On Friday, Barack Hussein Obama will no longer be president of the United States. He will leave behind a domestic and foreign policy legacy that rivals that of any Democratic president since Roosevelt. But because of the man succeeding him in the nation’s highest office, his ultimate goal of making America “a more perfect union” will remain frustratingly unfulfilled.
First, the good news for Obama: His record of achievement puts him in the pantheon of great modern American presidents. (Granted, this is a low bar since the vast majority of American presidents have been mediocre or worse.) He will bequeath to Donald Trump an economy with nearly full employment, wage growth running ahead of inflation, and the highest level of consumer confidence in years.
His first major act as president was an $800 billion stimulus package that not only helped save the US economy but laid the foundation for a new green economy that, together with a bevy of new environmental regulations, may one day fulfill his campaign pledge to slow the rise of the oceans. He signed a health care bill that has given more than 20 million Americans access to insurance coverage and transformed the nation’s health care system for the better.
He pushed for an auto bailout that not only saved the US auto industry but also revitalized it. His administration put in place new labor rules expanding worker rights. He signed a law ensuring equal pay for women in the workplace; revamped the student loan program, which has fundamentally improved the way Americans pay for higher education; brought a new focus on fixing poorly performing schools; created a consumer finance bureau focused on protecting American consumers from rapacious rip-off artists; and perhaps, above all, ushered in a new recognition of the intrinsic and inalienable rights of all Americans.
On foreign policy, he ended the war in Iraq and killed Osama bin Laden. He negotiated a historic nuclear deal with Iran, a historic arms control treaty with Russia, a historic opening to Cuba, and a historic climate change agreement that has the potential to help save the planet. Unlike most of his modern predecessors, he did not endure any major scandal — and conducted himself in office with a dignity and level of character rarely, if ever before, seen.
His record, however, is far from perfect. His disastrous policies in Afghanistan remain his most glaring failure. Though weakened, ISIS remains a potent force in Iraq and Syria. He expanded the use of presidential power in a way surely to be abused by those who follow him in the Oval Office. Obama tried in fits and starts to reassert a new understanding of national security that focused less on challenges from abroad and more on threats here at home. But it never took hold. Much of his domestic agenda — from new infrastructure spending to universal pre-K and paid parental leave — went nowhere in Congress. Polarization, dysfunction, and gridlock in Washington is exponentially worse than when he took office – although only the most deluded and partisan blame Obama for this series of events. Nonetheless, when taken together, Obama’s successes have had a profound — and largely positive — impact on the lives of millions of Americans.
But as the nation prepares to inaugurate a new president, one can’t help but focus on what it is that we’re about to lose. It’s much more than just the health care bill that Republicans have threatened to repeal or the environmental regulations that they are poised to unwind.
It’s that as we enter a dark political future, it may be a very long time before we see a politician as optimistic and as hopeful about America as Barack Obama. During his presidency, as the nation has become more polarized than any time in modern American history and the rhetoric of its political leaders has become angrier and more contentious, Obama never surrendered to the politics of division.
Indeed, for all of Obama’s renowned rhetorical gifts, perhaps the most defining feature of his speeches was his unstinting, unbowed, and at times even naïve belief in the potential and possibility of America.
When he introduced himself to the country at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that spirit was already evident. “My story is part of the larger American story,” he said that night. “I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”
In his inaugural address, he reminded Americans that “greatness is never a given. It must be earned.” And as he often did in his public speeches, he pointed to the legacy of America — those who traveled from distant shores to stake their claims in this land; those who toiled in sweatshops and bondage; those who gave their lives on distant (and near) battlefields. Throughout his campaign for the White House and his presidency, he spoke often of the abolitionists, the suffragettes, the labor activists, the civil rights protesters — in short, those who had pushed the hardest to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice. For Obama, these were the touchstones of American greatness and models for (to quote a phrase) making America great again. Obama’s America was always one of inching ever closer to the vision of this country’s founding documents.
There’s perhaps no greater irony of Obama’s presidency than the fact that his critics have consistently branded him as un-American and alien when, in reality, he is one of the most unabashedly patriotic men to ever hold the nation’s highest office.
One of the reasons Obama’s optimism is so striking — and so powerful — is because of his willingness to confront the dark side of the American experience. “For too long, we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present,” he said more than 18 months ago at a memorial service for the nine black parishioners slain in the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina. In what is perhaps Obama’s greatest speech, he spoke of “uncomfortable truths about the prejudice that still infects our society” and said “history can’t be a sword to justify injustice, or a shield against progress, but must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past — how to break the cycle.”
Even when recognizing America’s fundamental inadequacies, he never lost faith in what America could be — in the cycle of sin, redemption, and, ultimately, grace.
“As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind,” he said that day. “He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves. We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other — but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He’s once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.”
Ultimately, it must be said that America has not proven itself worthy of this gift. The rancor, the complacency, the prejudice and fear of others, which is the mother’s milk of this country, were too much to overcome this past November.
In his final press conference, Obama repeated these sentiments in less ecclesiastical terms, but with the same sense of hopefulness. “I believe in this country,” he said. “I believe in the American people. I believe that people are more good than bad.” In saying those words, Obama’s preternatural optimism never quite seemed so naïve.
This could have and should have been Obama’s ultimate legacy — a country freer, healthier, and less unequal. A country more generous, empathetic, and honest about its past, but also, as he said in another of his famous addresses, moving together toward a more perfect union. Nothing would have better defined Obama’s imprint on the nation than an America with optimism for the future and a belief that the myriad challenges facing this nation can and will be overcome.
Maybe that day will be upon us at some point. Being an “Obama optimist” requires a belief that it will. But here’s what we do know: That day will not come tomorrow — and that’s a tragedy. America gained so much in the Obama years, but for the next four years (and perhaps longer) Donald Trump’s presence in the White House will serve as a constant reminder of the most painful words in the English language and the undeserved epitaph to the Obama years — what might have been.Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.