By the time this column is published, the next president of the United States will have been chosen by the American people, bar any sort of electoral controversy like that of Gore-Bush in 2000. As we all look forward to the next four years, I would like to take a moment to look back at Barack Obama’s presidency and offer a provisional assessment of his legacy.
His domestic and international policy efforts were a mix of failures and successes, some of which were his fault, some not. But his legacy, I believe, will transcend his policies. Obama will be remembered for being a very presidential president—humble, charismatic, and virtuous—the kind of president our country deserves.
Obama’s 2008 campaign was special. He stirred in our hearts a real sense of hope for the future, a hope that we could come together and transcend divisions. The nation, weary of war and downtrodden by the Great Recession, yearned for change and an end to partisan gridlock. Though we perhaps unfairly projected those lofty hopes on Obama, he did promise to be the solution.
After taking office, the naïve idealism of the campaign gave way to pragmatism, and the promised era of government cohesion and spiritual unity failed to materialize. While I believe that Obama will be remembered primarily for his presidential qualities, he did manage to legislate change for millions of Americans and alter the course of the country.
History will look favorably on his domestic policy achievements, with some caveats. When Obama entered office, the economy was mired in a deep recession. Utilizing bailouts and a massive stimulus, among other measures, he prevented the economy from nose-diving into a full-blown crisis—a fact that is almost universally agreed upon by economists. As the economy began to stabilize, he introduced Dodd-Frank, an initially bold piece of financial reform, with the aim of preventing future financial crises. While Republican congressmen and litigation have eliminated much of its bite, some promising measures, like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, have strengthened our financial system. And with Obama at the helm, our economy has returned to near full-employment, and the economy has regained much of its steam. Wages, however, have remained stagnant, which some will see as a blight on his economic legacy.
Obamacare was a step in the right direction. Though it is riddled with problems and its future remains uncertain, for now it can be viewed on balance as a success by two key metrics: the expansion of health insurance coverage to millions more Americans and its role in slowing America’s out-of-control growth in health care spending.
Some domestic policy failures stand out, perhaps chief among them the inability to pass even moderate, common sense gun laws that were supported by 9 out of 10 Americans in the wake of numerous tragic mass shootings. But on this and many other issues, the blame lies largely with the party of “No” for the past eight years—the GOP.
Indeed, much of Obama’s domestic policy moves were shaped by the GOP’s relentless opposition to anything he touched, which forced him to legislate via unilateral actions. Highlights include the Climate Action Plan, which allowed the EPA to order severe restrictions on carbon emissions, the veto of the Keystone pipeline, and raising the minimum wage for federal contractors.
The legacy of his international efforts is trickier to predict. On some key issues, it may be too early to judge. The success of the Iran deal, for example, will not be seen for years. It seems likely, though, that his action, or lack thereof, in some key conflicts will leave stains on his record. He has received substantial flak for his non-intervention in Syria, his premature withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, the chaos that followed the removal of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, and the rise of ISIS. The final outcomes of these conflicts, and the extent to which Obama shaped or could have shaped them, will comprise much of his foreign policy legacy.
Obama’s diplomatic, non-military efforts on the international stage should not be overlooked. The Paris Climate Agreement took a historic step toward mitigating climate change. He initiated a thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations. His Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is the world’s largest free-trade agreement, would mark a significant shift in the nature of our relationship with Asian-Pacific countries, although it currently languishes in Congress.
I think it is unlikely, though, that Obama will be remembered much for any of his policies. After a 2016 campaign marked by the candidates’ scandals and character failings rather than productive policy discussions, Obama will be remembered most as a presidential president, one who acted with the gravitas, class, and moral character that our country deserves in its leaders.
In moments of national crisis, Obama responded with eloquence and poise, demonstrating genuine empathy and presenting a lofty vision of unity for our country. His speeches set forth high-minded aspirations for what we as Americans could be. He stood above the fray, never attacking and always collected. Consider the way he handled a protester at one of his speeches last week. He hushed the passions of the crowd and honored the man, rather than inciting violence like we saw throughout this election season.
As I watched this election unfold over the past year, I often found myself wondering: Where is the leader with the grand vision of hope and unification for our country? Where is the leader who understands the hopes and dreams of Americans from all walks of life? Where is the leader who commands respect, who can work across the aisle, foster dialogue and form consensus? Where is the leader who brings out what is best in us, who inspires us to be better individuals, a better nation? In this election, Americans were presented with no such candidates, arguably even in the primaries. These questions arise, I have realized, from a deep sense of nostalgia for the last eight years.
So while presidential legacies take some time to coalesce and policies take some time to realize their impact, I can say with confidence that history will view Obama favorably. Though stymied by a Republican Congress at every turn and presented with some of the most intractable problems, Obama never failed to conduct himself as a president should: with poise, fortitude, class, empathy, eloquence, and vigor. As we all reflect on the last election cycle and look forward to the next four years, I think Obama’s virtues as president will only become more and more evident to all.
Featured Image by Susan Walsh / AP Photo
Nicely written retrospection. Timely, too.