Taking Stock of President Obama’s Legacy

An overriding assumption since the election of Donald Trump has been that President Obama’s legacy is doomed. In many ways it’s true. The country could not have elected anyone who is more opposite in temperament, policies and world view. Joined with a Republican Congress, there will be an attempt to roll back the progress Democrats have made over these last eight years – with some attempts (i.e., Medicare) to undo decades of accomplishments.

But there are some portions of Obama’s legacy that can’t be undone – no matter what Republicans and the new president try to do. There are data points that have already been documented and recorded for the history books.

  1. 73 straight months of private sector job growth – the longest in our country’s history. Consequently the unemployment rate, which reached 10% in the early months of the Obama administration, now stands at 4.9%.
  2. The auto industry, which was on the verge of collapse when Obama came into office, has been saved and is now thriving, while remaining on target to meet significantly increased fuel efficiency standards.
  3. The number of uninsured non-elderly people has dropped to 10.5% – the lowest number on record.
  4. Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan serve as Justices on the Supreme Court.
  5. Osama bin Laden is dead.
  6. Iran has halted its development of nuclear weapons.
  7. The stimulus package pumped $90 billion into renewable energy projects, transitioned medical records from paper to digital and expanded access to broadband so that 98% of Americans now have access to fast 4G/LTE service.
  8. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau brought $11.7 billion in relief for more than 27 million harmed consumers.
  9. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has ended and marriage equality is the law of the land.
  10. 750,000 DREAMers were able to come out of the shadows.
  11. 548 million acres of land and water were protected as national monuments.
  12. The high school graduation rate hit an all-time high of 83% in the 2014/15 school year.
  13. The federal deficit has been reduced from 9.8% of GDP in 2009 to 3.2% in 2016.
  14. Medicare’s solvency has been extended from 2017 to 2028.

There are other things that could be included on the list – like the Pigford Settlement with African American farmers and the resolution of 86 long-standing disputes with Native tribal governments for $2.8 billion. We could go on. But these are the highlights.

While it’s true that Trump and the Republicans plan to undo these advances, at a press conference yesterday President Obama pointed to one of many reasons why it is important to keep them in mind.

We are going to be able to present to the incoming administration a country that is stronger, a federal government that is working better and more efficiently; a national security apparatus that is both more effective and truer to our values; energy policies that are resulting in not just less pollution, but also more jobs.

And I think the President-elect, rightly, would expect that he’s judged on whether we improve from that baseline and on those metrics, or things get worse. And if things get worse, then the American people will figure that out pretty quick. And if things get better, then more power to him. And I’ll be the first to congratulate him.

Obama is basically saying, “Game on! We’ve tallied our score. Now let’s see what you can do.”

Beyond that, there is another part of President Obama’s legacy that Republicans can’t touch: this country elected our first African American president and he served with intelligence, dignity, competence and grace – as did his entire family. The reverberations of that will be felt for generations, as was captured so well in this photo:

Over the years, Barack Obama has also shared his vision of America via speeches that have been recorded for history. It all started with the one he gave at the 2004 Democratic Convention about what unites us as a country and was followed up by the speech he gave in the 2008 primary about our ongoing efforts to “perfect our union.” There are countless others to draw on, but perhaps none so powerful as his remarks at the 50th celebration of the Selma march.

For everywhere in this country, there are first steps to be taken, there’s new ground to cover, there are more bridges to be crossed. And it is you, the young and fearless at heart, the most diverse and educated generation in our history, who the nation is waiting to follow.

Because Selma shows us that America is not the project of any one person. Because the single-most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.” “We The People.” “We Shall Overcome.” “Yes We Can.” That word is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone.

As Obama himself has often said, there were too many times over the last eight years that his job was to comfort us after a national tragedy. As an example, there was that moment following the brutal murder of nine Black church-goers in Charleston when our hearts were broken and he did something that none of us will ever forget.

I suspect that in the coming years, those speeches will shine more brightly as we recall the legacy of our 44th president. He not only accomplished a lot, he provided us with a vision of who we CAN be and comforted us when we needed it most.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .