This is when a president’s legacy becomes a central focus.
Barack Obama has been positioning his post-presidential role and trying to frame his legacy. This becomes much more important for the fact that Obama supported Hillary Clinton in her candidacy as the official representative of his continuing legacy. Instead, his party has faced one of the greatest losses and public shamings in living memory.
Many others have discussed the issue of how Obama will be remembered. There are those who think he will be seen as one of the worst presidents. There is an argument for this, as even many of his supporters have been severely disappointed by his weak and ineffective presidency. And no doubt the other party winning with such a pathetic and hated candidate does feel like a powerful rebuke. But it goes far beyond the loss of power by the Democratic Party in Washington and across the country.
It’s true, for example, that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has turned out badly and will make it all the more difficult for future politicians to push for genuine reform. Most Americans wanted healthcare reform that was further to the left, but instead they got yet another corporatist policy that didn’t solve the problem and for many people made it worse. This was a major reason for why most eligible voters, including partisan Democrats, couldn’t get all that excited about yet another corporatist, i.e., Clinton.
Yet I doubt Obama’s presidency will be recorded in history books as a failure. He simply wasn’t all that memorable of a president.
His signature ‘achievement’ was the ACA. But it was based on and inspired by healthcare reforms that had been pushed and implemented by both parties going back to the middle of last century. In the long term, Obama won’t get much credit or blame for the ACA. It’s not that significant by itself, just another half-assed corporatist policy. The only significance it might have is if, in its failure, future politicians are forced to remedy it with effective policies that actually ensure and make accessible healthcare for all Americans.
Even his being the first black president won’t necessarily be all that important to those looking back from a century or two in the future. Give it enough time with a few more non-white presidents and later generations won’t fully understand why it was ever a big deal. It will likely just be a footnote in the history books.
Compare this to JFK, the first Catholic president. JFK being remembered fondly by most Americans has nothing to do with his Catholicism, despite a Catholic president having been unimaginable before that time. It is hard for young people today to grasp that Catholics were once one of the most hated and feared groups in the Anglo-American world and were one of the main targets of the Second Klan.
When a norm has been shattered and a new norm established, it stops seeming all that unusual to following generations. A new normal makes nearly incomprehensible what came before. When an event passes far enough out of living memory, the world that gave it meaning can be seen as foreign and strange.
Besides, as legacies of black leaders go, Obama’s presidency will always be overshadowed by the greater legacy of Martin Luther King, jr. All that Obama succeeded in showing is that a black president doesn’t really change anything. He had no more genuine concern about poor, disenfranchised blacks than did George W. Bush. Class politics trumps all else because class privileges and class disadvantages go across racial divides. This is something MLK understood and Obama did not. Obama represents everything that MLK fought against.
The reality is that Obama was a mediocre president. He had two terms to prove his worth. But all that he proved was that he was solidly entrenched within the Democratic establishment and the political elite, that he was yet another neoliberal and neocon as all presidents have been for decades. This is emphasized by his having continued so many of his Republican predecessor’s policies on war and economics, demonstrating that the two parties in recent history have been more alike than different.
Not even his failures were all that unique and impressive. He is just another professional politician, a typical example of an all too familiar variety of political elite. In the end, he represented his party, his cronies, his class, and his corporate donors more than he ever represented the American public.
At most, his administration will be remembered as the end of an era. His legacy will be that of the last president who attempted to maintain a failing status quo, at a time when the American public was demanding change. As an individual and in his presidency, though, he isn’t that important. He won’t be remembered as either a great president or a horrible president. In his legacy, he won’t even be considered a major representative of this era now coming to an end.
The best that Obama can hope for is that Trump’s presidency will be so undeniably bad that people will feel nostalgia for Obama’s mediocrity. Maybe over time that nostalgia will make the details of his presidency so fuzzy that all of the failures and lost opportunities will be forgotten. But hoping that the next administration will lead to even worse results is not an inspiring way to end a presidency.