When Barack Obama returned to his desk on Monday after a 15-day festive break in a Hawaii – far longer than most working Americans have enjoyed – he must have been conscious that 2015 has the potential to be a make or break year for his own political legacy.
That might seem premature with two whole years remaining, but Obama will know how quickly the political sands are running out on his presidency as thoughts turn to Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush and whoever else declares for 2016.
The outside world might not see it, but Washington is already starting to look away: staffers and media are placing their early bets on 2016, candidates are visible in the wings waiting to declare, and senior White House officials are already looking for exits to the private sector.
This is the political slow-puncture suffered by all second-term administrations, which is why the heat is now on Obama to use 2015 to shore up a political legacy that even at this late stage remains curiously indistinct.
On the home front there is Obamacare, the signature health care reforms that are now bearing fruit but remain under attack, both in Congress and – more worryingly perhaps – in the
Supreme Court, which will hear another potentially fatal challenge to the law in June.
Then there is the economy, which is finally looking up – third quarter 2014 growth came in at five per cent, unemployment is down to 5.8 per cent.
Unfortunately for Obama, on Main Street the recovery still feels rather too much like being on life support. US median household incomes rose to $53,880 in November last year – up from a rock-bottom $51,562 in August 2011 – but still five per cent below the $57,128 they were in 2000. The public could be forgiven for not celebrating being worse off than they were more than a decade ago. In other areas where Obama can claim progress – cutting carbon emissions, say, or improving school nutrition – he will now find himself struggling to defend those achievements from opponents in a Republican-controlled Congress and state-level legislatures.
Abroad it is Iran that offers Obama his best hope of laying the foundations of a legacy. Even if it is not immediately apparent when he leaves office, history could yet give Obama credit for ending the cold war with Iran.
Israel, Saudi Arabia and their lobbies in Congress will kick and scream but America’s war-weary public will ultimately be on the side of a reasonable nuclear deal with Tehran that offered the prospect of forcing all sides to work more closely together.
And even if the nuclear talks fail – and diplomats involved put chances of success at “less than 30 per cent” – Obama will still want to preserve wider relations so that if political realities change he can take belated credit for at least planting the seeds of a new order in the Middle East.
But a total breakdown with Tehran and a return to the status quo ante risks leaving Obama with precious little. Trade deals are unsigned, Iraq is barely stabilised, Syria is unresolved, Libya is crumbling again and Vladimir Putin’s Russia is locked in a petulant new cold war that is allowing China to play off one side against the other.
True, Obama did engineer the recent diplomatic rapprochement with Cuba – he may even visit Havana later this year – but in legacy terms that feels less like making history than clearing up a fag end of the real Cold War.
If this all sounds rather disappointing given Obama’s whirlwind entrance on the world stage, that is because it is – but for those who observed Obama closely, the prospect of a lacklustre close to his presidency was clearly written in its beginning.
As early as August 2010, in a post-script to Game Change, the definitive insider account of the 2008 election campaign, journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin identified with immense prescience the four key traits that might prevent Obama from becoming a great president.
They picked up early on his “odd passivity” and strange inability to engage; they fretted about the reliance on a “tiny claque” of Chicago sycophants that ran brilliant election campaigns but were not equipped to run a government; and they identified the absence of a “theory of the case”, a binding vision for his presidency that left Obama a “worryingly indistinct figure”.
Last, they noted his tendency to perform at his highest level only when facing an immediate crisis, while becoming oddly becalmed when facing a sustained challenge. In the parlance of American Football, they called him the “ultimate fourth-quarter player”.
Well, the fourth quarter of the Obama presidency is upon us, and the game appears to be heading inexorably to a mediocre conclusion: perhaps only an unforeseen crisis can sting Obama into rescuing his team.