A Balanced Assessment of Obama

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Much commentary on Barack Obama’s presidency has focused on the shortcomings and missed opportunities, but it must be recalled how grim was his inheritance and fierce his opposition, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Most of the end-of-presidency appraisals of Barack Obama’s performance in office have failed to capture the most important aspects of his presidency and what distinguishes it from others. This shortcoming is only partly due to the difficulty of making good judgments about such things without the perspective that only the passage of time can provide — although this difficulty is indeed a significant factor, as suggested by how much general opinion about some past presidents has changed over time.

President Barack Obama walks through the Rose Garden to the Oval Office following an all-appointees summer event on the South Lawn, June 13, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Appraisals that are inclined to praise Mr. Obama, including ones coming from people associated with his administration, have often taken the form of laundry lists of accomplishments while doing little to capture the more general essence of his approach to public policy. One accomplishment in particular that probably has been invoked so often that the frequency of the invocation has been well out of proportion to its intrinsic significance is the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Appraisals inclined to be critical of Mr. Obama have been coming mainly from two different camps that on most issues disagree strongly with each other. One consists of those on the political right who have opposed President Obama all along and are simply extending their opposition into their retrospective commentary.

The other camp includes progressive realists who express disappointment that Mr. Obama did not do more than he did to extract the United States from wars, to curtail an overextended and overly interventionist foreign policy, and to move more boldly to shake loose from some other costly habits of what had become a Washington consensus. The criticism, from either or both of these camps, has exhibited three major deficiencies, among others.

One is to…

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