Last night, President Barack Obama bid the American public farewell. He gave a speech that was inspiring, and called upon Americans to get involved in the political process in a multitude of ways. Like many historic farewell addresses (even quoting from George Washington’s), it also delivered a warning about what Obama perceives as current and future dangers which threaten America. Washington’s farewell address, when read in full, contains a scathing denunciation of the mere concept of political parties (called “factions” at the time), and Obama’s followed suit in denouncing the rabidly partisan era we now find ourselves in.
But I couldn’t help but think, while listening to Obama’s speech, about what might have been. Now, don’t get me wrong — I think Obama has indeed managed to achieve one of his biggest stated goals: to be a “transformational” president. When he first articulated this wish, he was campaigning against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, and it was a backhanded slap at Bill Clinton’s presidency — because the example Obama used was Ronald Reagan (and, notably, not Clinton). Obama got some grief for citing Reagan as transformational, because certain people interpreted it as praise of Reagan. I didn’t see it that way myself — “transformational” is not a good thing or a bad thing in and of itself, so calling Reagan transformational wasn’t praising his record or his agenda, but rather his effectiveness in changing the national debate. Love him or hate him, most people would admit that Reagan did in fact change the political landscape in Washington. So did Obama, in my opinion, fulfilling his goal of being a transformational president.
How much credit (or blame) Obama deserves for the country’s transformation during his time in office will be a subject for much debate among historians for decades to come. And we’re all waiting to see how much Donald Trump reverses course on some of the Obama era’s transformational nature. But without a doubt, the country is in a different political and social space than it was when he took office.
Obama has several landmark pieces of legislation, of course, to point to. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is the most notable of these, but there was also the Dodd-Frank reform of Wall Street and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, to name just two of Obama’s other legislative achievements.
But what is more notable are issues where the public has radically shifted in the past eight years — all of which happened with varying degrees of support from Obama’s White House. Gay rights, for instance, advanced by leaps and bounds under Obama’s watch. When he ran in 2008, Obama couldn’t even bring himself to support gay marriage, partly because he considered it too politically risky to do so. He had to “evolve” on the issue, with prodding from Joe Biden (and plenty of others). Now it is so mainstream a concept that Trump and a Republican Congress likely won’t even try to move the country backwards on the issue — because they know it would be a big loser, politically.
The country has also seen revolutionary change in how it views marijuana over the past eight years. Medical marijuana became almost politically neutral during this period. If you had told me back in 2008 that every 2016 Republican presidential candidate would support (to varying degrees) medical marijuana — in a public debate, no less — I would have considered it farfetched, at the very least. And yet it happened. Eight states and the District of Columbia have ended the War On Weed altogether and legalized recreational adult use of marijuana. Again, that seemed a downright unobtainable goal eight years ago, and yet it came to pass.
One of Obama’s major goals was to transform our military involvement in other countries. Perhaps Obama swung the pendulum too far back on this one, but he stuck to his ideal of not putting hundreds of thousands of American troops into conflicts and instead supporting local efforts where we shared a common goal. U.S. troops haven’t liberated Fallujah and Tikrit and Ramadi and (soon) Mosul from the Islamic State — instead, the Iraq army took the lead. That’s a transformational difference, for better or for worse. Also, America doesn’t have a policy of torturing prisoners anymore — that was a transformational change as well. The prison at Guantanamo Bay isn’t empty, but there are far fewer inmates, so this Obama goal was only partially met.
The economy has transformed in a breathtaking way during Obama’s years in office. Obama took over during an economic collapse, where America was losing over 750,000 jobs per month, and unemployment was on the way up to 10 percent. Now, we’ve had over six straight years of continuous job growth, and wages are starting to climb again. The auto industry was saved as well. The difference in the economy now and the economy in January of 2009 is the difference between night and day.
Obama transformed politics on the issue of criminal justice reform during his tenure. As president, Obama has pardoned or commuted sentences for hundreds of people sentenced harshly during the worst years of the War On Drugs, and worked to transform the way the justice system handles such crimes. At the same time, however, America took a large step backwards on insuring everyone has the right to vote, so Obama’s record on reforming the system also has to be seen as somewhat mixed.
