After an earnest exchange of sharp queries and careful answers on Russian interference in the 2016 election, Meet the Press host Chuck Todd threw in a question that visibly caught segment guests Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) off guard.
“President Obama’s going to be giving his farewell address. The most positive part of his legacy, most negative part of his legacy. I’ll start with you Sen. McCain.”
“I would say the most positive part of his legacy is that the very fact that the first African American as president of the United States is a signal that in America anybody can rise to the highest level. And I think that that’s a very important landmark and is historic,” McCain said.
“He and the First Lady need to be complimented for representing our nation well as a first family. It’s historic. He’s the first African-American president,” added Graham, equally if not more cautious and measured. “But it just wasn’t that. I think the family represented us in a fashion we can all be proud of.”
Notably, and not so surprising to Obama presidency supporters, neither Republican senator could provide one single policy accomplishment that stood out positively after eight-years – including the president’s re-election. Both, instead, focused on the racial cosmetics of the moment, as if that “first Black president” existed mostly in theory rather than exercise or implementation. Indeed, both senators – noted foreign policy hawks and among many rather prolific GOP opponents to the Obama White House – could only highlight what they perceived as a weakness on foreign policy.
And, yet, even with foreign policy, President Obama seemed to accomplish what he meticulously laid out as a first-time candidate in 2008 and running again in 2012. On both occasions, most of the American public with turnout among eligible voters historically up in both elections) seemed to agree: significant reduction of U.S. troop deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan; carefully avoiding any additional entanglements through smart, surgical use of special forces; re-establishing frayed relations with old allies; gaining global consensus on the world climate change response; and, ultimately, avoiding any large scale, foreign entity-planned, mass casualty attack on American soil similar to what occurred on September 11, 2001, under his Republican predecessor.
If one wanted to add a cherry to the top of that list, the successful discovery and elimination of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden would do it.
Any casual observer of the Obama presidency would admit that it was by no means perfect – which is not unlike any other presidency in U.S. history. Still, it was definitely more than simple “first Black president” salutations and fond memories of the first Black family residing in a White House built by slaves.
But, because of the rather sensitive, and once unprecedented, nature of this outgoing presidency, the ability to scrupulously articulate the policy accomplishments of President Obama is a crucial and ongoing exercise for Black Americans as much as any other population group.
“Any evaluation of the Obama administration must first recognize that he inherited the worst economy since the Great Depression, and was faced with Congressional opposition unprecedented in its intensity and sinister nature,” said National Urban League President Marc Morial in a recent note announcing the organization’s scorecard of the Obama presidency.
“Both his accomplishments and his failures must be evaluated against those conditions.”
Indeed, racial perception gaps complicate that question as much as the reality. And the understandable cultural pride most Blacks share in celebrating the first Black president can, at times, shroud more thoughtful conversation on the subject. As President Obama exits office, he enjoys combined Black favorability ratings of 82 percent, compared to White favorability ratings of just 42 percent.
The impact of his presidency explains that. When entering office, the young president faced a global financial meltdown that was on the cusp of metastasizing fast into an economic apocalypse. Through crisis management and adroit policy, President Obama was able to avoid a Second Great Depression. Despite resistance from Congressional Republicans, financial sector reforms were passed, specific industries were pulled back from destruction and millions of jobs lost were restored. The direct impact of those moves for Black America was immediate: official Black unemployment fell from a peak of 17 percent in March 2010 (at the height of the financial crisis) to a current low of 8 percent.
While riddled with flaws, 12 percent of homes saved from foreclosure were Black due to an aligned Home Affordable Modification Program, a number almost proportional to the overall national Black population.
But, as former senior White House aide Heather Foster notes, no one can walk away from a top to bottom assessment of the Obama presidency without acknowledging the dramatic increase in the number of insured Blacks due to the president’s signature health care reform law. “The uninsured rates for elderly African Americans has been cut in half since the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and over 3 million Blacks now have healthcare,” says Foster.
As Gallup tracking surveys find, Black uninsured rates declined by nearly 10 percentage points since 2013. More dramatic reductions in the uninsured are, proportionally, more pronounced for Blacks and Latinos. But the speed at which those declines occurred is due almost exclusively to the Affordable Care Act (politically derided or fondly known, depending on partisan affiliation, as “ObamaCare”).
In addition, Black incarceration rates fell each year Obama was in office and are the lowest they have been in two decades. As that happened, Pell Grant funding for HBCU students grew from $523 million to $824 million from 2007 to 2014, while at the same time changes to credit standards for Parents PLUS loans caused a decline in HBCUs. High school completion rates are at the highest ever (75 percent) for Black seniors.
The Center for American Progress’ Danyelle Solomon, who also served as legislative counsel at the White House Office of Legislative Affairs, emphasizes “that more African Americans than ever are owning their own businesses. That increase in Black entrepreneurship occurred under President Obama’s watch.”
Despite constant obstruction from Republicans in the Senate, President Obama was able to confirm more Black judges than both President Bush and President Clinton. That’s important considering a loaded docket of key issues in federal court districts across the country.
Still, as a recent Brookings Institution report notes, inequities among Black Americans were still significant in relation to their White and, even, Latino counterparts. More than 1 in 5 Black families live in “food insecure” households – compared to only 1 in 10 White families. Four in 10 Black children live in poverty, double other racial groups. Among prime-age adults (ages 25 to 54), 1 in 5 Black men are not in the labor force, nearly twice that of others.
“[Despite that] I think on a number of levels the Obama presidency still helped significantly improve the Black American condition,” argues Dayna Bowen Matthew, a visiting fellow at the Brookings’ Center for Health Policy. “Millions of African Americans got access to healthcare, along with the Medicaid expansion, was no less than transformational. There’s 62 provisions in the Affordable Care Act dealing with disparity.”