It seems like only yesterday that a joyous throng filled Chicago’s Grant Park to celebrate the election of the nation’s first African-American president. Watching their smiles and their tears that evening, it was easy to believe we were entering an era in which the country would focus on what unites us rather than what divides us, that the arc of history really would continue to bend toward justice.
Expectations for the future were extraordinarily high that night. Barack Obama’s eloquent and inspiring words certainly helped create that mood. So did the fact that Obama was succeeding a president, George W. Bush, who had misled the country into a disastrous and totally unnecessary war in Iraq, who had helped create the worst economic conditions in this country since the Great Depression and who had tarnished America’s standing and reputation with the rest of the world.
The expectations were always too high, unrealistic and unachievable. No one quite appreciated at the time of the 2008 Election just how damaged the American economy was. Few people understood how quickly and dramatically the forces of globalism were transforming the economy, not just of the United States, but of much of the world. And certainly no one quite understood the impact those economic changes would have on the political and cultural landscape.
Perhaps most significantly, the new President faced a level of obstruction from many Republicans that ran directly counter to his campaign themes of moving beyond partisanship and gridlock in Washington. We Americans learned only later that Republicans committed themselves from before the first day of his administration to block every initiative, to do everything they could to prevent him from achieving any success. In the words of Mitch McConnell, it became their overriding priority to make Obama a one-term president. It was a pattern that Congressional Republicans would continue for eight years, culminating in their unprecedented decision to refuse to hold hearings on Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the U.S. Supreme Court for nearly an entire year.
It is undeniable that a considerable strain of the opposition to Obama was racially motivated. The “birther” movement, championed by many in the party including Donald Trump, has no plausible basis other than Obama’s race. The president tried early to work with Republicans, borrowed heavily from their ideas, including in the construction of his health care plan, and undertook an approach to the fight against global terrorism that should have made Republicans enthusiastically supportive. Meanwhile, overt racism began to appear in Republican rallies and became much more prevalent as the 2016 election approached.
In many ways, Obama faced a challenge similar to that of the first black man to play Major League Baseball, Jackie Robinson. It wasn’t enough to be good; both of them had to avoid responding to the taunts and neither was allowed to show public anger.
Yet, with all of that, history will speak well of the Obama presidency and rank him among the best who have ever served in that office. To understand this, start with his actual record, not the distortions you hear from his critics.
It’s not easy to get credit for preventing bad things from happening but, absent Obama’s determined leadership, this country might have faced a total economic collapse. Contrary to any ideological dispositions he might have had or the unpopularity of such a move in the view of members of his own party, he intervened to save the country’s banking industry.
He was attacked for not presiding over faster and more robust economic growth. The reality, however, is that the combination of a global recession, a Congress that refused to pass legislation that might have accelerated the recovery and structural shifts in the country’s economic base substantially limited the resources he could bring to bear on the problems. Actually, we tend to attribute both too much credit and too much blame to presidents for economic conditions over which they have little control.
Measured by the unprecedented months of job growth, the recovery and more of the Stock Market and the ongoing struggles of most industrialized nation in the world, Obama’s economic record looks very impressive. Add the Dodd-Frank legislation which attempts to prevent the same risky business practices that contributed so much to the 2007 collapse and you have a real set of accomplishments.
As we stand on the precipice of the Trump Administration, Obama’s so-called signature accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, appears to be poised for repeal by the Republican Congress. Would that action wipe out his legacy? Not necessarily. For all the wild and irresponsible talk by Republicans since the passage of the law, they still do not have a viable replacement proposal and are discovering that much of the law is actually quite popular. They lied about its impact from before Day One and continue to misrepresent how it works, but they are at last beginning to understand that there will be serious political costs to a simple repeal.
Obama succeeded, regardless of what this Congress does, in changing the terms of debate about health care in this country. The goal of coverage for everyone is much more widely accepted than it once was. The idea that no one should be prevented from getting insurance coverage because of a pre-existing condition is universally popular. Being able to stay on your parents’ plan until age 26 seems largely beyond debate. In other words, we’ll never talk about health care policy the same way because of what Barack Obama did.
His approach to international affairs will be more widely debated even among Democrats. Obama vigorously prosecuted the war on terror despite Republican complaints that he didn’t describe it in the same language that they did. Trump may undo the nuclear agreement with Iran, but the alternatives and the consequences are likely to make the world more dangerous rather than safer. Similarly, while Obama had a tense relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu, it is naked political rhetoric to say that he wasn’t highly supportive of Israel. His administration didn’t achieve peace in the Middle East, but neither had any other president.
There will be other issues, including global warming and the environment, than draw the attention of future historians. However, they will also pay homage to Obama’s integrity, character and example of how to be a public figure. There were no scandals during his administration, no hints of corruption other than those made up by unscrupulous opponents. Obama also showed that he could devote time and attention to his wife and children even as he fulfilled the office of president.
Some critics argue that he overthought some issues and was too reflective at times, that he didn’t engage in the schmoozing that is necessary to get political results. On the other hand, he believed in facts, reason and science and tried to justify his decisions in thoughtful ways. We are likely to miss that attribute more than almost any other.
Barack Obama wasn’t a perfect president as no one else has come close to that standard either. He was, however, extraordinary in many ways. Even those who don’t share that view today are likely to have a greater appreciation of him as we get further away from his presidency. The United States was truly fortunate to have Barack Obama as its president for the past eight years.