President Barack Obama leaves office Friday after eight years as the most consequential Democrat to occupy the White House since Lyndon Johnson. And unlike that Texan, whose presidency was born in tragedy and ended in failure, Obama will not have the ghost of the Vietnam War haunting his days and eating his conscience as LBJ did all the remaining days of his life.
And yet, the legacy of the nation’s 44th president is, like Johnson’s, a mixed one.
His first, and perhaps greatest, legacy was written in the many joyful tears shed across the nation on that morning almost eight years ago when African-Americans woke up to an America where one of their own had his hand on the Bible and the Secret Service at his back.
His ability to speak about race — and embody it, too — in a way that sought to get past stereotypes and old angers, without ignoring them, was a central and lasting hallmark of his presidency. Though he was often disrespected by his political opponents, he retained always his composure and dignity.
In that, he was a welcome departure from the example of the nation’s last Democratic president and from its next Republican one, too.
But it’s also true that Obama has left his successor vastly expanded executive powers, ranging from a global campaign of targeted assassinations run straight from the White House to a history of testing limits of executive orders on issues from guns to immigration. How those powers will look in the hands of his successor was something that Obama and his supporters paid far too little attention to.
He promised an unusually open and transparent Washington bureaucracy but did not deliver. History will credit him for providing health insurance for 20 million or more Americans who’d been without it, but it will note its high initial costs and uncertain future savings, as well as his busted promise that Americans who already had insurance could keep their doctors and their plans.
Obama inherited an economy that was at the brink of historic disaster, and today it has largely recovered. He gets too little credit for that, given how close we came to a second depression. But it’s also true that his party lost its hold on the White House and the Senate over the course of the last two elections because so many Americans feel locked out of America’s prosperity.
On foreign affairs, the president modeled a kind of wait-and-see leadership that America hasn’t seen since before World War II. He kept his promise to start no new America wars, and to end the war in Iraq. But he also presided over a dimming of American influence, the full consequences of which are not yet known.
He leaves his successor a world without Osama bin Laden, and one in which climate change is now accepted as an urgent danger in capitals around the globe. Iran’s nuclear ambitions have been checked, for now.
But many old threats remain. And news ones have been given life.
Obama will go down as one of the most decent men ever to serve as president. He accomplished much, but failures cloud his tenure, too. How they will look in four or eight years as the Donald Trump presidency ends is hard to say. That story still must be written, and Trump, rather than Obama, will write it.
—The Dallas Morning News, Jan. 18, 2017