Just a few hours from now, President Obama will board Marine One, give one final wave, and then fly off into history as a former president. This is going to be very strange for me to see. And not just because of who will be replacing him. It would still feel weird if Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden were taking over.
The funny thing is I have no idea why it will feel odd. I have seen three transfers of power, that I distinctly remember, starting in 1993 when Bill Clinton took the reins from Bush 41, in 2001 when Bush 43 took over for Clinton, and in 2009 when Obama was sworn in. But for some reason, I feel like Obama has been president for a lot longer than eight years. Maybe it is because aside from 2004, the election of 2008 was the first election I really followed closely. Or maybe it is because Obama’s presidency has spanned the course of most of my post-college adult life (I graduated in 2006).
Whatever the reason, it feels like a chapter in my life is coming to an end. I was 25 years old when Obama was elected in 2008. I am 33 years old now, and the next time this country goes to the polls in a presidential election, I will be 37 (also known as pushing 40).
A lot has happened in this country, and across the world, over the last eight years. And while history will ultimately decide how good of a president Barack Obama was, I think now is a good time to reflect on my overall thoughts about his legacy, both good and bad.
Regardless of the final verdict of his presidency, there is no question Mr. Obama was a historic president, for obvious reasons. The genuine excitement that followed him throughout 2007 and 2008 was something this country had not seen since the days of John F. Kennedy. Here was a young, charismatic candidate that gave people hope for the future. In addition, he was the first African American candidate with a legitimate shot at winning the White House. Which he did in a landslide.
Even though I was on the other side of the political spectrum back then, I still appreciated seeing the excitement across the country, especially among African Americans, and the historic nature of electing our first African American president.
It is pretty amazing to contrast the mood of the country after 2008 to the mood of today. Back then it was hope and optimism against the backdrop of a horrible recession. Today it is anger and uncertainty.
In addition to being the first African American president, Mr. Obama presided over our nation’s recovery from the depths of the Great Recession. At the time he took office, the economy had contracted a stunning 9% in the last quarter of 2008 and the labor force was hemorrhaging more than 800,000 jobs per month. The Dow Jones stood at 7,949 the day he took office and the unemployment rate was 7.8%, hitting its peak of 10% in October 2009.
Things finally started looking up in March of 2010. This kicked off 75 consecutive months of job growth under this administration. More than 11 million jobs were created under Mr. Obama, the Dow Jones has more than doubled and is currently at 19,768, and the latter half of 2016 saw real wage growth across all income levels.
His administration also bailed out the struggling auto industry, which saved the jobs of thousands of workers in the Rust Belt and prevented the economic downturn from getting even worse.
Perhaps the most notable, and controversial, domestic accomplishment by Mr. Obama was the passage of the Affordable Care Act. The legislation had to be watered down as it made it’s way through Congress, mainly the removal of the public option. But it passed nonetheless and after a rather embarrassing launch in 2013 where the federal exchange website was plagued by slow loading times and page crashes, today more than 20 million Americans now have health insurance, made affordable by government subsidies. Young adults are now allowed to stay on their parents plan until the age of 26, easing the fear of going without coverage after they graduate college and enter the workforce.
The social landscape in the country has also shifted dramatically since 2009. President Obama, along with the increased participation of more socially liberal millennials in the political process, has helped usher in a more tolerant society, especially on the issues of LBGT rights. The most significant shift was the on the issue of same sex marriage. It was not that long ago when President George W. Bush campaigned against same sex marriage in 2004. Many will argue having the issue on the ballot in Ohio turned out enough social conservatives to put Bush over the top in the crucial swing state.
Throughout the Obama presidency, a steady drip-drip effect took place and marriage equality became the law in an increasing number of states. On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court settled the matter once and for all when it ruled that same sex marriage was protected under the constitution, making it legal in all 50 states. A stunning turnaround in the span of a little more than 10 years.
Obama also presided over a shift on the issue of climate change. Largely ignored under the Bush administration, the Obama White House invested heavily in renewable energy sources as part of an effort to combat climate change and wean the country off of its dependence on oil and coal. The number of coal fired power plants declined sharply under this administration, as did the coal industry as a whole. And energy produced by solar and wind power surged by 237% since 2008.
His administration also successfully negotiated the Paris accords, which involved almost 200 countries, including China, and set ambitious goals aimed at reducing carbon emissions enough to keep global temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius above where they were in the days prior to the industrial revolution.
While overseeing changes at home, President Obama also left his stamp on foreign affairs. He, somewhat, kept one of his top campaign promises and ended combat missions in Iraq and ordered a surge of additional troops into Afghanistan.
Relations with our longtime adversary Cuba finally began to thaw as the administration eased the embargo that had been in place since the 1960s. They also reached an agreement with another longtime rival, Iran, in an effort to shut down the country’s nuclear weapons program. It remains to be seen whether these agreements will a) ultimately work or b) be honored by the new administration, but nonetheless, they mark a significant turning point in US relations with the two countries.
The most obvious foreign policy triumph came on May 2, 2011 when the president announced to the world that Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and countless other acts of terror around the world, was killed by US forces in Pakistan.
Obama raised some eyebrows when he promised in his 2008 campaign to send US troops into Pakistan without the country’s permission if we had actionable intelligence on top terrorist leaders. Some suggested it was a reckless statement since Pakistan was a sovereign nation crucial to our fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban. But ultimately, he followed through on that promise.
