In 2008, a freshman Senator from Illinois attracted the most diverse base of voters in US history. He ran on a platform of unity and change, but the end of his presidency revealed him as one of the most polarizing presidents in history. Does Barack Obama’s legacy reflect his vision of unification and change?
Obama championed diversity not only in words, but also in action
Barack Obama’s presidency witnessed significant strides toward a more multicultural America that celebrates diversity. Top policy positions went to people of all colors, classes and creeds. Obama appointed more female and ethnically diverse judges than any president in history, including the Supreme Court’s first Latina Judge. He was the first president to introduce Hindu customs into the White House, or to wish Persian Americans a happy new year in Farsi. He also strengthened LGTB rights, paving the way for marriage equality and anti-discrimination legislation. No president better reflected America’s diversity, or honored it so single-mindedly as he.
By pushing women forward, he pushed American families forward
In 2008 and 2012, Obama won more female votes than any of his predecessors. Through the (now defunct) White House Council on Women and Girls and increased enforceability of laws designed to combat pay discrimination, Obama’s administration directed efforts to ensure that American women could achieve financial independence. Higher minimum wages meant mothers could spend more time with their children; paid family leave would allow parents to parent without curbing their careers and ultimately, their spending power. Linking gender equality to America’s economic prosperity helped Obama to co-opt bipartisan support for a number of women’s issues. Despite Obama’s leaving office, women’s issues have had tremendous staying power; his legacy gave rise to powerful movements like #MeToo and Time’s Up, which continue to strongly advocate for women.
He changed the paradigm in American health care
Beyond insuring over 20 million Americans, the Affordable Care Act changed the American mindset on health insurance. While nearly 50% of Americans expressed support for repealing the ACA, 60% of those who do not favor it said it should be replaced before repeal. These numbers reflect Obama’s success in changing America’s expectation on government involvement in healthcare. And while the repeal of Obamacare was one of President Trump’s main campaign promises, it is clear that many Americans are unwilling to accept an America without affordable healthcare options.
Obama leaned too heavily on executive power, so his achievements can be easily undone
Obama’s watershed victories on environmental protections, health care, equality, reproductive rights and financial reform were, in large part, accomplished through executive power – by issuing executive orders and regulations. Besides making it exceedingly easy for successors to simply “tear up” these laws, another unappealing side effect of Obama’s executive bulldozing is that it invites his successors to do the same. Take the Iran nuclear deal, which was signed by the US at the tail end of Obama’s presidency, yet has now been made a memory thanks to President Trump’s recent exit from the deal. The Paris climate change agreement is now as good as gone, as is the order that allowed transgender troops to serve in the military. This executive-heavy method of running the country dragged the government further into partisan politics and turned the presidency from an office of public service to the service of the president’s individual agenda.
His lack of international intervention fueled geopolitical instability around the globe, and weakened America
Nowhere is Obama’s lack of cohesive international policy felt more profoundly than in Syria. In 2011, Obama walked back from his now infamous “red line” on chemical weapons, and decided not to directly intervene in Syria; a year later, a sarin gas attack by Syrian forces killed 1400 innocents. Failure to provide deterrence emboldened not only the Assad regime (leading to over half a million deaths and the century’s largest refugee crisis) but Putin as well, who found little opposition to his illegal annexation of the Ukraine’s Crimea region. With Russia unchecked, Iran has already expanded its regional influence. While refusal to supply political clout to pressing world issues undermined American international supremacy, more shocking was how Obama’s policy of non-intervention ran counter to his many bold appeals to human rights, casting doubt that his statements were little more than abstract niceties that he never intended to defend.
His legacy is one of exclusion
Obama’s politics – and even his attitude – offered little in the way of national consolidation. He delivered character attacks to political opponents, insisting their positions were based in ignorance or indecency. At the 2015 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Obama mocked not only political opponents but also individual citizens in a joke about an Indiana restaurant’s wish to not cater homosexual weddings. However laudable the affirmation of equal rights that spurred Obama’s jest, it is inappropriate for the POTUS to express those beliefs at the expense of small business owners (their pizza parlor eventually closed) who merely expressed their support of a law that reflected their politics. If the situation were reversed, would Democrats be expected to allow a right-wing, Christian president to make jokes about transgendered people who want to use a bathroom that matches their gender identity?
The Bottom Line: Barack Obama inspired a generation of young people to rewrite the narrative of what it means to be American, yet his policies led other Americans to feel excluded, and he precipitated the nation’s most divisive general election in memory. When looking back, how do you view Obama’s legacy?