Sunday, December 11, 2016

The President as Role Model: The Legacy of Barack Hussein Obama

I'm inspired by the people I meet in my travels--hearing their stories, seeing the hardships they overcome, their fundamental optimism and decency. I'm inspired by the love people have for their children. And I'm inspired by my own children, how full they make my heart. They make me want to work to make the world a little bit better. And they make me want to be a better man. – Barack Obama
As we approach the end of Barack Obama’s tenure as the 44th President of the United States, I have reflected upon what the past eight years has meant to the United States, the world, and to me personally. I cannot speak for others, though I know there are millions of Americans who feel, as I do, deeply connected to President Obama and grateful for his leadership and the example he set in office. For many African Americans, President Obama will rightfully be a source of great pride and inspiration for generations to come. For me and many Democrats over the age of 50, Obama is the first president since John F. Kennedy to inspire a poetic sense of idealism and an aspirational sense of service.

I am aware that not everyone shares my admiration and respect for this president. But even for those Americans not enamored of President Obama and who opposed his every action, I believe that history and the passage of time will solidify this president as a man of character, decency, compassion, and wisdom. For those are the traits I have witnessed since he took the oath of office on January 20, 2009.

As the leader of the free world, Obama represented everything good and decent about America. As president, he was a consistently inspiring public speaker, a thoughtful man of ideas, a serious man with a good sense of humor; an intellectual, a policy wonk, by his own admission a bit of a nerd, a techie who understood the dynamics of world economic trends and quietly led us into the digital age. He restored dignity to the nation’s highest elected office and led a scandal-free administration. He elevated our national discourse on public affairs. He maintained his composure through some extremely difficult times. And he was the coolest, hippest president ever.

His accomplishments while in office are impressive. Although he inherited one of the worst financial crises in American history, he saved the U.S. economy from a second Great Depression. He restored stability to the financial markets, pushed through a massive stimulus bill, and saved the American auto industry from collapse. He guided the nation through a massive recession and helped turn devastating and record-breaking job losses into 74 months of consecutive job growth. He achieved the lowest unemployment rate since the late 1960s without a resurgence of inflation. And though middle class wages remained stagnant for much of his presidency, there are today 18 million fewer people without health insurance, a much improved housing market, a downward trend in deficit spending, a booming stock market, record breaking corporate profits, and a much improved economic outlook.

He advanced civil rights for gay people by allowing gays to serve openly in the military. He was the first president to actively support marriage equality, which is now the law of the land. On matters of race, some believe Obama underplayed his hand and often ignored some of the racial wounds and divisions that continue to haunt us. But as the nation’s first black president, he has mostly led by example, through the love and respect he displays regularly for his wife and children and the diversity of his appointments to his administration. His meditation on civil rights in Selma in 2015 and his rendition of Amazing Grace at the funeral of the slain black church goers in Charleston, South Carolina, were among his best rhetorical moments. And his reflective, compassionate addresses to the nation following the tragic mass shootings in Arizona and Newtown helped soothe a grieving nation.  

He was the most environmentally conscious president in history. Through his successful negotiation of the Paris Climate Accord, in which the world’s biggest polluters, including China, agreed to take serious action against climate change, he established the United States as a world leader in defense of the planet’s future. He took bold action on fuel efficiency and planted the seeds for reduced U.S. reliance on fossil fuels. Aided by market forces, America’s dependence on foreign oil is down 60% from when he first took office. He has greatly expanded America’s use of wind and solar power, and begun to phase out our reliance on coal burning, acid-rain-causing power plants.

He advanced the cause of peaceful diplomacy while protecting American interests abroad. He ended the U.S. military intervention in Iraq and initiated the eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan. He gave the order that killed bin Laden. His administration’s successful negotiation of the Iran Nuclear Deal and efforts to expand trade and improve relations with the countries of Asia and the Pacific, have greatly improved our standing in the world. And he restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, a long overdue move with historic implications.

To be fair, Obama’s foreign policy record is not entirely rosy or error-free. His handling of the Arab Spring, his hesitancy in Libya and Syria, and his inability to make any progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, have been blemishes on a foreign policy that, while minimizing major blunders, has sometimes led from behind. And his expanded use of drone warfare to kill suspected terrorists abroad raises many troubling concerns under U.S. Constitutional and international law, and may have created more future terrorists than it killed. But as noted by author and former foreign correspondent James Mann, “Obama will be viewed as the first president to take seriously the notion that the dominant role America has played in the world both after World War II and again after the end of the Cold War cannot be maintained over the long term. In that sense, he was ahead of his time.”

