Au revoir, President Obama. President Barack Hussein Obama, 55, departs the White House with a legacy of sweeping change and political controversy. He was not only the first African-American President of the United States but also a change agent in the lives of Americans and people worldwide with accomplishments that far outweighed his defeats.
Obama inherited America’s worst economic era since the Great Depression of the 1930s. He faced a failing economy and turned it around. In 2008, this first-term Senator from Illinois, with the audacity of hope was elected president when America’s economy was failing and unemployment was more than 10 percent, reaching 20 percent in some African-American communities. Back then, poor economic news led every broadcast.
In addition to rising unemployment, America’s automotive industry was on the verge of bankruptcy. The financial sector was imploding. Homeowners were abandoning their houses as property values plummeted. Life savings were wiped out. The global economy was dangerously tilted downward. As the world’s largest economy, America’s economic freefall was taking other nation’s down with it.
In 2009, I stood among a million people in frigid temperatures awaiting the swearing-in of a community organizer turned law professor, and then politician. Senator Obama promised to bridge a divided Washington. Few recall how much rested on his relatively young shoulders. He campaigned on making change. It was symbolic that the Supreme Court’s conservative Chief Justice John Roberts bungled the oath of office at the swearing-in. In unprecedented fashion, it would have to be repeated later that evening.
Not far from Capitol Hill, conservatives were meeting to plan Obama’s demise. They all pledged to do everything they could to defeat his policies and make him a one-term president. One conservative radio host openly hoped for his failure. A divided Congress would become even more strident with Republicans taking a staunch anti-Obama stance on every proposal during his administration. They would shut down the government before working with him on mutually beneficial legislation.
Within his first months in office, Obama signed economic recovery laws that saved the automotive industry and supported the failing housing industry. The Justice Department, led by Eric Holder, attacked Wall Street and housing for discriminatory practices by large banks that had forced homebuyers, especially people of color, into risky subprime loans with balloon payments resulting in millions of foreclosures. Keeping people in their homes and employed was the mission of Obama’s first term.
Obama entered office under allegations that he was neither a citizen nor a Christian. Rumors by conservatives had his birthplace in Kenya, and therefore, prohibited from office because by the constitutional dictate that only “natural born citizens” can be president. There is no religious requirement. However, questions about his birth and religion continued to haunt him even after publishing his birth certificate. Donald Trump was the most vocal leader in this birther movement.
Obama is the child of a white mother from Kansas and Kenyan father. He was also raised by her white parents in Hawaii. These childhood challenges as an outsider gave him insights that led him to champion immigration reform. He signed executive orders protecting the children of undocumented parents brought to America and facing deportation. The Dreamers Act would allow young undocumented children to remain in the United States.
As a constitutional law professor, Obama’s legacy is marked by high-profile cases before the Supreme Court. He nominated two female justices, including the first Latino, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagen. Because the president’s mother had struggled with cancer and failed attempts to gain insurance coverage, the Affordable Care Act became his hallmark legislation.
The Affordable Care Act became America’s first national health plan. It met numerous attacks by conservatives but was found constitutional in a surprising Supreme Court victory. However, his Dreamers Act was defeated in the Supreme Court and his nominee to replace a deceased conservative was never given a hearing by a Republican-controlled Senate. The Voting Rights Act, which protected voters from discrimination, was gutted by the high Court and civil rights laws for people of color came under attack.
However, Obama successfully advocated for the civil rights of gays and lesbians. The Supreme Court upheld marriage equality and defeated any legislation that defined marriage as only between a man and a woman. The president pushed for climate change as a national policy and supported environmental laws to increase research for clean air products and resisted building a new oil pipeline across America.
Obama will be known as a true statesman. His predecessor, President George W. Bush, had created global havoc and undermined America’s credibility with his war in Iraq based on non-existent “weapons of mass destruction.” For small nations, it was the stick of economic reprisal that drew together a hodge-podge of United Nations-backed military forces into an ever expanding “War on Terror,” financed with foreign loans from China, deepening America’s debt.
Obama sought to reconcile the global tensions between Christianity and Islam. He traveled to the Middle East. As commander in chief of the military, he was brutally criticized for refusing to wage a war against Islam despite the horrific images of beheadings by terrorists and the global upheaval caused by the civil war in Syria. His efforts at diplomacy were viewed as a sign of weakness.
Obama will be remembered for removing the threat of Osama bin Laden. When he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, the judges made clear his prize was given not because of what he had done but for the world peace he could bring. In his speech, however, Obama made clear that he would protect American interests with force if diplomacy did not work. America’s political divisions were evident when some conservatives grudgingly accepted that bin Laden was dead. but, they refused to give the Obama administration credit.
Obama’s legacy regarding race relations became frustrating to many in the African-American community. It was understood that the first Black president would have resistance. However, with more than 90 percent of Black voter support, there was an expectation that he would address racial inequality head on. The president was snared in the racial tension within his first months in office a White police officer arrested his mentor, an elderly Black Harvard professor who was locked out of his own home.
Tensions remained high between police and the Black community throughout his presidency. Even as a candidate, Obama gave a televised race speech after the fiery words of African-American activist the Rev. Jeremiah Wright came to light. During his presidency, the shooting of unarmed Blacks by police gave rise to the Black Lives Matter organization and nationwide unrest. The presence of a Black family in the White House ignited America’s simmering racial tensions. Obama received more death threats than all previous presidents combined. Protesters broke into his home. Yet, his calm under pressure is legendary.
Obama sang a gospel hymn at the service for nine Black church members, three of them elderly, who were gunned down by a young white nationalist. He could not stem the tide of racial conflict. The remnants of slavery and legalized segregation were too deeply rooted. Civil rights protests against police brutality became a constant part of media coverage, followed by images of riot police and tear gas.
Despite his efforts, Obama did not close the prison on Guantanamo Bay. Nor did he deliver immigration reform. Although the economy is much improved for most, there are pockets of working-class who remain underemployed while some African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans are still struggling with unemployment rates more than twice that of whites. He could not pass legislation to stem gun violence in the form of mass shootings and urban homicides. He leaves a more divided Congress and country. In renewing relations with Cuba, he distanced himself from the Cold War era without forgetting the harm Russia can cause to global stability.
President Obama was a 21st century statesman. He leaves the White House with a generational legacy of intelligence, compassion and perseverance. He leaves us all with the audacity of hope.
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall is an associate professor of constitutional law at John Jay College (CUNY). She is a legal correspondent covering the Supreme Court, playwright and the author of several books, including “The Voting Rights War” and “Race, Law and American Society.”