accumulating West Wing farewell parties for close advisers who are moving on.

When two of President Obama’s top aides Tuesday used the “L” word – legacy – and the president on Thursday confided his hopes to do some teaching after he leaves the White House (in a brief exchange with a university chancellor in Jamaica), “the fierce urgency of now,” to borrow an Obama phrase, sounded more like “then” and “when.”

The president is in Panama championing U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba, a centerpiece of this week’s Summit of Americas, where Obama and President Raul Castro are expected to make history by speaking to one another. At the same time, Obama, against tough odds, is trying to explain the merits of a nuclear deal with Iran before it can be completed by the end of June. He’s also nudging U.S. and international climate change commitments forward, and talking up a strengthening U.S. economy. Eyeing states he has not visited as president, Obama flew to Utah last Friday, and will likely complete his visits to all 50 (get ready, South Dakota) soon.

The president’s to-do list remains long, including promises dating to his 2008 campaign that remain incomplete. Meanwhile, the White House has launched a “fourth-quarter” scoreboard for the plays Obama has already run.

“Legacy” is a word with such a rear-view-mirror meaning that many two-term presidents openly chafed when they heard it used prior to their final year in office. But in a modern messaging era (and with a president who authored two books about himself before becoming president), getting even a slight jump on history with an effort at a comprehensive summary is thought to be savvy, especially when so many others inside the Obama administration seemed to get their books out while the president was in office.

For that reason, it was notable Tuesday when Ben Rhodes, Obama’s national security adviser for strategic communications, and Josh Earnest, his White House press secretary, separately used “legacy” to describe the president’s achievements in Central America, and with energy policy.

“I think if you look at the opening to Cuba and the process of normalizing our relations; the Central American initiative that we’ve committed $1 billion to now; the Colombian peace process, [at] which we have designated a special envoy to represent the United States; our focus on energy security; and our 100,000 “Strong in the Americas” initiative, together with the broader economic and export promotion efforts that we’ve undertaken over the last several years, the president has a clear legacy that he is aiming to build in the hemisphere,” Rhodes told reporters.

Hours later, when asked about critiques of Obama’s energy and climate change policies as something of a “mixed bag” in the eyes of environmental experts and advocacy groups, Earnest defended the administration’s “all of the above” energy achievements.

“We can get you some more details about the legacy of this president when it comes to fighting the causes of climate change and making America independent of foreign energy,” the press secretary said. “But there is no doubt that because of the investments that this president championed very early on in his presidency that we have made tremendous progress when it comes to energy efficiency.”

It wasn’t the list of accomplishments Earnest offered that was new. It was the shiny bow he tried to attach using “legacy.”

Looking back at some of Obama’s predecessors as they governed in their final years in office, it was easy to detect when their thumbs pressed the scales to define their administrations’ lasting achievements. And on some topics they simply gave up, knowing that time and events – not their own sales pitches – would control how their decisions and reputations measured up.

In the spring of 1999, after weathering impeachment, President Clinton was asked at a news conference to describe to young people his “legacy” when it came to lying. “How important do you think it is to tell the truth, especially under oath?” a reporter asked.

“I think that what young people will learn from my experience is that even presidents have to do that, and that there are consequences when you don't,” he replied.

“I also think that there will be a box score, and there will be that one negative, and then there will be the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times when the record will show that I did not abuse my authority as president, that I was truthful with the American people,” he added.

That “box score,” as he called it, expanded into Clinton’s list of legacy achievements, which he enumerated in speeches before leaving office, always adding how much there was to keep working on, and noting the work Hillary Clinton had shepherded. His assessment of his presidency began with an account of a strong economy and ended with his focus on benefits for American families.

“We have the fastest economic growth in more than 30 years, the lowest unemployment rate and the smallest welfare rolls in 30 years, over 20 million new jobs, the lowest poverty rate in 20 years, the lowest murder rate in 30 years, the first back-to-back surpluses in our budget in 42 years, the highest homeownership in history,” he told a university audience days before George W. Bush was inaugurated.

Eight years later, awaiting Barack Obama’s inauguration, Bush defended his record, knowing that his Iraq war policies, Hurricane Katrina, and a financial meltdown had driven his public approval ratings into a deep ditch. Interviewers did not ask him about the Bush administration’s now-acknowledged achievements fighting AIDS and malaria in Africa, and the president didn’t bring it up because he and his advisers understood that public perceptions of his presidency ran counter to the narrative of aid to Africa.  

“I am proud of the accomplishments of this administration,” Bush told an interviewer in the Oval Office days before returning to Texas. “I know I gave it my all for eight years. And I did not sell my soul for the sake of popularity. And so when I get back home and look in the mirror, I will be proud of what I see.”

Bush said as president he had defended freedom, kept Americans safe, heeded the Constitution, and he calmly denied ordering the torture of captured and accused terrorists.

With his father, President George H.W. Bush, seated beside him, Bush predicted his record as president would not hamper the political prospects of the Republican Party, even if the 2008 election had swept Democratic candidates into the White House and Congress.

The GOP’s principles were on target, he argued, even as the party’s leaders would have to change.

“We may want to change our messaging. We definitely want to change messengers. We need a new group of leaders,” Bush said. “And we should be open-minded about big issues like immigration reform, because if we're viewed as anti-somebody -- in other words, if the party is viewed as anti-immigrant -- then another fellow may say, `Well, if they're against the immigrant, they may be against me.’ We've got to be a party for a better future, and for hope.”

Asked who he had in mind as a new leader for his party, Bush didn’t pause.

“That would be Gov. Jeb Bush,” he said.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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