President Obama’s Legacy

The past month my e-mail inbox has been flooded with e-mails asking me to complete a  survey about what I think of President Obama’s legacy. Invariably, these e-mails are filled with loaded questions asking me to specify “which of the following” of President Obama’s accomplishments do I feel we need to preserve.  Then, the punch line, how much money will I give to some political organization that is promising to build on and preserve his legacy. I have not been impressed, especially because these emails don’t give me the opportunity to say what I really think of his legacy.

When I first think of a President’s legacy, I think of what will be in history books about that President several decades or more later.  With this view, what will history books say about President Obama when my 18 year old twins are my age, 71?  A lot depends on what happens in the next half century. Legacy is a judgement made on the past by the future. Also, “legacy” is usually a judgement made by those in power, or at least by those powerful enough to write textbooks, publish mainstream books and articles, and be interviewed by the major news networks.  I’m going to think out loud about President Obama’s legacy in both this conventional way, and in some other ways that allow me to do some critically-minded thinking out loud—as food for thought.

In the conventional way, his legacy almost certainly includes the invaluable importance of his being our first African American President—the first President not to be a white male.  The Affordable Health Care Act, “Obamacare” as it is called, is possibly, but not certainly, going to be another one of his accomplishments. In the face of Republican domination of the Federal Government as we begin 2017, there are calls to repeal Obamacare. That’s not likely to happen, and Obamacare hopefully will pave the way for the health care reform that President Obama and the Democratic Party should have pushed for all along—single payer health care. Government-run, truly cost-effective health coverage, not turned over to insurance companies who can skim profits off the top, thereby making such care more expensive and less accessible to those who are most in need of assistance in obtaining the health care they need and deserve as a human right.

I fear that President Obama has earned some other, not so flattering, items on his legacy’s resume. Accelerated use of drones in the Middle East, resulting in what is euphemistically referred to as “collateral damage”—really the mass murder of innocent children, women and men. Continued use of torture—the kind of torture people in the US decried when perpetrated by the enemy during World War II. Some would argue that, today, the methods of torture are more “sophisticated”, psychologically speaking, even if ineffective and as inhumane as ever. We’ve been told that we successfully climbed out of the “Great Recession” of the previous decade, but most indicators suggest that income inequality is, if anything, worse today than it ever was. Democratic Party politics, as well as the mainstream media’s controlling the narratives about our candidates for office in 2016, and the questionable  electoral processes themselves—resulted in our having as our two main choices for President, the two most unpopular, and least respected, candidates in the history of political polling. An extremely unpopular candidate defeated an extremely unpopular candidate. Quite notably, many white men who voted for President Obama in the crucial rust belt states (among  other states) decided in 2016 to vote President Trump into office. Those who previously voted for a Black man for President were so unhappy and desperate about the state of affairs in this country at the end of President Obama’s eight years in office, that they voted for a candidate who made more blatantly racist comments than any major candidate in recent memory (except perhaps for George Wallace who ran a strong campaign as a third party candidate when I was still a minor).

Certainly, during his eight years in office, President Obama has had to deal with loads of racist criticism and unfair opposition—from hateful segments of the population and from the Republican party. Hopefully, from this, we have learned that despite the important milestone of a Black man being elected President,  it is obvious that our society continues to be very racist, and we do not live in a “post-racial” world.

I would be dishonest, however, if I did not share some of my very major disappointments with President Obama. When he was elected in 2008, my wife was in the hospital recovering from surgery and celebrating and partying with everyone around her, as was I.  His inspiring speeches had given us such great hope. A couple years later, despite the “ending” of the “Great Recession”, things were still bad for most of us on “Main Street.” He rapidly had appointed Wall Street leaders to key, inside positions of power in his administration after his glorious Inauguration as our first Black President.  The symbolism of our election of a Black man who had delivered such wonderful speeches of hope, was inspiring, and yet gradually, but relentlessly, I came to see my hope wither to disappointment, and then my disappointment turn to grunting disgust, and then finally to vocal contempt.  The torture continued. Weekly meetings to decide whom to kill on the other side of the world, with drones, with the push of a button, like a video game—the collateral damage, even if denied (or only very occasionally apologized for) was simply like a few-point deduction in this “game”.  One could rack up a lot more bonus points by eliminating one of the planned targets.  And with the President’s weekly meetings, we could always come up with more targets, and the prospect of big scores, earning multi-digit bonus points. Throw in his active politicking for the TPP (the privatization of national and international decision-making), and for continued and even more expansive fracking. Arguably, his tolerance and  promotion of fracking in the poisoning our neighborhoods has been second only to the Republican-controlled State legislatures that outlaw the right of local communities to decide to ban the fracking that is poisoning their water, land and families. Obamacare was a gift to insurance companies, although admittedly, still lifesaving for more than a few people. At best it was a pathetic compromise hailed as a huge victory, at worse, it was dutifully playing out the good cop-bad cop game, so that we would be thankful that we had the good cop to save us. Meanwhile, life continued  to get worse for almost all of us, and to make matters worse, we were grumbling about each other, even hatefully screaming, while the good cop and the bad cop (our two main political parties) laughed all the way to the bank. Different banks, but with their funds backed by the same people who were reaping the benefits of these investments.

