This is the lull between presidencies when we traditionally debate the issue of legacy.
Those who hate Barack Obama rant about all the awful things he’s done, while those who like him praise all the great things he’s done.
Obama himself is understandably concerned about edifying his legacy, which will be attacked with relish by the new president and the Republican-led Congress. That’s the politics of our day, and Obama can’t do much about it.
Ex-presidents are helpless to choose their places in history, a process that unfolds with time and perspective. Obama needn’t worry. He’ll be treated well.
When he entered the White House in January 2009, he basically was handed a steaming bag of crap — two endless and costly wars, skyrocketing national debt and an economy skidding toward a doomsday cliff.
He also faced hostile Republican leaders who, even before his first full day on the job, had met privately vowing to fight everything he proposed — including policy ideas that had originated with the GOP.
That’s the unwelcoming scenario that greeted the first African-American president eight years ago. Yet, in less than two weeks he’ll leave office with popularity ratings comparable to those of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
Most of our troops are home from Afghanistan and Iraq. Much of the al Qaida leadership — remember the maniacs who attacked us on 9/11? — has been decimated by drone strikes.
Oh, and Osama bin Laden is dead. (If a Republican president had ordered that raid, he would have been coronated.)
One other thing that happened during Obama’s presidency: The economy didn’t tank. In fact, a major recovery began.
More than 15 million new jobs have been added since 2010. Unemployment is way down, and so is the poverty rate. Incomes are rising even for the middle class. Gas prices are low and, for the first time in decades, America isn’t dependent on foreign oil.
The U.S. auto industry, on the brink of bankruptcy when Obama took office, is now roaring. Most of the bailout money has been paid back.
And lots of people have gotten richer on Wall Street, as stock prices soared with corporate profits.
Obama shouldn’t get credit for all of this, but the people who hate him give him no credit for anything. Some of them never came to grips with the fact there was a black guy in the White House. They just couldn’t deal with it, and still can’t.
It will also deal with the frightening rise of ISIS (should Obama have left more troops in Iraq?), the carnage in Syria (should Obama have sent arms sooner to the moderate rebels?) and the surge in mass shootings in the United States (should Obama have worked harder on gun control?).
It’s fashionable to say Obama’s “signature” achievement was the Affordable Care Act, which he did a terrible job of explaining and defending. That’s a big reason the Democrats lost the House of Representatives in the 2010 mid-term elections.
At the time, Republican leaders thundered that Obamacare would destroy the economy. It didn’t, of course.
It also didn’t work nearly as well it was supposed to. Now Donald Trump and Congress must figure out how to fix it without eliminating health insurance for 20 million working-class people (lots of whom probably voted for Trump).
For the first time in years, Republicans must shed their obstructionist mission and actually pass a few laws. The pressure is huge; only Charlie Manson has lower public approval ratings than Congress.
Now it will be the GOP’s turn to scramble for a miracle way to help all those Americans who haven’t been lifted by the economic recovery. Many of them abandoned the Democratic ticket in November, out of a justified frustration.
That’s the paradox of Obama’s resurgent popularity. It couldn’t save his party, or its presidential candidate, from a rural wave of disillusion they never saw coming.
(Republican bigshots didn’t see it coming, either. Look what happened to Jeb Bush and all the other “serious” candidates.)
At the end, when it mattered most, Obama couldn’t bring the country together. The politics of fear, hate and division cashed in.
As a result, the keys to the White House are being handed to a man who couldn’t be more different from his poised and deliberative predecessor.
Trump is starting with a much stronger hand than the one dealt to Obama. There are many challenges ahead, but nothing like the dire mess that confronted a new young president eight years ago.
That will be Obama’s legacy, the steady way he worked through it. The country is dramatically better off now than it was in January 2009, and that’s what the history books will say.