The American and Russian Federation Presidents are in their final years of service as presidents of their respective nations. For American President Barack Obama, a Constitutional Amendment limits him to a maximum of two terms as president, and he is now completing the second of those terms. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is already in his third term as president after taking a one-term time-out, it is unlikely that even his gigantic ego would wait out another full presidential term in order for him to be able to run again. Let us, then, take a hard look at the likely legacies of these two world leaders.
Barack Obama, to date, has mainly the seriously-flawed Affordable Care Act as his major presidential legacy, going back to his first time of office. While so-called Obamacare is undoubtedly better than the former health care non-system in the United States, and while millions more Americans are now covered by at least some health insurance, the ACA has also managed to put off, probably for decades, any major consideration of a real single-payer health care system in the U.S. Yes, the supposed elimination of the use of pre-existing conditions to disqualify people from vitally-needed treatment is indeed major improvement. Still, the reality that private profit-driven health insurance companies are still in control of the system, and making cost-based health care decisions which should be based on medical needs, puts America considerably behind the best systems in Europe and even in Canada.
Much of the rest of the Obama Presidential Legacy to date is fatally flawed: the encouragement given to environmental degradation in many ways, the unprecedented level of spying on Americans and world leaders, the failure to take effective leadership (beyond lip service) on real gun control -- the list is long. That is why the bad deal struck with Iran over the Iranian Nuclear Program, intended primarily to enhance the Obama Presidential Legacy, is instead likely to serve as a major foreign policy blunder. The fact that the Ayatollah who serves as the Supreme Leader of Iran appears to have endorsed the pact should be enough to cast severe doubts on the agreement. Were that not enough, a host of Middle East experts question whether the agreement will really serve to curb the dangerous nuclear ambitions of Iran even during its term, let alone after that term is up. The track record is not at all encouraging, and it is hard to avoid the view that outgoing President Obama has finally found an effective way of sticking it to someone whom he obviously detests: Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu of loyal American ally Israel. While Bibi has also been busily sticking it to Barack, tit-for-tat does not a presidential legacy make.
Moving on to Vlad the Impaler II (the original Vlad the Impaler was fond of banging spikes into the heads of those who displeased him), Russian President Vladimir Putin has made his legacy-dream crystal clear: the return of Russia to its superpower Soviet status during the Communist Era which ended over twenty years ago. Putin, a former top official in the feared-and-detested Soviet KGB secret police, has never accepted the reduced size of the Russian Federation (aka Empire) through the loss of the former Soviet satellite states, such as East Germany, Poland, some of the Baltic Countries -- and, of course, Ukraine. For his legacy, the Russian president seeks to restore the faded glory of his nation, by expanding its territory to include at least Ukraine, where he has already seized the Crimea region, and even further afterwards. Putin seems to see Europe as his salami, to be sliced and diced at will.
Nor are territorial aspirations the only goal of the Russian president. The recent Sochi Winter Olympics, with their lavish opening and closing ceremonies, made clear the Putin Promotion of Russian Heritage and Culture. Meanwhile, the indirect costs of his aspirations are even higher than the inflated direct costs of Sochi. Sanctions against Russia over its blatant violations of Ukranian sovereignty have hurt the Russian economy in a host of ways, and the forcible removal of Russia from the G8 group of major nations has hurt Russian prestige, while world respect continues to decline to new lows. The Putin legacy reflects repression at home, such as the jailing of dissidents, and abuse abroad, in Ukraine and elsewhere, including Russian support for such repressive regimes as those in Syria and North Korea.
Irony of ironies, then, it seems that unless Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin mend their ways -- about as likely as the advent of true world peace -- both of their legacies will be fatally flawed. Perhaps what we really have in both instances is what the ancient Greeks termed hubris, the human trait of over-reaching. Recall the legend of Icarus, whose Wings of Feathered Wax worked well until he over-reached by flying too near the sun, so that the waxen wings melted and Icarus experienced the first crash landing. The really important point about hubris is that it stems from the very basic nature of the practitioner, and thus cannot be avoided. In the present instance, it is likely that neither the American nor Russian presidents will mend their ways to avoid, or even to reduce, their over-arching hubris. Both of their nations, and the entire world, are likely to suffer as a result. The legend of Icarus may have been among the first cases of such hubris, but it will be far from the last -- and far from the most damaging. Presidents Obama and Putin will learn that they also, unfortunately, have Wings of Wax.