|PETE SOUZA / THE WHITE HOUSE|
There has been much gum flapping over whether President Barack Hussein Obama's legacy will be undermined by his successor, for whom Pretend Time will soon come to a crashing end with his inauguration. There indeed have been occasions over the last eight years when the hope-and-change mantra that propelled Obama to the presidency has seemed like a fiction, and the election of Donald Trump would seem to verify that in an especially cruel way.
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 and the stench of racism, which had been lurking in its hidey-hole until bursting forth newly triumphant with Trump's ascendency, Obama has wrought enormous changes during what has been the most transformational presidency in 80 years.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates has written, "For eight years he walked on ice and never fell."
Obama turned out not only to be so much more than many of us give him credit for, he happened to have done the most difficult job in the world with acuity, wisdom and wit while weathering vicious personal attacks as the man who broke the 220-year White House monopoly on whiteness. And somewhat ironically, the right-wing Republican hate machine made him a better president.
* Implemented far-reaching and, yes, lasting reforms in a dysfunctional health-care system.
* Stopped the Great Recession from becoming the second Great Depression.
* Raised school academic standards.
* Legislated pay parity for women.
* Revolutionized the way we produce energy through harnessing renewable resources.
* Fought back against global warming.
* Protected over 550 million acres of federal lands and waters from exploitation.
* Taken on the epidemic of childhood obesity with his First Lady.
* Revitalized the Justice Department, which has vigorously investigated police brutality.
* Appointed the first Latina justice to the Supreme Court.
* Provided deportation relief to young immigrants.
* Legalized same-sex marriage and opened new opportunities for women and gays in the military.
* Saved the domestic auto industry.
* Added 15 million jobs through 75 consecutive month of growth.
* Reduced unemployment to below 5 percent and the federal deficit by two thirds.
* Engineered egalitarian tax reforms and eliminated the most usurious of credit card abuses.
* Took out Obama bin Laden.
* Normalized relations with Cuba and stabilized relations with Iran.
* Resurrected America's dismal image in the world.
And unlike his predecessors, Obama has served without scandal once you discount the innumerable faux outrages ginned up by Republicans.
|DOUG MILLS / THE NEW YORK TIMES|
Had the Supreme Court not stolen the 2000 election, Barack Obama would not have become the 44th president of the United States. Things would have been 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.
That a sizable portion of that electorate has opted for a return to the dark side with Donald Trump is less a reflection of Obama's tenure than the latent stupidity of Americans in general. What is happening to America is a kind of entropy, a gradual decline into disorder. Trump is merely a symptom, not the disease, although it is certain that the case of presidential buyer's remorse that will begin unfolding in the coming weeks and months will be unlike anything ever seen in American history.
Still, there have been setbacks, as well as outright failures, on Obama's watch.
* Played much too nice with Republicans and a deeply dysfunctional Congress.
* Chose many of the same insiders for the most important administration fiscal posts who helped sew the seeds of the 2008 economic collapse.
* Failed to act on marijuana reform or push back sufficiently against the War on Drugs.
* Failed to keep his pledge to shut the revolving door to lobbyists.
* Allowed mass surveillance of Americans to grow.
* Done too little too late to push back against Vladimir Putin's efforts to throw the 2016 election.
Obama also 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. His Mideast policy, especially as it has pertained to Syria, was been a hash, while he has repeatedly wavered on human rights in Egypt and Turkey, among other countries.
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. And yes, Gitmo is still in business.
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 needed. He made recess appointments with some success and took 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, although First Lady Michelle Obama certainly has been more outspoken. There also is the reality that like Bill and Hillary Clinton, some of the criticism of him has merely been because he is a Democrat.
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 have gotten better. Obama fought powerful racist headwinds and it's going to take a lot more than eight years to undo hundreds of years of racism as the election of a proto-birther whose only talents are making money and white bluster has so painfully reminded us.
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 at the height of the recession he inherited and in 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. And when was the last time the leader of the free world danced to Drake's "Hotline Bling"?
Obama has had 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, as will Trump, while Obama has talked with us, appealing to our better nature and resilience as a nation as he did yet again in his farewell valedictory on Tuesday night. (Or perhaps was it not really farewell?)
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. His 2011 memorial speech speech for Christina Taylor Green and the other Tucson shooting victims. 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.
|PETE SOUZA / THE WHITE HOUSE|
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 the campaign. History will be particularly kind to Obama, and while Republicans are working feverishly to undo the Affordable Care Act, his signal accomplishment, this transformation of health care in America has touched every nook and cranny of the system and has a momentum that will be impossible to stop.
My favorite photograph of the last eight years is not of Obama crossing the Freedom Bridge is Selma, dancing with Michelle at one of his inaugural balls or greeting troops in Afghanistan. It is that little black boy touching his hair.
Underlying Obama's 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.
But most of all, Barack Obama has been one of the greatest of presidents because he has been a deeply decent and moral human being at a time when those qualities are becoming extinct.