WASHINGTON — As President Obama eases into the stocktaking stretch of his presidency, he has begun to unburden himself to select journalists. But the president’s tone is less reflective than frustrated that the American public does not see his achievements the way he does.
In two recent interviews, with The New York Times Magazine on his economic legacy and with The Atlantic on his foreign policy legacy, Mr. Obama expressed a common sentiment: He had achieved big things and avoided even bigger mistakes, and yet most people just shrug.
In both cases, Mr. Obama suggested that the problem was not him, but one of perception. “If you ask the average person on the streets, ‘Have deficits gone up or down under Obama?’ probably 70 percent would say they’ve gone up,” the president told The Times Magazine. (In fact, deficits have declined.)
Not bombing Syria in 2013 was the right decision, Mr. Obama said, but one that played badly with the public because it defied foreign policy orthodoxy. “In the midst of an international challenge like Syria,” he told the Atlantic correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg, “you get judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply.”
Mr. Obama’s challenge, at least on economic and foreign policy, is that he is often trying to prove a negative: Without the steps he took — or didn’t take — he asserts that things would have turned out so much worse. He notes, for example, that he has avoided the military misadventures of his predecessor, George W. Bush. His bailouts of the economy and the auto industry, he says, prevented the Great Recession from hemorrhaging into a Great Depression.
Many historians agree.
“He’s made a huge difference in the fact that the country didn’t suffer more greatly,” said Robert Dallek, a presidential historian who has discussed Mr. Obama’s legacy with him. “But saving the country from a deeper crisis, from a Great Depression, is not exciting. Incremental gains don’t capture the public’s excitement, the excitement of young people.”
Mr. Obama’s problems have been magnified by an election in which the candidates who have generated the most excitement — Donald J. Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont — have painted the nation’s economy and national security in near-apocalyptic terms.
On Wednesday, Mr. Trump laid out a foreign policy that he said would be the antithesis of that of Mr. Obama and his former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. “The legacy of the Obama-Clinton interventions will be weakness, confusion and disarray — a mess,” he said. “We’ve made the Middle East more unstable and chaotic than ever before.”
In February, Mr. Sanders said after winning in New Hampshire, “Given the enormous crises facing our country, it is just too late for the same old, same old establishment politics and establishment economics.”
The administration has assigned staff members to schedule further interviews and articles that will allow Mr. Obama to showcase his major achievements. But a full accounting of them is not likely to come until the president writes his memoir — a prospect that has publishers salivating, given his track record as a best-selling author.
“He’s going to be his own best advocate,” said Mr. Dallek, who has written biographies of John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, “but he’s being eclipsed by this campaign and the hullabaloo that surrounds it.”
Mr. Dallek diagnosed another problem. Mr. Obama, he said, tends to avoid describing the threats he faced or his response to them in dramatic terms. His foreign policy constituted a radical departure from that of his predecessor. But when he summarized it for reporters in 2014, he used a saltier version of the line, “don’t do stupid stuff.”
Mr. Obama’s economic policy featured the greatest fiscal rescue package ever enacted. But for political reasons, to avoid more charges of out-of-control spending from Republicans, Mr. Obama resisted using such superlatives, just as he resisted dramatizing the economic crisis he inherited. “It was a delicate balance throughout 2009 and 2010 to be straight with the American people about the depths of the problem, how close we were to disaster, without scaring the heck out of them,” Mr. Obama told Andrew Ross Sorkin of The Times.
The president has shown a similar aversion to exaggerating the threat from militant groups like the Islamic State.
“ISIL does not speak for Islam,” Mr. Obama said in December, using the administration’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State. “They are thugs and killers, part of a cult of death, and they account for a tiny fraction of more than a billion Muslims around the world — including millions of patriotic Muslim Americans who reject their hateful ideology. Moreover, the vast majority of terrorist victims around the world are Muslim.”
Republican candidates assailed Mr. Obama’s low-key response as evidence of his failure to lead. On the campaign trail, even Mrs. Clinton used starker language than he did in describing the threat.
Few issues illustrate Mr. Obama’s communication gap more vividly than his decision to hold off an airstrike on Syria after President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his people. The decision, which critics portrayed as a heavy blow against the credibility of the presidency, nevertheless led to an international agreement under which the vast majority of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons were removed. Privately, Mr. Obama expresses frustration that the critics rarely acknowledge that positive outcome or what might have happened had he bombed.
“I’m very proud of this moment,” he told The Atlantic. “The overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of the national security apparatus had gone fairly far. The perception was that my credibility was at stake. And so for me to press the pause button at that moment, I knew, would cost me politically.”
It may be difficult to make a crisis-avoidance presidency sound dramatic, but it is not impossible, Mr. Dallek said. He invoked Franklin D. Roosevelt, who guided the nation through the Great Depression. “You’ve got to use the right language,” he said. “When Roosevelt closed the banks, he called it a bank holiday.”
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