Last night, the promise of Barack Obama’s presidency was fully exhausted.
The president had strived in the wake of his party’s second consecutive midterm drubbing to portray himself as an indefatigable warrior who would not succumb to the same lame duck syndrome that afflicted his two-term predecessors. Disillusioned with the delineation of powers, Obama sought to demonstrate his force of will by expending as much executive authority as he could get away with – even if that meant running afoul of the Constitution he swore to uphold and protect. The climax of Obama’s caudillo act came when he signed a series of “executive actions” – one dare not call them executive orders, for that implies their legitimacy – pertaining to the status of several classes of illegal immigrants. Obama declared his intention to interpret broadly his discretionary authority to enforce existing immigration law and simply insisted that some of those laws were to be ignored. On Monday night, a three-judge panel on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an injunction on those actions. The president, for all his accumulated powers that would surely make the Founders cringe, had been checked by a co-equal branch; his “executive actions” will remain blunted if and until the Supreme Court weighs in on the matter.
Perhaps there remain a handful of holdouts that still believe Obama’s potential might eventually be realized, but most Americans have come to terms with the president’s unmet expectations. Conservatives, even those who were temporarily swayed by the passions of 2008, long ago accepted that the president was no competent steward of American affairs. Progressives who once saw Obama as their savior have now embraced the flesh-and-blood expression of angst that is Bernie Sanders, in part as a vehicle to register their dissatisfaction with Obama and his anointed heir. Only a waning and unwittingly humorous cast of true believers still hope that the president might fulfill their expectancies, but they are only kidding themselves. The court’s thwarting of Obama’s will is a fine example of how his most ballyhooed legacy achievements are being methodically torn down around him. These so-called accomplishments were hard-won, and they left in their wakes substantial acrimony and division. The status quo ante is gone; it will not return. Rather than leave behind him a set of progressive achievements and a nation appreciably more left-of-center than he found it, Barack Obama might end up leaving behind him only the bitterness he roused.
If Obama had hoped to move the cultural needle to the left by cementing the impression for Hispanics that Democrats were the party that would save illegal residents from mandated deportation – itself a bizarre misreading of the priorities of voters of Latin American descent – his efforts have failed. Similarly, Obama probably wanted to be remembered as the president who realized the perennial progressive dream of instilling in Americans the belief that access to health care is both a right and a public good. Increasingly, John Roberts’ Supreme Court, which went to absurd lengths to preserve the Affordable Care Act, looks prescient. Had they taken any of the two opportunities they had to dismantle the law, they might have martyred it. Instead, this structure is collapsing under its own weight.
On Monday, the largest health care co-op in the country, Health Republic of New York, failed. State regulators shuttered the low-cost insurance provider that had insured over 200,000 New Yorkers due to the likelihood that it would soon become financially insolvent. The state informed those who will lose their health care that they have a handful of weeks to now seek coverage on New York’s state health insurance exchange, but few are entirely certain that the state can handle the task. “[O]ther health insurers have no way to identify whether Health Republic’s customers met their 2015 deductible, or how far they are toward the out-of-pocket maximums put in place by the Affordable Care Act,” Politico reported.
This is a problem repeating itself all over the country. Health Republic is just the latest co-op to fold; over half of those insurance cooperatives established under Affordable Care Act have gone under. “Most co-ops that grew the fastest are now ruined — namely, six of the eight that exceeded the enrollment projections in their loan applications,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board observed. “The reason is that they bought customers with discounted premiums below the cost of medical claims.” As the immutable laws of economics take their revenge on the nation’s unsuspecting health insurance consumers, human interest stories focused on the plight of the newly uninsured are filling up the nation’s newspapers. “I am an advocate for the health care law,” the disillusioned 33-year-old Liz Jackson told the New York Times after Republic Health collapsed. “And if I can’t navigate this, who can?”
As National Review’s Rich Lowry observed, premiums are skyrocketing, enrollments are well below projections, and the already unsustainable burdens imposed on Medicare and Medicaid are growing. As the law fails in its primary charge, insuring those who could not afford insurance in the ancien régime, Americans will increasingly be left to conclude that experiments in massive, socialized insurance models cannot work in the United States. When Obama boards Marine One for the final time, he will leave behind him a country bitterly divided over a failing law for which he sacrificed hundreds of Democratic officeholders and national comity. With his signature legislative achievement in tatters, he might also leave behind him a broadly popular mandate for a free market-based alternative health care reform.
This isn’t the only trust that Obama has sacrificed. The president might have had no more pressing mandate when he took office than to extricate the United States from Iraq. The Middle East he inherited was one of such relative passivity when compared with the present state of affairs that Obama was able to fulfill that mission with alacrity. “We are leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq,” Obama averred as the last American troops returned home. Before his final term was out, American soldiers are again returning to Iraqi (and now Syrian) battlefields. What’s more striking is that, as war-weary as the American public is, most have again warmed to the notion that American security and national interests can no longer be guaranteed from afar.
In October of 2014, as the Islamic State rampaged across the region, only 39 percent of respondents in a Pew Research Center survey supported sending U.S. ground troops to combat the threat. By October of 2015, 47 percent backed a renewed presence on the ground in Iraq. By March, a Quinnipiac University poll found that 62 percent of respondents — including a majority of both Democrats and Republicans, men and women, and all age groups – supported essentially re-invading Iraq. What had Obama accomplished by prematurely withdrawing from the region save for squandering the support of America’s regional allies and augmenting their sense of alienation and mistrust in the United States?
The most plentiful commodity that the next president will inherit from Barack Obama will be the rancor he fostered in order to secure a handful of fleeting and unsustainable notches on his belt. Perhaps no other president in living memory entered office with such grand expectations or has failed so spectacularly to meet them.