Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Assessing Barack Obama's Legacy: A Great Man & Good President In Bad Times

There have been times over the last seven years when the hope-and-change mantra that propelled Barack Hussein Obama to the presidency seemed like a cruel fiction. Yet despite taking the reins of a war-weary nation in the midst of an economic calamity and having to endure the unrelenting enmity of an obdurate opposition party, Obama has wrought enormous changes during what has been the most transformational presidency in 80 years.
He has implemented far-reaching reforms in a dysfunctional health-care system, raised school academic standards, legislated pay parity for women, revolutionized the way we produce energy through harnessing renewable resources, fought back against global warming, taken on the epidemic of childhood obesity with his First Lady, provided deportation relief to young immigrants, legalized same-sex marriage and opened new opportunities for women and gays in the military. He saved the domestic auto industry, has added nearly four million jobs, reduced unemployment to 5 percent and the deficit by two thirds to a puny 2.5 percent of GDP, engineered egalitarian tax reforms and eliminated the most usurious of credit card abuses, while today the U.S. is an island of relative calm amid the global financial crisis.  He also took out Osama bin Laden, isolated Vladimir Putin, normalized relations with Cuba, stabilized relations with Iran and ended the war in Iraq.  And his administration has been remarkably scandal free once you discount the innumerable faux scandals ginned up by Republicans.
Obama's presidency has been, as a live microphone caught Vice President Biden saying on the day he signed the Affordable Care Act, "a big fucking deal."
Had the Supreme Court not stolen the 2000 election, Barack Obama would not have become the 44th president of the United States.  Things would be very different had the smirking frat boy from the Texas oil patch not been so spectacularly inept, had the economy not belly flopped, and had the relatively inexperienced senator from Illinois not run on a message that galvanized an electorate desperate to turn America back from the dark side. 
In exactly one year, the next president will take the oath of office.  That president will be a Democrat and almost certainly will be Hillary Clinton -- the first woman president following the first African-American president -- and while she is more moderate than Obama has been liberal, she also is committed to closing addressing the most formidable issue facing America: the gap between the rich and everyone else.  And she is campaigning like Obama is her new best friend.
Despite anguished cries of government overreach from Republicans, Washington's share of the economy has grown infinitesimally over the last seven years, and Obama has effectively made the case -- as does Clinton on the stump -- that providing a helping hand like health insurance to millions of people is not government overreach, while interfering with a woman's right to choose most certainly is.
Meanwhile, a new Gallup poll shows that Americans identifying themselves as liberal is at a 23-year high despite the Republican drumbeat of doom and gloom, and that is a really good thing.
There have been setbacks, as well as outright failures, on Barack Obama's watch.   
He has played much too nice with the Republicans and a deeply dysfunctional Congress.  He chose many of the same insiders for the most important administration fiscal positions who were asleep at the wheel or looked the other way as the seeds of the 2008 economic collapse were sewn, and his record on Wall Street reform is mixed.  He failed to act on marijuana reform or keep his pledge to shut the revolving door to lobbyists who go from industry to government and back to industry.  He not only did not curb mass surveillance, it has grown. 
He has not been particularly effective in using the presidential bully pulpit to allay fears of terrorism, which has inadvertently made the Republican blowhard brigade seem stronger when they rail about foreign policy. 
And most importantly for me, he issued go-free cards to Bush administration torture regime perpetrators.  His rationale in not ordering the Justice Department to investigate these evildoers is understandable if disheartening: He did not want to begin his presidency with Republicans screaming blue-blooded murder over what they would view as political prosecutions, although they screamed anyway about practically everything else.

Yet Obama has been clever in the face of obstructionist Republicans even if it sometimes seems he has been content with a half a loaf when a whole loaf was neededHe has made recess appointments with some success and is taking unilateral executive action on gun control.  He has understood that sweeping reform of environmental regulations is impossible because of the Republicans' big energy-fossil fuel mindset, so he has worked within existing regulations and fairly effectively at that. 
Charges that Obama has let down African-Americans while not adequately advocating against racism are rubbish. 
Obama remains a potent symbol for African-Americans.  Their lives have improved during his two terms because of his trademark quiet determination, not fire and brimstone, while I find offensive the notion that just because he's black things would or should automatically be better.  It's going to take a lot more than eight years to undo hundreds of years of racism.  
Barack Obama's style has been as important as his substance: His determinedly placid temperament has enabled him to keep his head when others lose theirs, most notably during the Ebola outbreak crisis but in many other instances, as well.  He has disdained the theatrical and possesses a calculated coolness that at times can be infuriating but became a personal trademark as the challenges -- and the Republican insults and dirty tricks -- piled up and his hair turned gray.
He has a gifted ability to engage when he speaks -- that is if you are inclined to listen in the first place. And you'd darned well better listen when the subject is complicated and his explanation is complex, which it sometimes is because of a tendency to slip into policy wonkery.  George Bush invariably talked down to and tried to frighten us, while Obama has talked with us, appealing to our better nature and resilience as a nation
And where Bush was a dismal speechmaker, Obama has been inspirational
There was his 2008 "More Perfect Union" speech on race in which he renounced Reverend Jeremiah Wright's beliefs while embracing his faith: 
"I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother — a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.
"These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love. . . .
"The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright's sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning. That anger is not always productive . . . it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races."
And his 2011 memorial speech speech for Christina Taylor Green and the other Tucson shooting victims:
"I believe that, for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.  That's what I believe, in part because that's what a child like Christina-Taylor Green believed. 
"Imagine — can you imagine for a moment, here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy, just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship, just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she, too, might play a part in shaping her nation’s future.
"She had been elected to her student council. She saw public service as something exciting and hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.
"I want us to live up to her expectations.
"I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. All of us, we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations."
Then there was the extraordinary eulogy last June during which he sang "Amazing Grace" for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was among nine people slain during a church Bible study by a self-avowed white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina.
Yes, Barack Obama has outstanding oratorical chops.  But let's recall that his opponents in 2008 said that was all he had, and John McCain went so far as to label him a "celebrity" in one of the more memorable insults of that campaign season.
Although it hardly matters at this point, history will be kind to Obama.  He turned out not only to be so much more than many of us give him credit for, he has been a transformational figure who happens to have been doing the most difficult job in the world while weathering vicious personal attacks.  And somewhat ironically, the right-wing Republican hate machine made him a better president.  
Underlying his accomplishments, as well as his failures, is a humility that all great men possess. Everything bitter conservatives and disillusioned liberals said he was he has not been, and everything they said he could not be he has been. 
Barack Obama has indeed been a big fucking deal.


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