Certainly, all politicians and elected officials have major failings, and their accomplishments, should be judged in relation to their failings. I do not know if President Obama was a bigger failure than recent Presidents, but, for me at least, he was certainly a bigger disappointment. I believed his speeches, which seemed to be so hopeful and heartfelt with the stated agendas for justice and increased equality. In the first 40 years of my adult life, I was not enthralled by Nixon, Carter, Reagan, the Bushes, or Clinton. Nor by Johnson–the Vietnam War was on my mind, despite his record on Civil Rights and with the very significant legislative victories to create the “Great Society. As a youngster, I knew little of Truman, Eisenhower or JFK.  JFK was inspiring, but I didn’t know much of the details about him. Everyone around me “liked Ike” and indeed, when Eisenhower was President multi-millionaires paid their fair share of taxes (close to 90% on the highest earnings!) and the middle class thrived. He reluctantly sent the National Guard into the South, but did so. However, very significantly, during his tenure, McCarthyism placed fear and conformity in the hearts and minds of most adults, although I only learned about this years later.  But I did worry about the threat of nuclear war with the Russians when I was in grade school, even though somehow I wasn’t convinced that the Russians were the “bad guys.” Certainly, a very “mixed bag” (as we used to say in the 60s), in evaluating the legacy of Eisenhower and Johnson. If Truman was going to be graded for his Presidency–and I didn’t know anything about him when I was pre-school kid, or for many years later for that matter–it would be like giving an A+ to a student for acing an exam (ending World War II), while at the same time the student was burning down a school house across town with all the teachers and students inside of it (dropping two A Bombs on Japan).

So, regardless of what the history books will say years from now, I don’t think much of the legacy of any of the Presidents in my lifetime. To me, this does NOT mean we should be cynical, or stop having high expectations, or more importantly, demands that we make on our Presidents and other elected officials. To the contrary, we should hold them to high standards; our democracy depends on it, and more so today than in the past, for as many have argued with extensive evidence to back them up, inequality in power (not just income alone) is getting worse and worse. However, in the course of thinking about how to write about President Obama’s legacy, I’ve had an important, added insight. Each of us needs to begin to think about what OUR legacy will be. What is my legacy during the Obama years? What do I have to say to my children, to my friends, to others in future generations about what I accomplished during the Obama years? For now, I give myself a “D”. I didn’t do much during the past 8 years to actively fight the spread of drone warfare, fracking, or income inequality. However, at least I “woke up” to how bad things really are; I did begin to discuss issues and such problems with others, and stress how important it is that we have dialogue and educate one another about the deeply rooted problems that must be addressed. For these reasons, I give myself a “D” rather than an “F.” Faint praise. I’m proud that my three adult children speak out on issues and are inclined to take action—I’ll take partial credit for that. My wife and I discuss these issues and our concerns are growing, and I’m proud that my wife bought a bunch of “Black Lives Matter” signs and then went around our “liberal” neighborhood trying to distribute the signs to neighbors to put in front of homes. Rude awakening–only a few would accept the signs! My adult children are way ahead of where I was at their age in the 1960s and early 70s (participation in student protests notwithstanding), and my wife and I are mobilizing ourselves to take more action in the future. I have a long way to go to earn a legacy as a good citizen.

With all this in mind, I have a new interpretation of how we can make use of what JFK said when I was just beginning high school:  “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” I now interpret this wisdom as follows. The President of the United States may have more power and authority than anyone in the world. However, I, and every other citizen—all of us—have the greatest responsibility.  Instead of evaluating President Obama’s legacy, I should be evaluating MY legacy during President Obama’s administration. And the point of the evaluation is to figure out how I can do better during the Trump Presidency, and each succeeding Presidency for the rest of my life. I hope to be able to earn a higher grade for my legacy at the end of President Trump’s administration. President Truman said, “the buck stops here”—meaning that the buck stops with the President of the United States, because of the enormous authority and power of that office.  When I now say, “the buck stops here”—I mean that the main responsibility for creating a better world rests with me, and with each of us. I expect more of myself, and of all of us, than I do of the President of the United States! Our legacy is the one that matters most! It is the legacy that we will pass along to our children and to future generations, for better and for worse. Let’s get to work!

[Author’s note: I’ve just written this blog post (1/13/17)—the first one I’ve put here on wisrville in several years, with hopefully a couple blog posts to come every month for the foreseeable future.  Comments are very much welcome and encouraged!]

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About John Bilorusky

John Bilorusky is President of WISR and Member of WISR's core faculty. John was one of WISR's four founders in 1975, and WISR has been, and will continue to be, the hub of his professional and community involvements. John received his BA from the University of Colorado (cum laude in Physics and cum laude in General Studies) in 1967. He received his MA from the University of California at Berkeley in 1968 and his PhD in Higher Education from UC Berkeley in 1972. He has also held major faculty appointments in the College of Community Services at the University of Cincinnati (1971-73), in the Social Sciences Interdisciplinary Studies at UC Berkeley (1970-71) and at University Without Walls-Berkeley (1973-74). He has actively written and published in the field of adult learning and social change. He lives with his wife, Janet, and 18-year-old twins, Kyle and Nicole. Janet is a nurse at the Regional Center of the East Bay, serving and supporting people with developmental disabilities. Kyle and Nicole are currently enrolled at Berkeley City College. He has an adult son, Clark, who has a Master's in Asian American Studies from San Francisco State, and who lives with his wife, Donna, and their two children, Ilaw and Tala, in Vallejo, CA. Clark provides Tech Support in the Union City School District.
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One Response to President Obama’s Legacy

  1. John Borst says:

    Hi John,

    Was great to read your posted opinion piece. What you write I felt came from your heart and soul! In particular, your ideas on LEGACY, a concern for one’s own legacy — in contrast to those having power and authority which impacts the live of millions of Americand — I found inspiring. Thanks for sharing several personal stories and insights that led to your conclusion: that each of us has a legacy to craft and take responsibility for. I hope the text of what you write in your post finds a wide readership!

    Second, on your evaluation of Obama’s accomplishments, I share your disappointments. I am also reminded too of the 2012 book, Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. Noam Chomsky says of this book, “Those who feel that like lemmings they are being led over a cliff would be well-advised not to read this book. They may discover that they are right.”

    Best wishes to you and the members of your family for the new year!

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