Why President Obama's legacy is in jeopardy

As a client, Obama would come with impressive qualifications: the first African-American president of the United States; a Nobel Peace Prize recipient (an honour bestowed upon just three sitting presidents); the first president to effectively use social media and, arguably, the most engaging orator of our time. Yet instead of an assured and positive legacy, Obama's reputation is marked by uncertainty.

Barack Obama

In part, this is linked to the volatile wider environment of Obama’s presidential reign. His first term was spent addressing the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression, and he is now presiding over the most divisive government since the Civil War. Both Obama and Congress have rock bottom approval ratings of 44 per cent and 1 per cent respectively.

Throughout his first term, Obama blamed the previous administration and played the ‘hero card’. Increasingly, though, that is no longer an option as the world begins to form opinions about his presidency based on his own judgement calls.

There’s a growing list of ‘unforced error’ scandals, such as the AP phone records debacle, the IRS scandal and NSA snooping revelations, not to mention failed attempts at gun control and immigration legislation. Obama appeared to be caught off guard and, in most of the above scenarios, his response has been flat-footed.

The most important issue for the president now is undoubtedly ‘ObamaCare’, less commonly but more officially known as the Affordable Care Act. Created as a sweeping effort at changing the US healthcare system, ObamaCare has become synonymous with Obama.

In early 2012, Obama’s campaign began to own the term, which was originally used by opponents. "You want to call it ObamaCare," he said at a fundraiser in Atlanta. "That’s ok, because I do care." The White House then asked supporters to tweet the reasons why they backed healthcare reform with the hashtag #ilikeobamacare.

By linking himself so closely to ObamaCare, the president tied his own reputation to the success or failure of the Act.

Unfortunately for the president’s reputation, ObamaCare to date has experienced more failure than victory, not least continued problems with its website, compounded by the fact that the sub-contractors employed to service it were subsidiaries of the large insurance firms often lobbying against the Act.

These issues enhance the perception of Obama as a president who is unable to deliver on his core concerns.

At present I believe that there is a risk that Obama will be remembered for a few high-profile failures that obscure his many successes – in much the same way that the Vietnam war obscured Lyndon Johnson’s worthy Medicare and Medicaid achievements. 

So great is the impact of recent failures on high-profile issues that while discussing Obama’s legacy on CNN recently, I somewhat flippantly noted that were Obama a company CEO, his board of directors would have fired him long ago.

While it is a bit of a stretch to compare Obama’s legacy to that of a CEO, I do think there are similarities in terms of how reputation is managed and safe-guarded. In short, Obama has picked far too many battles, spreading himself too thinly and without the ability to effectively manage the issues on which his own success or failure will be judged.

Only now have we begun to see other leading Democrats assume responsibility for big issues, with Secretary of State John Kerry on Syria, and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius now taking the flak on ObamaCare.

If this had begun to happen earlier, Obama could have found it easier to pick and choose his battles.

It is impossible to fully appreciate Obama’s legacy while he still has a further three years in office, but what is clear is the absolute need to turn ObamaCare into a success - and very quickly. If Obama were a CEO, it is unlikely he would be afforded the chance to do so.

Aaron Kwittken is the CEO of kwittken + company.

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