Historians will have the final say on the legacy of President Barack Obama, but as the 44th president of the United States prepares to step down, it’s imperative to consider not just how we are now, but also who we are.
No one can reasonably dispute that he leaves behind a country in far better shape economically than it was when he took over eight years ago. It’s also fair to say that this first African-American president, just by being such, released gushing pride among Americans who never thought this would come to pass and who were glad to have helped make it happen. It, too, unleashed unfathomable, illogical, often racist, vitriol that, ultimately played a role in propelling Donald Trump to the presidency.
Thanks to the politics of division and polarization, Obama’s critics have unfairly attacked every initiative, attempted to block every worthwhile goal and refused to credit him for a single accomplishment. In this zero-sum political arena, every success by a political foe must be denied, every failure magnified.
Yet think back to January 2009. The economy was tanking, and job losses were soaring. The auto industry — once the engine of the economy and a proud emblem of American industrial might — was on the edge of catastrophe. Tens of thousands of American soldiers were fighting overseas and dying by the hundreds every year. Fear of the future was palpable.
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Obama steadied the ship. He has greatly reduced the American military presence overseas, as he promised. He brought back the economy and rescued the auto industry. He expanded the protection of health insurance to millions of vulnerable Americans and made significant progress on improving the environment. And he did it, for the most part, with little or no help from Republicans, who were openly invested in his failure, regardless of the costs to the country.
For the average American, reversing the hair-raising economic plunge took center stage in Obama’s first term. At its nadir in 2009, the jobless rate stood at 10.2 percent; now it’s 4.7 percent. Critics grouse that it’s the slowest recovery since World War II. But stopping the losses and then adding 15 million jobs deserves applause.
The government took over GM and Chrysler when the auto industry was facing extinction in March 2009 and eventually invested $80 billion in the effort. It took advantage of the moment by firing incompetent managers and required new auto efficiency standards to force the companies to be more competitive with Germany and Japan. In the end, the auto industry added 340,000 jobs.
For taxpayers, the final bailout bill came to $9.2 billion. But they made a profit of $23 billion when the Obama administration sold off its last remaining shares of the huge mortgage insurance company AIG in December 2012, which the government had also rescued to keep the housing industry from going into total collapse.
Obama came into office facing the biggest economic debacle since the Great Depression. He managed to stop the bleeding and proceeded to nurse the economy back to health. The latest Census Bureau report, covering 2015, shows remarkable progress: 5.2 percent growth in median family income, a substantial decline in the poverty rate and a further rise in health insurance coverage since 2014.
Yes, economic recovery has come too slowly. For one thing, the benefits of improvement have not been evenly shared. But thanks to the outgoing president’s persistence, the top 1 percent is now paying about the same share of its income in federal taxes as it did in 1979.
There is progress, too, as is the result of his single most important initiative, the Affordable Care Act. It has sharply reduced the number of uninsured Americans and cost less than expected. Republican claims that it would be a job-killing disaster have proven false — there is zero truth to that claim. And it has undeniably improved access to care. Yet, the Republican Congress, focused solely on the ACA’s weaknesses and blind to its successes, is determined to slit its throat.
In the realm of foreign affairs, Obama’s legacy is sketchier. He has done little to stop the genocide in Aleppo, and his policy in Syria seems incoherent. And no one can take satisfaction from the situation in Iraq or Afghanistan. Neither country is fully pacified, despite all the effort by U.S. and allied forces.
Obama’s improbable opening to Cuba held such promise, still unfulfilled as the United States makes concession after concession, while the Castro regime stands pat.
But give Obama credit for never forgetting that he was elected on a peace platform, and for doing his best to limit American exposure. Even if the president could not fulfill his pledge to fully withdraw America from the battlefields, he went a long way toward meeting his goal. U.S. forces in Iraq peaked at 170,300 in 2007; now there are only 5,000 or so. In Afghanistan, the number peaked at more than 100,000 in 2011; now the number is around 8,400.
Obama recently used a 1953 law to impose a permanent ban on offshore oil and gas drilling along wide areas of the Arctic and Atlantic Seaboard. This is only the latest step by No. 44 to clean up the planet. One of the most significant was the 2015 Clean Power Plan, a historic blueprint designed to reduce carbon pollution from power plants that take real action on climate change. Republicans have fought this at the federal and state levels, but that plan — along with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, if we stay on board — could breathe new life into efforts to ensure that future generations have a livable planet. We hope No. 45 will come around to understanding that.
Even Obama’s most ardent supporters cannot say that he leaves America in great shape: The economic recovery remains incomplete. The flaws in the Affordable Care Act are well documented. He could not fulfill his pledge to close Guantánamo (thanks again to Republican intransigence), but he cut the number of detainees from 245 on the day he started to 55 by Jan. 5.
All in all, he has done far better than his critics will ever admit, and we as a nation are all the better for it. Thank you, Mr. President. But let us not forget that his very presence in the Oval Office has left this country heartbreakingly divided, a part of his legacy that’s not of his making.