On Jan. 10, President Barack Obama delivered his Farewell Address in his adoptive hometown of Chicago, Illinois. The soon-to-be former president thanked his staff, his family and his vice president for their years of service, while at the same time harkening back to and building on his political, social and economic triumphs while serving as leader of the free world. Was Barack Obama a great president or a mediocre one? Did “change” really come to America?
The short answer is that we don’t know. And we’re not going to know anytime soon — it often takes whole decades for the effects of a particular presidency to be felt, let alone interpreted and presented as truth. What we can do is reflect on what he has done, what he has not, his perceived triumphs, his unfortunate blunders and what he’s decidedly cemented as his legacy.
I want to first speak to Obama’s personality and intellect, which, though considered by some as trivial, often defined leadership decisions and significantly shaped presidential legacies. The psychology of leaders matters more than we think. Abraham Lincoln’s quiet and melancholic personality attributed to his masterful, behind-the-scenes politicking and Theodore Roosevelt’s rough-around-the-edges persona dictated how he and his reformist agenda were perceived by the public.
I’ve never met Barack Obama, but you can tell a lot about a person by the way they speak, act and treat others. Obama was and still very much is a charming politician, one whose policies and convictions are rooted in what American principles he believes in, principles that he, as a law professor, has been studying and interpreting throughout adult life. Hence, his political philosophy is rooted not in Obamaism or in the Democratic Party, but in liberal American political thought and his interpretation of it. To him, government is moral. Though seemingly nuanced, he actually fits quite nicely into the classic presidential mold — a powerful orator who is intelligent, inspiring, well-educated and experienced. An American success story.
But there is a facet of Obama that threatens time and time again to evict him from that mold: he’s black, and he had to masterfully maneuver through, and even manage, a system that wasn’t built for him or people who look like him. As Ta-Nehisi Coates masterfully argued in his Atlantic piece, “My President Was Black,” that “to secure the White House, Obama needed to be a Harvard-trained lawyer with a decade of political experience and an incredible gift for speaking to cross sections of the country; Donald Trump needed only money and white bluster.”
For his moral convictions rooted in the American philosophy of freedom and equality, Obama made a stand-up social justice president compared to his predecessors. His Department Of Justice announced an end to private prisons and restlessly persecuted a number of negligent police departments for explicit racism and brutality. He supports gay marriage, which became legal in all states in 2015, and women’s healthcare is (for now) cheap and protected under the Affordable Care Act.
However remarkable, we as a nation can’t ignore that social and economic justice are tethered together so tightly that you can’t address one without simultaneously addressing the other. You can fault the cycle of poverty, the American system or a loss of “way” but Obama failed to remedy economic inequality. His Wall Street bailout created Occupy Wall Street, and his liberal trade deals cost middle America its manufacturing plants. This costs Democrats state election after state election, followed by the lost of Congress and now the White House. I’m not saying Obama created Trump, but his general economic philosophy contributed to the rage of 2016.
Obama’s legacy is a mixed one, a symbolic one, an important one. Did change come to America? I think so. But to what kind and to what degree? Only time will tell. Though Obama made his mistakes, he was a good man who undoubtedly meant so many things to so many different people. I am truly sad to see him go, but I am ready for the new and impending wave of even more progressive change bound to crash down upon us soon.