It’s said of Jimmy Carter that he’s America’s best ex-president. Barack Obama, on the other hand, may be shaping up as its best soon-to-be-ex-president.
Obama is a “lame duck,” in the twilight of his term, and lame ducks are presumed to be ineffective. Yet this alone has been an action-filled week. The US and its nuclear allies signed a deal with Iran. Obama himself called for reforms that would cut the US’s appallingly high number of people—especially black people—in prison. This Monday, America’s diplomatic relations with Cuba—another of Obama’s recent surprise moves—will formally recommence.
Last month the president’s signature health-care reform survived a Supreme Court challenge that could have sunk it. He won fast-track authority for a large, international trade deal that his own party tried to torpedo. He can even bask in the Supreme Court’s decision (though he played no part in it) to legalize same-sex marriage. His recent speeches on marriage and race have reawakened the rhetorical power that he seemed to lose right after taking office. And by the time he leaves, unemployment will likely be near its pre-crisis low.
The lame-duck label belies the fact that, unencumbered by politics, late-term presidents often achieve big things. George W. Bush launched the Iraq war “surge.” Bill Clinton got China into the WTO. Ronald Reagan helped end the Cold War. Even so, this year and the next may rank as one of the most productive lame-duck periods in modern US history.
Some of these achievements are less solid than they look (the headline unemployment rate masks an also-shrinking labor force and other structural problems) and some of them are accidents of timing (the Iran talks, for example, began 10 years ago). But if nothing else, Obama, who has disappointed many of his supporters over the years, is finally delivering the hope he campaigned on, and could yet walk out looking like a hero.