When Barack Obama celebrated his victory in the 2008 presidential race, he told a war-weary and economically shaken nation that “change has come to America.”
As he leaves office, it is clear that “change” was more than a bumper sticker. Whether transforming the American healthcare system, refocusing American military commitments overseas or simply being the man he is, the Obama legacy is, for better or worse, is far-reaching and consequential.
Let’s start with the obvious: Obama is the first African American elected president. While not something he had any control over, it was a monumental moment in American history and will always be tied to his legacy.
“I think obviously he will be remembered as the first black president, perhaps more than any other thing, as a groundbreaking figure, as someone who broke barriers, but also symbolized an evolution of the country that perhaps no other single person has in terms of race,” DePaul political science professor Ben Epstein said.
Along with that came lofty expectations to cure more than 400 years of racial strife and bring about a ‘post-racial’ America. As Obama himself admitted in his farewell address, this was never a realistic prospect.
The country is in better shape now than when Obama first took office. Unemployment is now below five percent and more than 11 million jobs have been created.
But, a changing world has left many feeling left behind. In hollowed out communities from coal country to the industrial heartland, some see Obama’s support for trade deals and regulations against the coal industry as hurting their livelihoods.
John Minster, of the conservative group DePaul Young Americans for Freedom, said many Obama voters in his home state of Michigan were left disappointed, which led them to vote for President-elect Donald Trump last November.
“There was a lot of poor, mostly white, culturally Christian counties that voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, but instead of helping them get better, he’s only lectured them and created policies that haven’t helped those people,” Minster said. “So I think in Trump, they saw somebody who I think spoke to them to at least some extent.”
The Obama years have been a time of great change in the American economy. While much of this was out of his control, many feel left behind as income inequality continues to rise and manufacturing jobs that employed whole towns bolt for other countries.
On foreign policy, if former President George W. Bush is judged for actions he took, Obama will arguably be judged for what he did not do. This inverse relationship between the two is not a coincidence. Obama, inheriting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, saw it necessary to draw back on U.S. military commitments, an idea called ‘retrenchment’.
“When somebody invokes the Obama Doctrine, basically what I think of is an effort to act multilaterally as opposed to unilaterally, and a conscious effort to minimize U.S. military commitments overseas,” said political science professor Scott Hibbard. “There’s a selective engagement approach, not a disengagement approach and certainly not a retreat from the world, but selective engagements.”
This has led to both successes and challenges for Obama. The last U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011, a limited amount remain in Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden is dead. Plus, the U.S., acting multilaterally, has entered into agreements to prevent Iran from attaining a nuclear weapon and to combat climate change.
However, many have criticized this approach as naive, with the most sobering example being Syria, where the bloody civil war there has killed hundreds of thousands and led to an unprecedented refugee crisis.
“I don’t really know how you can look at that and just not see that as the great failing of the Obama Administration,” Hibbard said. “And I think people within the Obama Administration would probably agree with that.”
Others have criticized Obama’s approach as dangerous, with most citing the Iran deal, which was opposed by several key allies in the region and fiercely opposed by Republicans at home. But Hibbard believes that Obama’s long-term approach with Iran will pay off in the end.
On domestic policy, Obama’s most significant accomplishment is easily the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare.
In spite of being an imperfect law, it is momentous that for the first time, the U.S. government recognized it had a responsibility to provide affordable health coverage for all Americans. Like Vice President Joe Biden told Obama upon the president’s signing of the legislation, “this is a big f***ing deal.”
“It was the first major overhaul to healthcare in decades and many, many administrations have tried and failed and the Obama Administration was able to get this done,” Epstein said. “It’s affecting millions and millions and millions of people in a very positive way.”
Though premiums have increased as healthy people opt out and insurance companies pull out of the exchanges, the law has helped more than 30 million people directly get access to healthcare and lead to the lowest uninsured rate in American history.
“Healthcare was the one that was going to be almost impossible to get through. And even if you get it through, you’re going to use up all the political capital, it’s going to be almost impossible to do anything else,” said DePaul Democrats President Jack McNeil. “And he said, well, if I’m governing for favorable ratings, what’s the point? I’m doing this to enact policies that will help the American people.”
With his remaining political capital dried up after the passage of the Affordable Care Act and his party subsequently getting shellacked in the 2010 midterm elections, a remarkable period of legislative activity came to a close.
Significant achievements during this time include the stimulus bill, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reforms, the bailout of the U.S. auto industry, the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which had prevented LGBT people from serving openly in the military.
When the history books are written, Barack Obama will get more than just a mention. If I had to guess, he will be revered by many in the way Republicans still fondly recall Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
“In the long run, I think historians are going to be more generous to him than the current electorate was if we take the 2016 vote to be a referendum on the last eight years as opposed to just a choice between the two candidates who were running,” said political science professor Larry Bennett.
However, he will also go down as the product of extremely polarized times. Despite what some would say was unreasonable opposition from Republicans in Congress, Obama failed to change Washington D.C., in the way he sought out to do. We are more divided than ever in our politics, and for that, he will share some of the blame.
But in spite of such fierce polarization, Obama managed to accomplish a lot of major objectives. Domestically, he transformed healthcare, reformed Wall Street9 and perhaps saved the economy from the brink of collapse. In foreign affairs, the jury is still out given the unpredictability of the incoming administration.
Perhaps the best way to sum up Obama, a famous Chicagoan, is to quote another famous Chicagoan, Daniel Burnham, who said “Make no little plans,” for “they have no magic to stir men`s blood.”
Like all presidents, Obama had his successes and his shortcomings, but no one can say he did not think big.