In the wake of the inauguration of President Donald Trump, former President Barack Obama finished the process of leaving the highest office America has to offer. Concluding his time as Commander-in-Chief with a heartfelt Farewell Address in Chicago alongside his final press conference, Obama conveyed a sense of sincere gratitude for the honor of serving his nation, while calling upon an uneasy constituency to remain headstrong and tenacious in the face of an uncertain future.
Obama leaves his post with one of the highest approval ratings in a generation, soaring to nearly 60% this week. However, such late-stage positive metrics fail to capture the true duality of opinion towards our 44th president. In any given week, Obama could as easily be praised as an infallible leader as he could be named the “anti-christ”.
What is the true legacy left behind by the Obama presidency? In spite of constant, almost nauseating detestment of his actions by conservative pundits, Obama’s time in office should be remembered in a positive light. In the face of constant political gridlock, a rising climate of terror and debilitating economic conditions, Obama, above all else, exuded hope. His actions, albeit controversial and oftentimes ineffective, promoted innovation, initiating lasting policy trends that will change the way Americans view politics for generations to come.
First and foremost, Obama’s ascent to the White House made history in its own right, by bestowing upon him the honor of becoming the nation’s first African American president. While such an observation may appear trivial for many in the grand scheme of things, this monumental achievement symbolizes so much more for the communities it empowered. The work and struggles of civil rights activists across centuries finally appeared to come to a glorious fruition. While the evils of racism still clearly exist, Obama’s election gave African Americans a symbol to be proud of—a symbol of hope.
Day one of Obama’s term in office offered no honeymoon, as he gazed directly down the barrel of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Unemployment rose to nearly 10%, while consumer confidence and economic output dropped to historic lows. The future appeared bleak at best for most American workers, who placed their livelihoods in their faith in the strategies of an untested Obama’s next policy moves.
His strategies worked. In the aftermath of an eight-year term, unemployment dropped to around 4.7% as of December, alongside growth in the Dow Jones Industrial Average to a record high of nearly 19,700—an over 200% increase from its lowest point in 2009. While economists will debate for years the effectiveness of his signature plan, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, consumer confidence and economic performance definitively improved under the Obama Administration, ending the Recession and restoring faith in the economy.
Additionally, Obama’s presidency ushered in a new era of civil rights successes across the country. Under his administration, marriage equality became codified in law, alongside an official end to the archaic “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy of the Armed Forces. His push for LGBT rights inspired many afflicted communities, following policies restricting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation alongside expansions of federal benefits to same-sex employees. While he may not have succeeded in passing his most ambitious reforms, Obama remains a champion of civil rights in the eyes of the communities he represented.
Not all of Obama’s policy experiments would prove as successful. Specifically in the realm of foreign policy, his administration failed at conveying a sense of mastery in the intricacies of foreign relations, instead exuding palpable uncertainty and tentativeness. To his credit, Obama’s leadership deserves recognition for the execution of arguably America’s worst enemy of the 21st century—Osama bin Laden. In other areas, success eluded him. The state of affairs in the Syrian Civil War continue to deteriorate, ISIS remains a menacing threat to the American people, and resolutions in the Iran nuclear deal appear far less than optimal.
Finally, and perhaps the most contentious of his policy choices, the fate of the Affordable Care Act —“Obamacare”—ends on uncertain terms. In total, the bill allowed nearly 20 million individuals to obtain health insurance, alongside well-received new restrictions on pre-existing conditions and the ability to remain on a parent’s insurance until the age of 26. However, its initial enactment was marred by a plethora of flaws, including a broken website, rising premiums and an inability to reach its intended audience. In his most recent press conference, Obama urged the incoming administration to consider keeping his signature policy, arguing that “tweaking” rather than scrapping the plan would provide more benefits to the American people. Despite his earnest advice, Republicans simply wouldn’t have it. After eight years of fighting the policy tooth and nail, it appears the now-Republican Congress will repeal the ill-fated legislation, having already set the process in motion last Friday.
In his initial campaign for office, President Obama promised “hope and change” to a nation weary from war and economic despair. Over two terms, he never deviated from that simple message. His administration can take credit for leading the nation out of economic catastrophe, alongside progressive civil rights reforms and the first earnest attempt to reform a broken health care system. While he may have waffled on some policy issues, and although his signature policy achievement was never fully realized, Obama mostly kept his promises of inspiring hope and change—75% of the time, in fact.
However, the real legacy of the Obama presidency will necessarily reflect the almost irrational resistance his actions faced every step of the way. In a time of increasing political polarization, Obama’s efforts fell upon deaf and consistently stubborn ears, never granting him the ability to fully “take the reigns”. From Obamacare to foreign and economic policy, Republican counterparts demonstrated an unrelenting lack of empathy for the President’s agenda, labeling it as foolish, expensive and naive. In particular, Obama received virtually no support on plans for immigration reform—a noteworthy failure of his administration. As a result, he took the only action available to him, an executive order, further fueling the fire of Republican mockery of the President as a power-hungry tyrant.
Despite what some of his more radicalized counterparts may believe, Obama was never the tyrant or “anti-christ” they feared. His policies, while far from indisputable, took into careful consideration what he felt was best for the American people, braving the constant onslaught of dissent. For that alone, he should be commended.
His administration faced tough odds, fighting racism, iron-clad Republican resistance and economic recession. In spite of the tough hand the President was dealt, Obama led the nation with charisma, professionalism and passion. Even more important, and likely what will be missed the most about him, was his ability to exude a sense of calming empathy and poise in the darkest of times. Obama was a president one could admire and count on to comfort in times of despair, despite varying opinions on his policy stances.
Barack Obama is not a perfect man, nor was he a perfect president. Nonetheless, the legacy of President Obama will hopefully be revered in a positive light. As a man who inspired a disheartened and fearful nation in trying times, his efforts must be exalted given the imperfect climate in which he achieved so much for them.
In its purest form, Obama sought change for the American people. While it may not remain, change is exactly what he created.