Mr. Obama continued Mr. Bush’s generous campaign against HIV/AIDS, especially in Africa. He prodded states toward useful reforms in teacher accountability and school choice. Though he failed to champion immigration reform, his Justice Department stood up to the worst harassment of immigrants in Republican-governed states such as Arizona and Alabama. He peppered his Cabinet with leaders of substance, including Hillary Rodham Clinton at State and Arne Duncan at Education, and he nominated and won confirmation for two well-qualified Supreme Court justices.
OVERSEAS, TOO, there were successes and failures. Mr. Obama’s administration vigorously pursued al-Qaeda and tracked down its leader, Osama bin Laden. He supported a popular uprising against Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi. He recognized the importance of bolstering allies in Asia against Chinese bullying, and he opened trade talks with Asian nations intended to encourage an alternative to China’s state-sponsored, often corrupt capitalism.
On the other hand, he was hesitant and inconstant in responding to the two greatest and most unexpected foreign-policy opportunities of his presidency: the pro-democracy uprising in Iran in 2009 and the Arab Spring two years later. Mr. Obama kept the United States on the sidelines as Syria plunged into civil war, costing more than 30,000 lives — most of them civilians — and breeding extremism that may destabilize a half-dozen countries. By not securing a presence in Iraq after ending the U.S. military mission, he failed to capitalize on America’s decade-long commitment to that nation, and his ambivalence regarding Afghanistan — sending more troops, but with artificial deadlines and no clear commitment to their success — promises trouble in coming years.