Apart from the stimulus bill, the Affordable Care Act remains his most significant legislative achievement. For most of the 20th Century, U.S. Presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to Bill Clinton tried and failed to enact some form of national health care. Whatever the future of Obamacare, and whatever its shortcomings (and there are many), as the first president in American history to succeed in enacting a comprehensive health care law, he moved us decisively toward universal health care. It remains to be seen if Trump and the Republicans will repeal and replace Obamacare, but whatever they do, Obamacare’s key provisions – preventing insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, allowing parents to maintain coverage for their children to age 26, the use of insurance exchanges, and expanded eligibility under Medicaid – are likely to remain.

When Obama ran for the White House, he did not want simply to be a good president, but a transformative one. Hope and change were his calling cards. He wished to fundamentally alter the way politics worked and believed he could unite a deeply divided nation. He called upon Americans to erase the false dichotomy between “red” states and “blue” states and to instead see America at its best, as a people united, a multi-cultural mosaic of races, ethnicities, and faiths bound together by one flag, one Constitution, and a sense of the common good.

Eight years later, the lack of civility in our politics and the entrenched divisions in U.S. society are among Obama’s biggest disappointments. There are global forces at work in the world today that no one person or leader can control or counteract. The resurgence of the populist right and nationalism in Europe, Latin America, and the United States are forces too large for even an aspirational leader like President Obama to overcome. I do not blame Obama for this reality. It is not his fault – division and opposition, organized Republican efforts to defeat his every achievement in the hopes of making him a “one-term president” was the clearly delineated strategy of the Republican leadership in Congress. Combined with the rise of the Tea Party and the increasingly Balkanized media in which everyone’s thought processes are reinforced and further inflamed, Obama’s vision of a “united states of America” seems na├»ve in retrospect.

But I think that history will look kindly on the Obama Era, and that many of the people who opposed him these past eight years will someday come to appreciate his seriousness of purpose and the dignified manner in which he performed the duties of his Office.

History will not record Obama as a transformative president in the same manner as Franklin Roosevelt (on the left) or Ronald Reagan (on the right); for they changed the way Americans viewed the role of the federal government and their relationship to it. But Obama’s presidency was transformative in another sense. His very presence in office for eight years and the manner in which he and his family conducted themselves were culturally transformative. Think of the millions of young Americans, children and teenagers, who came of age with a dignified, good looking, graceful black First Family in the White House. To younger Americans, who are already more open to differences in race, gender, sexual orientation, and lifestyles, having a black family living in the White House was the most natural thing in the world. It is difficult to underestimate the long-term impact that will have. And Obama connected with younger people. He understood them and knew how to communicate with them; he understood their comedy and late night talk shows, their podcasts, their music, and their uses of social media.

I especially admire the heartfelt thoughtfulness displayed by Obama in one-on-one interviews. In September 2015, Obama participated in a lengthy two-part conversation with author Marilynne Robinson in The New York Review of Books, in which they discussed religion, philosophy, literature and history. It was an extraordinarily candid and intellectual conversation not regularly witnessed from an American politician. And he has had similar conversations with a number of journalists, hosts of podcasts, and authors. He is equally adept at discussing music and sports, and he is genuinely funny. Andrea and I looked forward every year to watching (on C-SPAN no less) his appearances at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner. His comedic timing and execution of a good joke is unmatched by past American presidents.

I am deeply concerned that the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the White House risks undoing many of President Obama’s accomplishments and much of his legacy. It is difficult to imagine a more radical shift in direction than Barack Obama to Donald Trump. For those on the Left who bemoaned Obama’s shortcomings, his failure to close Guantanamo or to seriously address rising income inequality, the next four years will make you wish for Obama’s pragmatic liberalism. For those on the Right who value character and dignified behavior in our public officials, you should already be missing the current President, who for eight years has been a model of dignity, an exemplary father and husband, a role model for our youth and a source of inspiration for anyone willing to listen.

Someday we will look back on the Obama years and recall a president who acted with grace and poise in extremely difficult circumstances, who withstood insults and disrespect, and was opposed and ridiculed by the opposition and in the right-wing and conservative press (and by certain segments of the left), and handled all of it with extraordinary composure and goodwill. I will miss President Obama in the White House, not simply because he was a good president whom I trusted to act in America’s best interests, but also because he inspired me to be a better citizen, a better man and a better father, and because he made me feel good about America.

We, the People, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which only asks what's in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense. – President Barack Obama—September 6, 2012

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