Leave The President’s Legacy To Historians

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School
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Last week the Wall Street Journal reported that President Obama is seriously contemplating taking executive action to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, effectively overriding a Congressional ban on bringing detainees to the United States. According to the Journal, the president is determined to deliver on a campaign promise to close the prison and “wants to have all potential options available on an issue he sees as part of his legacy.”

We should welcome any politician’s determination to actually deliver on campaign promises, although we should also welcome a change of mind where new circumstances or a better understanding prove the promise to be ill-advised – in which case we should welcome an honest explanation for not delivering on a promise. But do we want promises kept and policy actions taken for the sake of a president’s legacy?

To be sure every president has a legacy. The Civil War is part of Lincoln’s legacy. The New Deal is part of FDR’s legacy. And the Iraq war is part of George W. Bush’s legacy. Opinions vary over time as to whether these legacies are triumphant or tragic. But whatever the historians conclude, we should wish that the presidential decisions contributing to those momentous chapters in our national history were not taken in pursuit of their presidential legacies.

No doubt every president is concerned about his legacy. Presidents are, after all, people just like the rest of us. But it is one thing to acknowledge that presidents care about their legacy and something entirely different to accept legacy building as a justification for important policy actions.

Yet it has become commonplace to view legacy building as a legitimate basis for presidential action. The Journal’s report on the president contemplating Guantanamo’s closure implies that it was the White House that offered legacy as a reason for executive action in the face of legislative disapproval. Last month a New York Times headline read “Building Legacy, Obama Reshapes Appellate Bench.” Is the president’s legacy what should guide appointments to the federal courts? Another Times headline from earlier in the year read “Economy Is Expanding, but Obama’s Legacy May Be Slipping Away,” as if the general reader might prefer a secure presidential legacy to a healthy economy.  Even the first lady’s legacy warrants burnishing, apparently. A few years ago a Times headline read “After a Year of Learning, the First Lady Seeks Out a Legacy.” Did we elect Barack Obama our president so that his wife could build a legacy?

Few among us cast out presidential ballots with an eye to a candidate’s potential standing in future history books or his prospects for enshrinement on a mountain in South Dakota. Of course we want our presidents to be successful, to help solve the big problems of our day, but not for the sake of their future reputations. We want them to be successful for the sake of our children, for our country, and for our way of life.

If a president is successful by these measures his legacy will be secure. But if presidents are allowed, even encouraged, to justify their actions in legacy terms, the presidency will be more and more a cult of personality and less and less the pinnacle of leadership of a great nation.

Guantanamo Bay is a case in point. There are reasons why President Obama failed to deliver on his promise to close the prison within a year. It turns out things were a lot more complicated than candidate Obama had imagined. He was smart enough to accept those complications as reasons to keep the prison open. Maybe circumstances have changed and closure now makes sense. But if so, the justification should be changed circumstances and the national interest, not the president’s legacy.

Every president has a legacy. Pundits will speculate about what those legacies will be and historians will later make the case for their being good or bad. But in present time with events swirling around them, presidents should be dissuaded from thinking that legacy-building is one of their assignments as our elected leader.