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Is America better off and the planet safer?

Will America and the world miss Barack Obama?

To ask the question is to risk setting off an unproductive social media war, epitomizing the ugly polarization of U.S. politics that the 44th President set out to diminish but ended up stoking. If you step back, however, it is an entirely legitimate question. The leader of the free world defines the era over which he (so far, only he) presides. Did this one leave his country better off and make the planet a safer, saner place?

Mr. Obama's predecessor left a hot mess. In 2008, Americans were demoralized by endless wars, the economy was in free fall and the rest of the world had never viewed the United States so unfavourably. Mr. Obama ended the wars, did what any president would to stabilize the economy and, at first, vastly improved America's image abroad.

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His personal conduct also set a shining example for leaders everywhere. He was unfailingly gracious and graceful, uncommonly generous and inspiringly humane. His White House has been a drama-free, scandal-free operation. His appointees have been qualified professionals.

Whether he has been an effectual leader is another matter. Like any politician, Mr. Obama pandered to his base. The first African-American president made a few moving speeches about race relations but engaged little in improving them. His executive orders on immigration reform and combatting climate change shored up his political capital with grassroots Democrats, but advanced neither cause in a meaningful or lasting way. Signing the Paris climate accord was easy, but Mr. Obama left all of the heavy lifting for his successors. Killing the Keystone XL pipeline was a political no-brainer for a progressive Democrat, but it did nothing to save the planet.

Mr. Obama's health-care reform is a perfect example of a well-intentioned but poorly designed policy that soured more Americans on publicly funded medicine (Medicare for seniors excepted). You can't rely on the market to set prices for health insurance, as Obamacare does, and then smother the market with regulations that drive prices and subsidies through the roof.

Mr. Obama was hardly the first president to face a hostile Congress. But unlike Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, people-loving pols who revelled in deal-making with the other side, Mr. Obama was a loner who rarely deigned to step foot on Capitol Hill, much less court lowly congressmen.

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Success in curbing the U.S. budget deficit, however temporarily, was the result of congressional action (in this case, mandatory spending cuts) that the White House opposed. The economic recovery that Mr. Obama gets credit for owes much to the extraordinary increase in the domestic oil and gas production that technology, not the President, facilitated. Tax reform went nowhere under this administration and Mr. Obama's free-trade agenda is in tatters.

"We have to make incremental changes where we can, and every once in a while you'll get a breakthrough and make the kind of big changes that are necessary," is how Mr. Obama recently characterized his approach to domestic policy. That may be a realistic assessment of how Washington works; it is a far cry from the "fierce urgency" of the 2008 campaign.

It is consistent, however, with what a battle-worn Mr. Obama said in 2014 about his approach to foreign policy and aversion to U.S. military action abroad: "It avoids errors. You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while, we may be able to hit a home run."

Osama bin Laden is no more and Iran's nuclear ambitions (may or may not ) have been suspended. But Mr. Obama's main foreign policy legacy is a Middle East in greater disarray than when he took office. The region feels abandoned by the United States. Mr. Obama's abdication in the Syrian conflict has created an unparalleled humanitarian crisis, destabilizing Europe and leaving Russia as the Middle East's new power broker and indispensable nation in combatting Islamic terrorism.

So, it was a bit rich for Mr. Obama to last week admonish his successor to "stand up" to Russian President Vladimir Putin. "My hope is that [Donald Trump] does not simply take a realpolitik approach and suggest that if we just cut some deals with Russia – even if it hurts some people, or even if it violates international norms, or even if it leaves smaller countries vulnerable or creates long-term problems in regions like Syria – that we just do whatever is convenient at the time." Does that not sum up what Mr. Obama effectively did?

So, will America and the world miss Mr. Obama? Given what comes next, the answer is most probably "yes."

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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