Somewhere between the differing polarities of Dr. Cornel West and Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, two of America’s most engaging and controversial Black public intellectuals, is the truth of President Barack Obama’s legacy, the gist of his eight years in the Oval Office.
Those eight years through West’s prism were unfulfilled and flawed “and a sad legacy of our hope and change candidate—even as we warriors go down swinging in the facing names of truth and justice.”
In his article published in The Guardian, West ticks off a litany of reasons for his excoriation of Obama. Rather than jailing Wall Street bankers, West said, Obama was bailing them out. During the Obama drone attacks, too many innocent civilians were killed, West contended. Obama praised Mayor Bloomberg instead of taking him to task on stop and frisk. He sided with the Israeli government over the Palestinians. And even when Obamacare provided coverage for 20 million Americans, West derided the president for not taking care of the 20 million not covered.
It was a damned if you do, damned if you don’t summary of the Obama administration.
On the other hand, there’s the flip-side of things from Dyson, and in his recent op-ed in The New York Times he notes, “This president kept our country from falling into depression, extended health insurance to 20 million Americans, somehow made a deal with Iran on nuclear weapons, saved the auto industry—and as he reminded us in his farewell address Tuesday night, took out Osama bin Laden.”
Dyson’s overall estimate of Obama is favorable, so much so that he concludes, “As I see it, Mr. Obama is the only figure to ever give Dr. King a run for his money as Greatest Black Man in American history.”
Both West and Dyson, who rarely see eye to eye on social, cultural or political issues, have offered their views in real time and in the midst of one of the most heated political seasons and presidential transitions in history. It’s perhaps far too early to weigh in on Obama’s legacy. This is a process that often takes years, if not generations, to decide if the results of a president’s years in office were good, bad or somewhere in the middle.
Historians and folks are still debating Washington’s presidency, the Lincoln years and did FDR really rescue the nation from economic catastrophe?
One unescapable fact, an ineluctable condition, is the extent to which Obama brought something new to the White House—save for the workers there and the slaves who built it. That something new was a Black presence, a Black family, that in the long run exasperated Congress and ultimately too many American voters. It’s not possible to talk about Obama’s successes and failures without consideration for the intransigence he encountered from the GOP. Right down to his final days in office there was opposition to his vision, and to not take this measure of resistance into account is to misread his legacy.
To be sure, many of the things he hoped for were out of reach, but so was Obamacare, so was climate change, so was normalization with Cuba, so was a nuclear agreement with Iran, so were the commutations of hundreds of prisoners’ sentences. All of these developments will have to be placed on the scale of assessment, mixed in the equation of Obama’s tenure as America’s leader.
Over the past eight years, we here at the Amsterdam News have not missed a moment of his actions or inaction—as some would conclude. He has presented us with an unforgettable time of history, and those of us who are fortunate to have lived it in real time are left with various impressions of his impact, or the lack thereof.
As Obama leaves office, his approval ratings are extraordinary, and that has added value when summarizing his presidency. Historians, public intellectuals and pundits can voice their accounts, but the American people have their own opinion and should not be dismissed.
One of the ways the legacy of a president is determined is by who comes before and after. Obama will experience the same conditions, and, in this regard, so much depends on how Donald Trump navigates the political terrain. Already we have indications that it’s going to be a rocky, rough ride, making many citizens wish for the return of Obama.
But Obama has had his run, had a chance to realize a dream that seemed impossible at one time, a dream that left millions of Black Americans still wondering if it was true. It was true, and now it’s time to wake up to a new reality, one that portends a storm of retrenchment, a tsunami of reaction to expunge everything Obama brought into existence.
To this end, the disagreement between West and Dyson will truly be academic because whether Obama stood for their views or not, they will be vanquished in a wave of resentment, in a stroke of Trump’s pen.
Yes, we’ve come to the end of Obama’s overture, so to speak, and it was a sonata of lyrical moments with the kind of tension and highlights we may never witness again. It was a glorious political concerto and much of it, if we choose to, can be replayed in our memories over and over again.