By Karen Rubin, News & Photo Features
Barack Obama will leave office with a 60% approval rating, one of the highest ratings for an outgoing president – remarkable considering the unprecedented opposition and obstruction he has faced from the moment he swore his oath.
It bears reminding that no one came into the presidency with more challenges than Obama – not Washington, Lincoln or FDR. None of them on their first day, had to contend with an imploding economy headed into a Great Depression at the same time the country was embroiled in two foreign wars, not to mention the swine flu epidemic and environmental disasters (BP Oil spill) that came soon after.
Despite the best efforts of the Republicans to insure Obama’s failure, Obama brought the economy back from the brink of a Great Depression, saved the American auto industry, launched the renewable energy industry, restored America’s leadership in the world (Paris Climate Agreement, Iran Nuclear Agreement, opening relations with Cuba after more than 50 years), succeeded where seven presidents before him failed to provide nearly universal affordable, accessible health care. Despite unprecedented opposition – including bills that were tabled – he made inroads into immigration reform, gun violence prevention, criminal justice reform, advanced manufacturing. He accomplished the most sweeping financial protections since the Depression, and yet the stock market has nearly tripled during his tenure, hitting record after record, and since signing Obamacare into law, America’s businesses have added more than 15 million new jobs.
Eight years since taking office, an economy that was shedding 800,000 jobs a month, has had the longest streak of job creation in history; wages have grown faster than any time in the past 40 years. Last year, the poverty rate fell at the fastest pace in almost 50 years while the median household income grew at the fastest rate on record. And Obama did it while cutting deficits by nearly two-thirds.
His signature Affordable Care Act – which should be his crowning achievement – has brought health insurance to 20 million American adults and 3 million children. For the first time ever, more than 90% of Americans have health insurance. Health costs are rising at the slowest rate in 50 years. Every American now has the benefit of true patient protections that hadn’t existed before, when everyone was at the mercy of for-profit insurance companies: people can’t be rejected for pre-existing conditions, there are no annual or lifetime caps, a cap on what private-insurance can spent on non-patient care, and if you lose your job (or your marriage) or start a business, you can still have access to affordable health insurance. Obama’s health reforms have saved an estimated 87,000 lives, when before, more than 20,000 were dying simply for lack of access to health care, not counting how many tens of thousands suffered debilitating diseases that could have been prevented or cured early.
The high school graduation rate is now 83 percent – the highest on record –and more young people graduate from college than ever before. Those who decide not to pursue college, have more options, from expanding access to apprenticeships, to launching high-tech manufacturing institutes, to revamping the job training system and creating programs like TechHire to help people train for higher-paying jobs in months, not years.
Obama brought back 180,000 American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, eliminated from the face of the earth the mastermind of the September 11 2001 terror attacks that succeeded in knocking America off its foundation, and yes, kept America safe from another major, orchestrated attack, foiling plots. And, with the coalition he forged and a relentless campaign of 16,000 airstrikes, the US is “breaking the back” of ISIS, taking away safe havens (most recently in Libya), and done this at a cost of $10 billion over two years, the same amount that was spent in just one month at the height of the Iraq War.
He accomplished a minor miracle by bringing nearly 200 nations together – including China and India – around a climate agreement that could literally save this planet. With new models for development, American assistance is helping people around the world feed themselves, care for their sick, and power communities across Africa. And almost every country on Earth sees America as stronger and more respected today than they did eight years ago. And he applied climate action initiatives here, to stem the destruction and public health disasters of pollution, wild fires, drought, floods.
Obama used his executive authority more than any other president to protect iconic historic, cultural and ecological sites across the country representative of the full spectrum of America’s diverse heritage, paying homage to civil rights, women’s suffrage, workers rights, LGBT rights and adding 554 million acres to our national birthright.
He did more to address systemic racism than any president since Lyndon B. Johnson, including unleashing DoJ investigations into police departments and challenging voter suppression – and yet does not seem to get the appreciation he should from Black Americans. Boy will they miss him.
Years from now, perhaps not that many – we will realize how much was squandered – Obama’s talent, his compassion, his sense of justice and fairness, his brilliance. How much more could have been accomplished in solving the intractable problems of our time. The progress that could have been made to ameliorating climate change, income inequality, advancing healthcare, promoting quality education and job training, protecting and preserving the environment, advancing peace initiatives.
With the same dignity, humility and respect for all to which he came to office, Obama bid his farewell:
My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you. I won’t stop. In fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days. But for now, whether you are young or whether you’re young at heart, I do have one final ask of you as your President — the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago. I’m asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.
I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written: Yes, we can.
Yes, we did. Yes, we can.
It seems that destiny put Obama into the presidency at this time – his election was the result of a confluence of events without which he never would have become the first African-American (half white) President: the historic implosion of the Bush/Cheney administration amid recession and war and John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin for his vice president.
This set of circumstances positioned him to preside during the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln’s assassination; the 50th anniversaries of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the March on Washington, Medicare. He was president for the erection of the Martin Luther King Jr. monument and the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture on the mall.
All the big domestic enterprises were accomplished in his first two years, when he had a Democratic-controlled Congress, despite Senate Republicans using the filibuster to an unprecedented degree. All of which are likely to be erased or overturned within days of Donald Trump taking over the Oval Office.
All that will be gone because Hillary Clinton, despite winning the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, was denied the presidency. Trump’s elevation through the Electoral College was accomplished through voter suppression, Russian hacking and fake news, and was not a repudiation of Obama, who leaves office with 60% approval – one of the highest – while Trump comes into office with 40% approval the lowest approval rating of any incoming president.
Obama’s most important legacy? His grace, dignity, compassion, brilliance that he brought to his office. His calm, cool demeanor, his careful reasoning in face of extraordinary challenges. His unrelenting quest for fairness and justice. The way he always seemed to have a clear-eyed understanding of what American people were feeling, and his ability to always find the right words. Oh how we will miss that “professorial” style for which he was chided. We will miss No Drama Obama.
Every aspect of Obama’s legacy will now be erased – and if Trump could, he would erase Obama’s name altogether. Except one: you can count on Trump to blame Obama for any bad thing that happens, from the inevitable crash of the economy to a new global war.
The only solace I take is that Obama has created the templates for solutions, which hopefully before I die, will be taken out, dusted off, and implemented in order to propel this nation back on the path to being a more perfect union.
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