NEXT week Barack Obama will take the oath of office as elected president of the United States for the second time—an honour granted only to 16 men before him. When he returns to the Oval Office he will rediscover a string of problems, from domestic struggles over America’s debt ceiling and gun control to bloodier conflicts in Mali and Syria. But now more than ever he would be wise to look at the long term. Mr Obama will not run for office again. How will history see him?
More favourably, we hope, than it would if he were judged just on the past four years. That is not to dismiss the accomplishments of his first term. Few presidents have had to take office against such a dismal backdrop, with the economy contracting at 5% a year, jobs being shed at the rate of 800,000 a month and America mired in two failing wars. Mr Obama has done a creditable job of putting a critically ill patient on the road to recovery. His main legislative achievement—health-care reform—may yet help millions of Americans, though the verdict on that must await its full implementation. All this, together with an unconvincing opponent, persuaded enough Americans (and The Economist) to back him in November. But his first term was nowhere near successful enough to earn Mr Obama the mantle of greatness—or to guard him against the possibility of a disastrous second term wiping away all else. The Obama legacy will partly be defined by events. When George W. Bush sat reading to schoolchildren in Florida on September 11th 2001, “the war on terror” was not part of his vocabulary. Mr Obama may well be blindsided by something similarly out of the blue. But Mr Bush is also often described as the man who expanded government more than any president since Lyndon Johnson; that was a legacy he could have avoided. More to his credit, Mr Bush will also be remembered for dramatically increasing and improving aid to Africa.
Political capital, like a leader’s time and energy, is a scarce resource, and the list of areas where Mr Obama could spend his profitably is a long one. Immigration reform would be a great gift to leave America (see Lexington); the construction of an EU-US free-trade zone would help the West. But to our mind, three great issues stand out as not just likely to provide vast benefits if resolved, but also as liable to do immense damage to Mr Obama’s legacy if neglected.
First, balance the books
The most fundamental is that America must put its fiscal house in order. Admiral Mike Mullen, then the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, was not exaggerating when he said in 2010 that America’s debt was the greatest strategic threat the country faces. Since then, $3 trillion has been added, pushing the dolorous pile above $16 trillion. Much of that has been caused by the recession and the stimulus to fight it; but by the end of this decade, with ever more baby-boomers retiring, the deficit is set to rise relentlessly. If Mr Obama hands over a country heading towards bankruptcy in January 2017, he can forget any idea of being remembered as an economic saviour.
Having ignored the recommendations of the deficit committee he himself established, Mr Obama has never given any sign, other than rhetorically, of being at all serious about cutting “entitlements”: these are the pensions and government health-care schemes for the poor and elderly that will overwhelm the budget as the population ages and medical costs continue their uncontrolled rise. Far from reforming entitlements, Mr Obama added an expensive new one in his first term: subsidised health insurance for lower-paid workers. And the president has just avoided coming up with any cuts in the deal made on January 1st to stop America heading over the fiscal cliff, despite bullying the Republicans in Congress to accept tax rises on the rich.
An America that cannot deal with its financial problems other than through repeated crises followed by shabby postponements will eventually go broke. And its capacity to offer leadership to the world is gravely diminished. Why should leaders in Beijing, Brasília, Bogotá or even Berlin see anything to emulate in Washington? If Mr Obama corrects this, he will be seen as a transformative figure. If not, future generations will look back on “the Bush-Obama years” as a time when two presidents stoked up a very foreseeable disaster.
Next, get involved
Given America’s problems, some emphasis on “nation-building at home”, as Mr Obama likes to call it, is inevitable. But a world in which America turned inward would be a far less predictable and a less safe one. Mr Obama also has a lot of unfinished business abroad from his first term (see article). Despite all the grand talk of resets and new understandings, Iran is still a threshold nuclear power, Russia is hostile, Europe neglected and the Middle East as tense as ever. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been wound down leaving neither victory nor stability in their wake.
That inbox is too much for any man, but two areas where the president should make a real and personal push in his second term stand out. One is China. By January 2017 its economy may be bigger than America’s. No bilateral relationship in the world is now more important. In his first term Mr Obama avoided any big disasters. Now the odds are raised. On the negative side, a jumpy nationalistic China could become the equivalent of Prussia a century ago: the prospect of a conflict between China and America’s ally, Japan, over the Senkaku islands is real (see article). But he also has the chance to turn a suspicious relationship into something much more useful. Imagine, for instance, what a “G2” climate-change agreement would do for the environment.
Xi Jinping has now been China’s leader for two months, yet Mr Obama has not seized the chance to see him (in Europe last year the new president of France rushed to visit the German chancellor the very day of his inauguration). Mr Xi will be around for the rest of Mr Obama’s time and for six years after he is gone, so frequent summits and many more bilateral meetings at all levels are essential. “Military-to-military co-operation” has languished and should be improved. A return to the close personal chemistry that existed between Bill Clinton and Jiang Zemin in the 1990s may be too much to hope for, but the chilly Mr Obama needs to strive towards it. He should spend less time playing golf and more in Zhongnanhai.
The final area where Mr Obama will be judged—and where he could make an enormous difference—is the Arab world. One looming, disastrous Obama legacy could be the death of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian mess (see article). As for the broader Arab spring, he may not be able to control it, but he can help direct it, in the same way that the older President Bush oversaw the end of the cold war. Syria is out of control. Countries like Egypt and Tunisia may be ruled by Islamists, but they are now democracies and desperate for financial help. If Mr Obama leaves behind a region of mini Turkeys, that would be a notable achievement. He cannot afford to appear as indifferent, or fearful of failure, towards so dangerous a region in his second term as he did in his first.
History’s verdict is always hard to predict. But if Mr Obama fails to grapple with these three things—the budget, China and the Middle East—he will surely be seen harshly. Each requires bravery and resolution, and Mr Obama needs to start working on them now. We should all wish him well.