Still, Obama's enthusiasm for it is telling. Even without the 2008-09 financial crisis, he would have arrived in office just when the retirement of baby boomers was slowing the economy and raising — through Social Security and Medicare— government spending. The cost of government was increasing; the capacity to pay was decreasing. In these circumstances, Obama chose to expand government. His frame of reference was backward-looking: the fulfillment of a liberal agenda conceived from the 1930s to the 1960s.
But history's verdict will be present-oriented and forward-looking. How have his fateful decisions played in the real world? Obama's reputation will ultimately depend on a handful of these, including (probably) his handling of the economy in the dark months of early 2009, Iran's nuclear program, the federal budget and, perhaps, something now unimagined. "Crises demand leadership," writes Merry, "and in the American system that leadership can come only from the president." Not just leadership, but leadership in the right direction.
Robert J. Samuelson is a Washington Post columnist.
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