Barack Hussein Obama, 55, departs the White House with a legacy of sweeping change and political controversy. He was not only the first Black President of the United States; he was a change agent in the lives of Americans and people worldwide with accomplishments that far outweighed his defeats.
In 2009, I stood among a million people in frigid temperatures awaiting the swearing-in of a community organizer turned law professor and then politician. Then Sen. Obama promised to bridge a divided in Washington. Few recall how much rested on his relatively young shoulders. He campaigned on making change. It was symbolic that the Supreme Court’s conservative Chief Justice John Roberts bungled the oath of office at the swearing-in. In unprecedented fashion, it would have to be repeated later that evening.
Within his first months in office, President Obama signed economic recovery laws that saved the automotive industry and supported the failing housing industry. The Justice Department led by Eric Holder attacked Wall Street and housing for discriminatory practices by large banks that had forced homebuyers, especially people of color, into risky subprime loans with balloon payments resulting in millions of foreclosures. Keeping people in their homes and employed was the mission of President Obama’s first term.
President Obama is the child of a White mother from Kansas and Kenyan father. He was also raised by her White parents in Hawaii. Childhood challenges, as an outsider, gave him insights that led him to champion immigration reform. He signed Executive Orders protecting the children of undocumented parents brought to America and facing deportation. The Dreamers Act would allow young undocumented children to remain in the United States.
As a constitutional law professor, President Obama’s legacy is marked by high profile cases before the Supreme Court. He nominated two female justices, including the first Latino, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagen. Since the President’s mother had struggled with cancer and failed attempts to gain insurance coverage, the Affordable Care Act became his hallmark legislation.
The Affordable Care Act became America’s first national health plan. It met numerous attacks by conservatives but was found constitutional in a surprising Supreme Court victory. However, his Dreamers Act was defeated in the Supreme Court and his nominee to replace a deceased conservative was never given a hearing by a Republican controlled Senate. The Voting Rights Act which protected voters from discrimination was gutted by the high Court and civil rights laws for people of color came under attack.
However, President Obama successfully advocated for the civil rights of gays and lesbians. The Supreme Court upheld marriage equality and defeated any legislation that defined marriage as only between a man and a woman. The President pushed for climate change as a national policy and supported environmental laws to increase research for clean air products and resisted building a new oil pipeline across America.
President Obama will be remembered for removing the threat of Osama Bin Laden. When he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, the judges made clear his prize was given not because of what he had done but for the world peace he could bring. In his speech, however, President Obama made clear that he would protect American interests with force if diplomacy did not work. America’s political divisions were evident when some conservatives grudgingly accepted Bin Laden was dead; but, they refused to give the Obama Administration credit.
Despite his efforts, President Obama did not close the prison on Guantanamo Bay. Nor did he deliver immigration reform. Although the economy is much improved for most there are pockets of working-class who remain under-employed while some Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans are still struggling with unemployment rates over twice that of Whites. He could not pass legislation to stem gun violence in the form of mass shootings and urban homicides. He leaves a more divided Congress and country. In renewing relations with Cuba, he distanced himself from the Cold War era without forgetting the harm Russia can cause to global stability.
President Obama was a 21st century statesman. He leaves the White House with a generational legacy of intelligence, compassion and perseverance. He leaves us all with the audacity of hope.