Obama had a very mixed record on immigration reform, failing to get a comprehensive bill through the House (after scoring a big victory in the Senate). Obama deported more people than any other president I am aware of, but he also gave relief to those who would have been covered by the DREAM Act (which also failed to make it through Congress). Obama was only partially transformative in the debate over immigration, in other words.
On one issue, Obama didn’t exactly lead (but wound up eventually speaking in favor of changing) — the growing inequality in Americans’ income and wealth. The Occupy Wall Street movement really was the transformational push behind this (eight years ago, if you mentioned “the one percent,” nobody — except maybe Bernie Sanders — would have understood what you were talking about). Bernie Sanders made sure, in his run for the Democratic nomination, that Democrats will be focusing a lot more on this issue in the future. But, in the end, Obama began echoing the calls for change from both Occupy and Sanders.
In one area, the Obama administration was transformative, but in what I consider a negative way. The concept of privacy and governmental surveillance transformed during Obama’s time in office, but for much of this time Obama was on the wrong side of the issue. In particular, his muscular persecution of leakers was unlike anything seen in modern times.
So, yes, on the whole, I would have to say Obama was a transformational president. America sees certain political things differently now than previously. Again, this is just a snapshot in time — Trump could certainly transform some of these issues right back to where we started from. But my guess is that he won’t be able to overturn all (or even most) of the changes in viewpoint America has experienced under Obama, no matter what he tries.
But getting back to my initial thought, I still couldn’t help but ponder what might have been during the Obama years. Obama’s farewell address was a great speech — just like many other great Obama speeches we’ve seen. But for all this oratory prowess, Barack Obama was rather ineffectual at something nobody expected after his historic first election. Plain and simple, Obama just didn’t use the “bully pulpit” all that well. He had a communication problem with the American people, to put it another way. Again, this was a shock after seeing how well he could communicate on the campaign trail.
Obama never really got out and fought to win the battle of ideas — at least, nowhere near as well as he could have. The most obvious example is Obamacare. Obama passed a landmark piece of legislation that both Republican and Democratic presidents have been attempting for over a century — and then he let his political opponents demonize it. Even today, the public overwhelmingly likes almost all the benefits of Obamacare, but most people are still unaware that these benefits are actually because of Obamacare. That is a failure to communicate, folks.
Once a year, Obama would give a rousing State Of The Union speech, but during the rest of the year he never truly utilized the power of the presidency to change people’s minds. He also had a historically bad record at schmoozing Congress (even members of his own party), and for the most part had a rather hands-off approach to legislation even when Democrats were in charge of both houses. One State Of The Union speech per year simply wasn’t enough. Obama’s distancing himself from Congress might have been a factor in how short his own political coattails were. During Obama’s term, Democrats have lost more seats in Congress and in statehouses than in the past 100 years. If he had done a better job of explaining his agenda and cheerleading for laws he had gotten passed, this might have been different (although, again, this is something for the historians to argue about later on, really).
When Obama took office, he announced a rather ambitious plan to go speak to normal Americans at least once a month. He was going to hold town halls (this was before town halls themselves transformed during the Tea Party’s rise) and talk to regular Americans — sharing his perspective, and listening to theirs. This lasted for about half of his first year in office, before largely falling by the wayside.
I have a feeling Donald Trump is not going to let himself slip out of touch with his followers in such a fashion. In fact, Trump has transformed — before even entering office — the political use of Twitter as the 21st century’s bully pulpit. Whether you think this is a good thing or not, it’s hard to deny this transformation has taken place. Obama was largely content to issue a weekly address (what used to be called the “weekly radio address,” which shows how dated it has become) that was largely ignored by both the media and the public. Trump’s not going to allow this to happen, it’s pretty clear.
Obama built a political machine that was unprecedented, in order to get elected. But once in office, he allowed it to wither on the vine — at least until he needed to get re-elected. If he had been more transformative about using this wind at his back to pressure Congress on any number of issues, Democrats might be in a stronger position today. Instead, it turned into nothing more than a fundraising exercise.
So while I do indeed think Obama will be seen by history as a transformative president, I also am a bit wistful as to what else he could have achieved, and how else he might have transformed America’s political landscape. Perhaps that’s setting standards impossibly high, I leave it for you to decide. But that was my initial reaction to Obama’s farewell address — that it was a wonderful speech, and how a few dozen more such speeches delivered at the crucial moments might have changed where we are today as a country. Because, sadly, that is a part of Obama’s legacy as well.
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