In 1996 when a young Chicago law professor and community organizer named Barack Obama ran for a seat in the Illinois Senate, it was clear he had potential as a political leader. That was two decades ago.
Now the quick march of time leads us to consider in full the remarkable presidency of Barack Obama, and render judgment on the performance of the then-young University of Chicago prof. How close has he come to fulfilling that fuzzy, optimistic state of being known as having potential? He’ll make the case for his legacy Tuesday in a Chicago speech, 10 days before he leaves office. We’ll listen but have enough evidence to give a rough first evaluation of his tenure.
We stipulate first that all Chicagoans can feel pride that the 44th president of the United States considers the city his hometown. Yes he was born in Hawaii and went to Harvard Law, but he made his bones on the South Side. He learned the game of politics in the state capital of Springfield and will always be part of the city that hosts and boasts his presidential library.
Obama’s two terms in the White House were years of achievement and disappointment, a mixed record of accomplishment, misguided aims and frustrated ambition. He broke a historic barrier as the nation’s first black president and led the country with personal integrity. Nearly every action he contemplated came in the face of constant, choreographed opposition by Republicans in a nasty era of polarized politics.
The classic example is Obamacare. The president took on the enormous, idealistic task of creating a government-mandated safety net for uninsured Americans. Republicans fought him the whole way. President-elect Donald Trump recognizes that if he oversees repeal of Obamacare, his party’s replacement will be judged against it. And so we will wait years to see if Obama’s signature achievement is tomorrow’s appreciated model or yesterday’s forgotten relic.
That’s the trick to assessing presidents: The procrastinators outperform those who rush to judgment. We won’t know for decades where Obama rests in the pantheon of U.S. leadership because we can’t yet see his lasting influence or errors. We know that, as the Nov. 8 election attested, his presidency ends with a repudiation. Nothing new there: After eight years, voters want a fresh face, a fresh vision. Obama hoped to put a bow on his presidency (and protect his legacy projects) by handing the keys to Hillary Clinton. Instead he’ll swallow hard and welcome Republican President Trump.
A quick run-down of some of Obama’s better work: He came into office in 2009 with the country in economic crisis, rescued the auto industry, stabilized the financial system and put America back on the road to slow, steady growth. His general respect for free markets, and specifically his understanding of the role of trade and global investment in U.S. prosperity, look especially sound given his liberal Democratic roots. We wish his successor would exhibit the same appreciation for greater global trade. Obama banned torture, re-established relations with Cuba, supported gay marriage, made the fight against climate change a priority and pushed China to do the same. He oversaw the end of American involvement in the war in Iraq and pushed responsibility for Afghanistan’s security on the Afghans. He fought hard to win a deal with Iran to end its nuclear program.
But Obama also stumbled badly overseas. He botched attempts to thwart Syria’s Bashar Assad and failed to anticipate the rise of Islamic State, forcing the U.S. right back into a Middle Eastern war that reignited terrorism. The president failed to establish a working relationship with Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and looked virtually powerless against Vladimir Putin’s assertions of power in Ukraine and Syria.
A Chicago Tribune news report noted in 2008 that Obama’s politics were “deliberately post-racial.” He did not campaign and did not lead as if on a quest to resolve centuries-old wounds. It is the paradox of history’s uneven tide that Obama leaves the country even more torn by race than when he took office. He doesn’t have to bear that responsibility. He should be judged on his character, which is exemplary, and on the results of his actions, which are still playing out. Barack Obama didn’t deliver all we wanted. Some of what he did deliver hasn’t worked. Yet, looking back, we have no choice but to deeply thank him for his service to America.