I will miss President Obama. He is the only president I remember clearly, and as my political awareness has grown over time, I have been struck more and more by the spirit of humanity, grace, integrity and intellectual brilliance that he radiates.
I was fortunate to be present at his first inauguration in 2009, and even though I was just a shivering 10-year-old on that very cold day, its history and gravity remain with me.
Despite the vicious Republican opposition that Obama faced, the legacy that he forged through the legislation passed under his tenure will outlive him.
The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), for example, was certainly a “big deal,” as Joe Biden remarked, memorably adding an expletive for emphasis. The 25 million beneficiaries of Obamacare previously could not afford coverage or were inhibited from purchasing even inadequate insurance plans due to preexisting conditions — many were just one car accident or cancer diagnosis away from financial disaster. Previously uninsured citizens are no longer forced to avoid medical treatment when they are sick, which will lead to better health outcomes and a more sustainable future for the country in the long run. Moreover, Obamacare has survived and thrived despite unprecedented Republican obstruction, which is an accomplishment in itself.
According to economist Paul Krugman, “What conservatives have always feared about health reform is the possibility that it might succeed, and in so doing remind voters that sometimes government action can improve ordinary Americans’ lives […] Obamacare has survived, it’s here, and it’s working. The great conservative nightmare has come true. And it’s a beautiful thing.”
Perhaps the legacy that most directly impacted the lives of ordinary Americans for the better was the recession recovery. Obama took office in the midst of an economic free fall; he inherited and subsequently turned around an economy from the Bush Administration that was in the deepest abyss of the Great Recession. Unemployment reached 10 percent, which was the highest it had been since 1983. Building on the important initial steps that had been taken by the outgoing Bush Administration, Obama’s aggressive and ambitious fiscal stimulus and much-reviled recapitalization of the dreaded big banks put nearly six million Americans back to work, added jobs for 75 consecutive months, and eventually achieved functional full employment. Today, the federal deficit has fallen by one trillion dollars and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is growing at a stable rate. In addition, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act enacted changes in the financial regulatory environment that will ensure future economic stability.
Unfortunately, the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Act are under threat: the incoming Trump Administration has indicated intent to dismantle both.
Obama has also embraced a progressive policy agenda to create a more just, equal and beneficial world. The discriminatory “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on military service was repealed under his tenure and he was a ringing (even if belated) voice of support for marriage equality.
He also championed a climate change agenda and through the Paris climate talks, he set ambitious goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. After somberly addressing the nation following far too many deadly acts of gun violence, Obama pushed hard for comprehensive gun control reform, although his efforts were ultimately stalemated by a Republican Congress.
Lastly, in addition to his significant legislative accomplishments, Obama’s eloquent speeches and rhetoric over the past eight years have set a higher standard for what we should expect of politicians today.
His words in his first inaugural address have striking relevance today: “We cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.”
As we move forward into uncertain times and as his brilliant legislative legacy faces the test of time, we must hold fast to the audacity of hope that Obama leaves with us.