Wistful nostalgia for President Obama’s tenure in office spiked as the United States began the transition to President Donald Trump. Especially prevalent among millennials, this nostalgia has led to millions of people posting serious and humorous messages conveying their admiration for President Obama’s work. The Obama and Joe Biden viral memes are just one example of the ways in which Americans—mostly urban, young, and diverse—comforted themselves as they prepared to say goodbye to their beloved duo. President Trump promises to be unpredictable, which has created a fearful atmosphere, especially when contrasted with President Obama’s continual optimism. Indeed, the differences between former President Obama and President Trump could not be more pronounced.
However, the idolization of President Obama within the left has become dangerous. While there are certainly numerous issues on which Mr. Obama made positive change, there are a non-trivial number of areas where he failed. The tendency to lionize the Obama administration ignores, and ultimately forgets, the serious blunders he made. As with any person in the public arena, we must assess Obama’s legacy fairly and critically. The Affordable Care act’s passage and the signing of the Paris Climate Accords rank among some of Obama’s crowning achievements, whereas his mishandling of the crises in Syria and Iraq reverberate with extreme consequences. As this article outlines, his legacy is clearly up for debate. If the left continues to deify President Obama, it will only further distance moderate and progressive movements from the people who voted for the current Congress and White House. Obama admirers risk being politically tone deaf—at their own peril.
Let’s start with the positives. President Obama passed landmark healthcare reform in the Affordable Care Act. His orchestration of a stimulus package and bailouts for the economy was nothing short of monumental given its dire state in 2009, and he left office with record job growth. For social liberals, Obama’s support for the LGBT+ population, attention to issues of police brutality and race, and appointment of diverse cabinets and officials represents major successes. The Iran Nuclear Deal represents another significant moment that proved that diplomacy can overcome bellicose politics. Also in the Middle East, the Obama administration was responsible for capturing and killing Osama bin Laden, a symbolic victory for American citizens. Obama’s record on the environment is substantial. He advocated for the Clean Power Plan, the Paris Peace Accords, and protected more natural resources and land than any other U.S. President. He rejected both the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines (although these decisions could be overturned by President Trump)* to address environmental pollution and American dependence on fossil fuels.
Perhaps more visibly, President Obama’s use of social media encouraged greater access to the president and the federal government. His progressive rhetoric on issues like immigration also often made more of an impact than any legislation he produced. As exemplified in many speeches like his Farewell Address, Obama possessed a remarkable ability to uplift and inspire with his words, especially during difficult moments. His speech after the Sandy Hook massacre comes to mind as acutely powerful for a grieving nation. With this perspective, Obama supporters have a reason to be proud.
President Obama’s legacy is still murky, however. Despite Obama’s popularity, his time in office still saw many of his policies and ideas rejected by voters, in the early Tea Party Surge of 2010 and the reactive election of Donald Trump. The Affordable Care Act continues to face significant problems relating to cost and political controversy. He responded poorly to conflicts in Libya, Syria, and Iraq, unable to make critical decisions at crucial moments in each crisis. Putin’s autocratic ascendancy in Eastern Europe, though largely held in check after the Ukraine crisis, remains a worrying of failure of President Obama to counteract. Most worrying, President Obama embraced a policy of drone use in the Middle East, despite its proven lack of effectiveness and its responsibility for the murder of thousands of innocent civilians. Additionally, as The Atlantic’s Ta Nehisi Coates and Jeffrey Goldberg write, President Obama himself admits to many miscalculations in foreign policy, as well as the lack of improvement in race relations in the United States. Each of these events should cast some doubt on President Obama’s achievements.
This list is limited; Obama’s actions in office far surpass what is covered here. Nevertheless, there is ample room for both supporters and critics to advocate their view of the Obama legacy. Although history may ultimately be kind to President Obama, we, as Americans cannot, and should not, refuse to objectively analyze of his presidency. This process of critical thinking is essential. It is the key to achieving President Obama’s last call to action to American citizens: “I’m still asking you to believe—not in my ability to bring about change, but yours. I believe in change because I believe in you.” Now, as we adjust to the “new normal” of American politics, we must figure out the lessons of Obama’s legacy for ourselves, especially as President Trump and a Republican dominated government attempts to dismantle it. Finally, the left must be both critical and selective of President Obama to remain a strong and coherent force in American politics.
*President Trump has issued Executive Orders to construct the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Keystone XL Pipeline. However, both projects face multiple hurdles before they can be built.