Obama’s legacy: Hope, change, and disappointment
Barack Obama’s election in 2008 as the nation’s first black president “marked a moment of hope and transformation,” said Jeff Jacoby in The Boston Globe—a historic event that “genuinely did change America for the better.” Now, as Obama prepares to depart the White House after two terms, it’s clear his electoral victory “was also the high point of Obama’s presidency”—and that he’ll leave “our country more divided” than ever. Since the Great Recession, Obama has overseen one of the most anemic rebounds in seven decades, with annual GDP averaging a “feeble” 2.1 percent and millions of additional Americans falling below the poverty line under his watch. As for Obama’s signature domestic policy achievements, said The Wall Street Journal in an editorial, even they “look evanescent.” Obamacare is facing wholesale repeal, while Republican President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to undo every executive action Obama undertook on climate change, immigration, and the environment. From his first day in office, Obama arrogantly pursued a partisan progressive agenda opposed by half the country, without taking on the “hard work of building consensus.” In doing so, he “built much of his legacy on sand.”
Historians won’t judge Obama so harshly, said Robert Reed in the Chicago Tribune. Don’t forget that when the 44th president moved into the Oval Office in 2009, the U.S. economy was on the brink of collapse, and monthly job losses averaged a staggering 772,000. Obama’s calm optimism steadied a frightened nation, and his auto industry bailout and $800 billion stimulus package averted disaster. Since then, Obama has overseen 75 consecutive months of job gains, and unemployment has plunged from 10 percent to 4.7 percent, with 11.3 million jobs created. Obama is leaving his Republican successor “a pretty impressive Inauguration Day present: A strong, functional U.S. economy.”
Obama’s foreign policy legacy, though, resembles a heap of smoldering ashes, said The Economist. The president entered office determined to rein in his predecessor George W. Bush’s failed attempts to fix what Obama saw as a “tragically intractable” world. But the vacuum U.S. inaction created led to chaos and empowered authoritarians. Obama’s premature withdrawal of troops from Iraq gave rise to ISIS, while his fainthearted reluctance to punish Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad for crossing a “red line” on chemical weapons enabled a genocide of 450,000 civilians, a massive refugee crisis, and a cynical intervention by Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Convulsed by Obama’s blundering predecessor,” the Middle East is “even more wretched after his tumultuous reticence.”
Obama’s racial legacy is also tinged with regret, said Sharon Cohen and Deepti Hajela in the Associated Press. The son of a black Kenyan economist and a white academic from Kansas, Obama “entered the White House a living symbol”—a step toward what many euphorically hoped would be “a postracial society.” Yet both white and black majorities believe race relations have deteriorated under our supposed “Healer-in-chief.” Conservatives accused Obama of taking sides in disputes over police brutality and the killing of Trayvon Martin. Yet African-Americans have criticized Obama for “walking a rhetorical tightrope” and being too timid in calling out the country’s structural racism. The postracial utopia was always a fantasy, said Peniel E. Joseph in TheGuardian.com. But for me and other black people, Obama’s lasting racial legacy will be the way he and “his poised, elegant, and brilliant family” conducted themselves with unfailing grace and dignity—even when faced with ugly racist assaults and ridiculous birther conspiracies. Barack, Michelle, Sasha, and Malia “normalized black excellence” and made black Americans deeply proud.
For now, Obama occupies a “muddled” position in Americans’ hearts, said Damon Linker in TheWeek.com. He’s leaving with an impressive 55 percent approval rating: 12 points ahead of his successor, Trump, and 22 points ahead of his predecessor, Bush. Yet his Democratic Party now resembles a “smoking pile of rubble”— having lost not only the presidential election but also 63 House seats, 10 Senate seats, and 12 governorships. Obama’s fatal flaw has been his “tendency toward high-minded superiority.” He never bothered to make a convincing case for his policies to Americans, and that complacency led to the ascendency of a man his “diametric opposite” in temperament and outlook. Obama’s optimistic faith in “the goodness of America could not overcome the red-blue divide he set out to transcend, said Jamelle Bouie in Slate.com. Indeed, the backlash Obama triggered “will cost him his legacy.”