His detractors will say he shouldn’t get any credit for it because, among other reasons, it was not a tough call to make. This is nonsense.
He put his presidency on the line the day he gave the go ahead. If anything went wrong with the mission; bin Laden escaping, a military exchange with Pakistan, or the death of US soldiers; Mitt Romney would be our president right now. The failure of the Desert One rescue operation ordered by President Jimmy Carter in 1980 during the Iran Hostage Crisis sealed his fate as a one term president. Obama took the same exact risk in the operation that killed bin Laden, which ultimately gave us this iconic photo of the president and his close advisers watching the mission in real time:
Finally, there was Obama as the nation’s consoler-in-chief. This is where the president was at his best. Always striking the right tone, whether it was reading the names of the children killed at Sandy Hook, his speech at the funeral of Dallas police officers, or singing “Amazing Grace” at a service for the nine churchgoers murdered at an African American Church in Charleston, South Carolina, President Obama for a brief moment reminded all of us that even in times of terrible tragedy, there was still a lot of good in the soul of America.
Not only did he use these moments to try and bring the nation together, he used them to elevate the broader discussions on guns, race relations, or criminal justice reform. I am not sure we are going to see this from our next president.
But, as with every administration, mistakes were made as well.
It is true that the economy is in far better shape than it was when he came into office, one of the marks on his economic record is the labor participation rate remains at historic lows. And while long term unemployed has dropped significantly over the last eight years, it is still higher than it was when he took office. Meanwhile, corporate profits are up a staggering 166% while working Americans have only started to see significant wage growth.
For all of the great triumphs of Obama’s foreign policy, there are certainly a number of blunders too.
During the early days of the Arab Spring he pushed for the ouster of long time dictator Hosni Mubarak. After Mubarak was forced out of power, the administration did little to follow up, leading to more chaos and the brief installation of the Muslim Brotherhood as leaders of the country. Fast forward to 2016 and Egypt is more or less where it was before the Arab Spring; under authoritarian power.
In Libya, a US led bombing campaign was enough to force dictator Muammar Gaddafi from power but his removal led to a power vacuum that has thrown the African nation into chaos.
Mr. Obama will also be remembered for his infamous dismissal of ISIS as “the JV team” as the organization was starting to make a name for itself on the world stage. The early underestimation of the lethal threat ISIS posed proved tragically naive as the terrorist group flooded the internet with horrific videos of beheadings and people being burned alive in cages. ISIS was also able to gain large swaths of land in Iraq and in Syria, forcing the White House to send some troops back to Iraq to stem the violence there.
ISIS has since taken heavy losses in manpower and money, and much of their territory has since been won back, but it doesn’t make up for the initial mistakes made.
Speaking of Syria, what initially began as a continuation of the protests against authoritarian regimes across the Arab World has since plunged into a civil war between government forces and rebel groups that is entering year six. Since the beginning of the civil war in 2011, more than 200,000 Syrians have been killed, with another two million wounded. A UN study found the number of dead and wounded accounts for nearly 12 percent of Syria’s population.
Perhaps learning, or maybe over-learning, the lessons from President Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, and his own ventures in Libya, President Obama did not intervene in Syria. As stories of the atrocities grew, so did pressure for the United States to act. This led to another infamous Obama comment when he drew a (red) line in the sand; saying the US would reconsider staying out of the conflict if Syrian Dictator Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people. As it turns out, Assad did just that and yet the United States still did nothing.
If ignoring the very acts he promised not to ignore wasn’t bad enough, the lack of international intervention led to a power vacuum that was filled by, you guessed it, ISIS.
There are times when presidents can and should take on a lion share of the blame for situations that occur after they leave office. The blame for the chaos we have seen in Iraq over the last eight years can almost exclusively be placed at the feet of George W. Bush. On the other hand, the chaos that is all but guaranteed to continue in Syria for years to come will be blamed, fairly, on Obama.
But the American people seem to think the good far outweighs the bad given that President Obama is leaving office with a 60% approval rating. Since 1953, only Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton have left office with a higher rating. Some Obama’s high approval has to do with the two unpopular candidates in the 2016 election, and with the unpopularity of the incoming president. But a lot of it also has to do with the fact that things, while imperfect, have gotten better in this country under his watch. He is certainly leaving it in better shape than he found it in.
Also, people just like him. People will say what they want about Barack Obama, but most will agree that he is a very likable guy. The Obama family as a whole is likable. Superficial or not, likability goes a long way in politics.
In a way, President Obama is a symbol of how far we have come as a country on the issue of race and also a symbol of how much further we have to go. In the face of unprecedented obstructionism, and blatantly racist attacks on not only himself, but his family, he has conducted himself with grace and class throughout.
All in all, President Obama presided over a recovering economy, a rapidly changing and diversifying country that has brought about changes people thought were impossible only a decade ago. He also leaves office untainted by the scandal and controversy that plagued many of his predecessors. It is fair to say Mr. Obama broke the curse of presidents having awful second terms.
It is the end of an era indeed. The final book on Obama’s presidency has not been written yet. But taken as a whole, looking back on it, through the good and the bad, the first draft of the book says he did a pretty good job. And for that, this humble political junkie says #thanksobama.