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Editorial: Don’t be so quick to judge Obama

As Obama administration officials turn over, those exiting have promptly published accounts of their time in Washington and reviews of the president’s leadership. With each Cabinet member who retires and writes a tell-all book about the administration, commentators move progressively closer to writing the final chapter of President Obama’s biography. They have widely ignored any praise and incessantly recited all criticisms.

This trend began with books by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and last week, Leon Panetta, who served as Central Intelligence Agency director and secretary of defense, began a tour to promote his new book, “Worthy Fights.” Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan called the memoir “obnoxiously partisan.” CNN senior political analyst David Gergen said it was of “real value today” and required “guts.”

But even worse, many have already jumped to judge this presidency as though it were over.

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, in praising former President Bill Clinton for his “unappeasable hunger,” compared the former president to Obama, who still has two years to write his legacy. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has already ranked the presidents of the last century, putting Obama third after Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Baines Johnson in a Rolling Stone cover story. Michael Moore said he will be remembered as the first black president and “that’s it.” And Aaron David Miller, distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, declared in the Washington Post that Obama will not earn “the stamp of presidential greatness.”

With just over two and a quarter years remaining, the world can still change. Al-Qaeda bombed the USS Cole with only 14 weeks left in the Clinton administration. The Tet Offensive, which was in great part responsible for turning public support against the Vietnam War, began and ended in the last year of the Johnson administration. President George W. Bush wrestled with the Great Recession in his last four months in office and right up until Jan. 20. Not to mention John F. Kennedy, who held the Oval Office for under 150 weeks, or just 30 more than remain in this term. Obama may still achieve what Miller coined an “FDR/LBJ moment.”

Presidents are judged as much for their character as their accomplishments, and America’s image of Obama as a person and leader is all but cemented. But his actions cannot yet be evaluated, and doing so not only is meaningless but also undermines the potential for the next two years. First, it encourages the administration to search for more radical policies to save a legacy. Second, it feeds the fire of speculation and anticipation of upcoming elections and a sense that the country should be thinking about what to hope for in 2017 rather than 2015.

Even the most ambitious policymakers probably accept that it is unlikely Obama will have another chance at comprehensive domestic policy reform, particularly if the Republicans win control of the Senate in three weeks. Much of what remains — as is common in presidents’ second terms — will be foreign policy. In that sphere, there is no shortage of crises. Discussions of legacy and the 2016 election distract from the reality that this commander-in-chief is still responsible for the country’s safety.

Obama will not be in office for the bulk of the fighting ahead in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine. But what he achieves in the next two years could set our country’s course for decades. He does not have an obvious Fort Sumter, Pearl Harbor or 9/11, but this is undeniably a critical time for world order. One hundred twenty weeks as the most powerful figure in the world should not be taken lightly by the president, pundits or the American people.



Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: Natasha Bluth ’15, Alexander Kaplan ’15, Katherine Pollock ’16 and James Rattner ’15. Send comments to


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