Barack Obama has often spoken of bending the arc of history toward justice. Our 44th president did so in many ways, indeed by his mere presence.
Even after eight years, we too easily forget how historic it truly was for the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas to be elected to our nation’s highest office.
Audaciously, Obama tried to transform the nation – and why not, after his transcendent 2008 campaign of “hope and change” galvanized so many people in America and around the world?
A gifted orator, Obama governed with grace, calm and dignity. He can claim many successes, kept most of his campaign promises and leaves office with his highest approval ratings in at least four years, approaching the outgoing popularity of Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. But it turned out that many Americans were not quite as hopeful as he believed, or as ready to change as much as he imagined.
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As his presidency ends, the country is changed, but also divided.
Judging Obama’s legacy is more difficult in this venomous political atmosphere. And there’s even more uncertainty because President-elect Donald Trump is vowing to roll back many of Obama’s key initiatives.
Still, fair-minded people should be able to conclude that America is better off now than eight years ago. His accomplishments are all the more remarkable because some people, Trump among them, questioned his legitimacy from the very start and Republicans in Congress consistently sought to block him.
Obama took office four months after the Wall Street crash and during the worst downturn since the Great Depression. He saved the auto industry and helped nurse the economy back to health. The unemployment rate, which hit 10 percent in 2009, is the lowest since the recession, the number of private-sector jobs has grown for 75 straight months and the economy has added more than 15 million jobs since 2010. But as Obama says, more must be done to help the middle class and those left behind in inner cities and rural areas.
Obama pushed an ambitious domestic agenda, beyond preventing economic collapse. He vastly expanded health care coverage, though the Affordable Care Act is far from perfect and hasn’t done enough yet to reduce costs. As Trump and Republicans try to repeal Obamacare, it will become clearer how much good it did and how difficult it will be to replace it with something better.
On another generational issue, Obama put the U.S. on course to get serious about global climate change, requiring cars to get 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, and signing the historic Paris accords that were adopted in December 2015. Though some of his executive actions have been blocked by the courts, he rightly pushed us toward clean energy and away from fossil fuels.
Our society already was moving toward more tolerance, including LGBT rights. Still, his support – repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the military and not defending the Defense of Marriage Act – strengthened the shift. When the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriage the law of the land in 2015, the White House was bathed in rainbow colors.
Obama, however, was unable to break the deadlock on immigration reform. He used his executive powers to protect young people, but also presided over a record number of deportations. Trump was only too happy to exploit fear and anger on this issue.
In one of his last big initiatives, Obama started to reverse the costly mass incarceration of nonviolent drug criminals that hasn’t made us that much safer, but has devastated families and communities, especially poor ones.
On foreign policy, Obama started with soaring rhetoric about bridging the gap between the West and Islam and fostering global harmony. That won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. While he restored relations with Myanmar and Cuba and secured the Iran nuclear weapons deal, he became much more of a realist. Even he might admit now he was naive about the violent forces in the world.
He came into office promising to end the war in Iraq and finish the fight in Afghanistan. He basically did, though he’s leaving more troops than he planned in both nations as he exits. He intervened in Libya, yet after drawing a red line in Syria in 2013, he let dictator Bashar Assad cross it, and many more died in that bloody civil conflict.
In our post-9/11 world, Obama took up the fight against terrorism, and ordered the operation that killed Osama bin Laden and has weakened al-Qaida. But global terror is still one of the biggest threats facing America, and the Islamic State rose on his watch.
In fighting terror, Obama returned America to its values by banning torture and trying to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay. Yet he vastly expanded the use of drones, despite civilian casualties. Obama also expanded mass surveillance of Americans (though he later supported reforms) and increased espionage prosecutions of whistleblowers.
While we have had homegrown attacks in Boston, Fort Hood, Orlando and San Bernardino, we have not had a large-scale attack on the homeland by a foreign terrorist group. How many of us would have bet on that eight years ago?
And how many would have wagered there would be no egregious corruption scandals in eight years? Sure, there were mistakes, such as Operation “Fast and Furious” gun sales to drug cartels, the deaths at the U.S. mission in Benghazi and the Internal Revenue Service targeting tea party groups. But we didn’t see perp walks of high officials. It may seem like a rather low bar, but with the incoming administration we may see how big a deal that is.
Obama is a president whose tenure will look better and better as time passes. He was smart and thoughtful, he was able to calmly brush off criticism and he inspired people, especially the young. Americans will learn soon enough how good we had it.
In his farewell speech Tuesday night, Obama spoke of his achievements, but also warned that our democracy is under threat – from lack of economic opportunity, racial divisions, political strife and weakening of common values – and called upon all of us to defend and strengthen it.
If we heed his words, that could be his most lasting legacy.