Zhu: Eight Years Later

The presidency of Barack Obama has been one of mixed results.

by Michael Zhu | 1/19/17 12:15am

One of my earliest memories of President Barack Obama was his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, back when the Democratic Party still preached straightforward, persuasive ideologies. I was only a 6-year-old back then, but the memory of his message that night still lingers on with me. That eloquent message of optimism and hope, unity and patriotism, unselfish motives and unfaltering strength. It wasn’t even his election, but it certainly seemed so; Obama spoke for his party’s candidate — then-Sen. John Kerry — but it almost seemed he was offering his own story and his vision for the first time.

Eight years later, he’s leaving the Oval Office and passing it on to perhaps the most controversial and divisive political figure in recent times. We’ve seen Obama’s heights and nadirs. We watched unemployment rates dip below pre-Great Recession levels, as over 22 million Americans went back to work between 2010 and 2016 — although economic growth has faltered, never exceeding three percent per year. We watched his health care plan, in the form of the Affordable Care Act, raise health care coverage to 91 percent by 2015, although many of the 30 million Americans who bought private health care had to pay higher prices as they switched to “Obamacare.” We watched him oversee the assassination of Osama bin Laden and pull soldiers out of Iraq, beginning the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Still, terrorist networks are still active, Russia and China continue to brazenly spread their geopolitical influence, and the U.S. has become mistrusted by many of its oldest allies.

Those are only some of the issues in which Obama leaves a disputed legacy. He reduced carbon emissions and convinced China to do so too, to the dissatisfaction of coal miners and refinery workers. He spent his way out of the recession, facilitating a massive economic recovery but nearly doubling the national debt in the process.

Meanwhile, his message of unity failed. More than 70 percent of Americans say that the U.S. is more divided than it was when Obama was first elected. Race relations have become more divisive, and racism has become more visible than ever before. Obama’s constant message to respect conflicting ideologies and, most recently, to consider things from other point of views seems almost hypocritical; rarely was there a moment when Obama publicly considered the conservative point of view, and as a result, he became out-of-touch with his voter base that would eventually hand President-elect Donald Trump the election.

But it would be unwise to attribute all of that to Obama. Certainly, the argument can be made that Trump’s rhetoric has contributed to the increase of hate crimes since his election — in Dec. 2016, the New York Police Department revealed that there was a 115 percent increase in bias crimes since Trump’s election. The government’s failure to enact proper, agreeable gun control cannot be Obama’s fault: Republicans have constantly denied any political discussion of the issue, although 55 percent of Americans believe laws governing the sale of firearms should be stricter. Had House Republicans not tried to repeal or otherwise defund the Affordable Care Act more than 50 times during Obama’s two terms, the rollout and implementation of health care could have been smoother.

And clearly, Obama’s presidency is not without straightforward achievements. During his two terms, the number of Mexicans living illegally in the U.S. declined and is now below its peak in the Bush era. The number of immigrants convicted of crimes who were deported was double the number deported by the Bush administration. The number of violent crimes continues to decrease, contrary to what our president-elect believes. Repealing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy fought discrimination against gays, lesbians and bisexuals in the military. Obama also passed a number of financial reforms and Wall Street regulations that may help prevent another 2008-like recession.

But despite Obama’s accomplishments and failures — whether or not you agree with his policies and ideology — he was the embodiment of our ideal president. His grace under pressure, his unwillingness to attack opponents personally, his oratorical eloquence and casual joking, his utmost hope in our nation and his unwavering optimism in the good of every American — regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, age or political belief — revealed to us a fundamentally respectable and good man. He showed to us the type of man, the type of character, that we want to see in our president.

Obama possessed a certain charisma and self-confidence that our president-elect seemingly lacks and artificially conveys through Twitter and bragging about his fortune. In the chaos of the 2008 recession, Obama offered a vision of hope: that fundamentally our neighbors and fellow citizens are good people, and if helping each other stand up is nothing more than being American. His lack of personal scandals and insistence on operating with dignity and respect brought an uncharacteristic purity to the White House; meanwhile, his racial presence empowered African-Americans across the country to strive for racial equality, fight for justice when it mattered and offer their voices to the maelstrom of social change.

It will require some time to judge fairly the legacy of Obama’s presidency. His terms were perhaps two of the most divisive ones in recent history, marked by a progressive agenda that helped many Americans and raised a nation back to its feet, marred by political battles and inaction.

But I’ll never forget his message on that night in 2004, that vision of a nation unified not by race or political ideology but by national identity and our inherent ability to do good. Just like that message, President Barack Obama won’t be easily forgotten.