I have said this before but I have one last chance to say it again: Americans are lucky to have Barack Obama as president and we all should appreciate it while we can.
That isn’t going to happen, of course. I know from how my past expressions of gratitude to Obama were received, from polls and from the recent election that roughly 40 percent of the country’s voters feel the opposite of gratitude for the president. They hate him without qualification. That will change over time.
I have no doubt that history will rank Barack Obama as a great president at a troubled, confusing time. I suspect a more respectful and appreciative view of his legacy and presidency will emerge sooner rather than later. This will be due to the character and values of the man who will succeed Obama at high noon on Inauguration Day, Donald Trump.
Just how Trump’s presidency turns out is anyone’s guess and I make no specific predictions. There is a good chance that the economy will do well in the coming years, and Trump will get credit for that. There is a chance Trump’s reign will succeed – and certainly there is hope. But there is no chance that Donald Trump can or will ever represent and nurture our best values, behavior, aspirations and ideals.
That is the great contrast between Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
It’s an irony, for sure, that Obama – a man of discipline, dignity and intellect – will yield the office to Trump – a man of impulse, vulgarity and demagoguery. A tragedy is really what is.
A president’s legacy is forged by much more than some kind of historical cost-benefit analysis of his myriad policies, appointments and actions. If that were the case, John F. Kennedy’s legacy would be no legacy.
Alone among the two-term presidents in the media era, Obama didn’t lose the last two years of his tenure to inquisitions and dishonor. Ronald Reagan’s last years in office were shackled by the Iran-Contra affair; Bill Clinton’s by impeachment proceedings; and George W. Bush’s by the Iraq War. Obama avoided similar landmines despite facing more ferocious partisan enemies (in Congress and the media) and that will come to be seen as a political miracle some day.
Reagan’s legacy has improved over time; the optimism he rekindled is remembered more than his tax policies and Iran-Contra. History’s recollections of Clinton and George W. Bush are going in the other direction.
In history, presidents come to symbolize something – a philosophy, moral force or strength of character. At the end of two full terms, Barack Obama in the present tense already embodies his legacy. Much of that is because he is our country’s first black president, a milestone that will look even more important in hindsight than it does now.
History also will remember the grace he and his entire family showed in the face unparalleled poisonous partisan attack, racism and danger. Indeed, part of Obama’s legacy, of what he has come to symbolize, is the character of how he has held power and governed – his calm braininess, his discipline, his class, honesty and realism. Think about how Obama responded in the summer of 2016 to the church mass murder in Charleston and the police shootings in St. Paul and Baton Rouge – and think about Trump’s tweets.
These are virtues of character and values that will live on as historical lessons and stories no matter what specific accomplishments are undone by Donald Trump’s reign.
Still, Obama’s policy legacy is under full frontal attack.
The heart of that assault is the repeal of Obamacare, the new battle hymn of the Republicans. Obamacare has become a GOP symbol of everything that is wrong with big government, Democrats and liberalism. But oddly enough, Americans don’t like having benefits taken away from them and 20 million more people have health insurance now. So actual repeal is not a given.
On many issues, from immigration to emissions, Obama used executive orders because he couldn’t get legislation through the Republican Congress, and many will be reversed. Obama’s commitments to the Iran nuclear treaty, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate accords could be undone. The Supreme Court will retain its conservative majority for years because Republicans blocked Obama’s final nomination.
Obama’s Democratic critics say he was a lousy legislative politician who could have done much more to overcome Republican obstructions. Unquestionably, he was better at preaching and policy than party-building. And that might turn out to be an enduring failure. He was not able to lead the Democrats to victory in congressional elections or in electing his successor. He leaves his party in sorry shape and thus his policy legacy as well.
Still, Obama will look awfully good to many of his critics very soon into Trump’s term. In the longer view, I don’t expect to see a president as exceptional as Barack Obama again in my lifetime.
So, Mr. President, on behalf of an ungrateful, confused and divided nation, thanks again.
The writer is Chief Washington Correspondent for the Scripps Washington Bureau and DecodeDC.