60 Years in Journalism: 40-Something Presidents Who Wowed the Electorate

I first saw Barack Obama in political action when I was assigned to cover the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary in the winter of 2008. Obama lost New Hampshire to Hillary Clinton, but when I arrived at a high school gymnasium late that evening expecting to observe some concessionary gloom, what Obama gave the crowd instead was a rousing campaign speech, looking to the primaries that still lay ahead. It was a demonstration of the 47-year-old Senator's skill in organizing two successful presidential campaigns, with himself as the spark plug.

As they campaigned against each other, Senators Clinton and Obama returned to Washington for significant business on Capitol Hill. I covered a joint hearing on Iraq of the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees with General David Petraeus. Clinton, a member of Armed Services, used her allotted minutes for a tirade against the General for his unwarranted optimism about the war; her Senate vote to give President Bush an Iraq green light was a millstone for her campaign, as it was again in 2016.

Senator Obama's turn, as a first termer, came a lot later. He asked Petraeus what would have to happen in Iraq to declare that the United States did what it set out to do, and the forces could come home. The General gave a respectable and respectful answer to the law-professor-turned-legislator; Petraeus was himself a Princeton PhD. Score another one for Obama's effectiveness.

The issues separating Clinton and Obama were few. One point of difference related to enacting a national health insurance plan. Based on her experience with the abortive Hillarycare effort early in her then-46-year-old husband's administration, she insisted that everyone be required to participate. Obama opposed the so-called individual mandate.

But when he took office, Obama sought the cooperation of the health insurance industry, to avoid a reincarnation of its devastating "Harry and Louise" advertising campaign against Hillarycare. He was told that if the law ordered insurers not to deny coverage to those who had a costly health condition, it would have to require that everyone eligible be induced to buy a policy.

The best explanation I heard for that requirement came not from Obama, but from Mitt Romney. Early in his Presidential campaign, he spoke at a medical college, asserting from his experience as governor of Massachusetts that medical insurance for all could not work if there were "free riders."

Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus went on to become colleagues in the Obama administration. It's now well known that as Secretary of State, she advocated a more forceful policy in Syria, after urging Obama to join Britain and France to counter the violence unleashed on the Libyan people by Muammar Gadaffi. Libya's subsequent descent into chaos helped Obama decide not to go along with Clinton on Syria.

Obama left office in this hundredth anniversary year of the birth of President John F. Kennedy, who was inaugurated at the age of 43. Both ran for President as inspirational agents of "hope" and "change." Both energized supporters, notably young people, who showed up in droves at rallies and later at the ballot box. Both were articulate and photogenic, and so were their wives. Kennedy had to conquer prejudice as the first Roman Catholic President, Obama as the first African-American. Obama was much better at delivering a prepared speech in the teleprompter era, Kennedy better at delivering a succinct reply to a press conference question. Reporters couldn't help but admire Presidential candidates who were also skillful wordsmiths.

I could not bring myself to go to the "Jackie" movie and relive the shocking and dispiriting murder of JFK--the result of which has been that subsequent Presidents are surrounded by security, "the bubble," Obama called it. It also helps them keep reporters behind a barrier.

Obama is young enough, 55, to have another career, perhaps to create a foundation like Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter who have roamed the earth promoting democratic change and fighting epidemic diseases. So too Michelle Obama, who was a lawyer and hospital executive before she reluctantly went to the White House and sought activities that would test her skill set but not overshadow her husband. She insists she won't be a politician, but her talent with a teleprompter is also now formidable.

How we will eventually look back on the Obama years will depend on such factors as how far his successor is able to go in reversing his initiatives (and whether the administration after his restores them), as well as how the Middle East's various quagmires play out, and whether his successor's policies toward Russia and China, not to mention Israel, succeed or backfire.

President Trump's ambitions to overturn much of the Obama track record, as well as some policies that once were Republican or bipartisan, are--as one of his supporters put it in a television interview--"quite a crap shoot."