It’s time for a defense of Barack Obama, the best American president of the last 50 years.
Part of that is because the competition hasn’t exactly been fierce, but we’ll get to that in a moment. First it is worth reflecting on how Obama became something of a goat during the last round of Democratic debates in Detroit. As the Rev. Al Sharpton said afterward, “This whole suicide mission of going after Barack Obama smells like desperation, and I think it certainly shows that some of them are just not ready for where they are.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont implicitly attacked the Affordable Care Act in promotingMedicare for All, while Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York and former HUD Secretary Julián Castro all challenged Obama’s former vice president, Joe Biden, about the high rate of deportations during his presidency. Much of this was no doubt an attempt to show how these would build on the policy status quo, and also an attempt to take the shine off Biden, a frontrunner whose appeal seems to rest primarily on his close friendship with Obama. But that doesn’t make it any less discomfiting.
After all, Obama is more than just the most recent Democratic president. He is also, if you fall somewhere within the liberal coalition, the best president to serve over the past half century.
Consider our other presidents since 1969. Technically speaking, that year began with Lyndon Johnson in the White House — as a lame duck tainted by the Vietnam War who hadn’t even run for re-election. Then comes Richard Nixon, whose real achievements on social issues and in opening relations with China were offset by the Watergate scandal. He was replaced by Gerald Ford, the only truly “unelected” president in our history (he had been Nixon’s appointed vice president, replacing Spiro Agnew), who inexcusably pardoned Nixon. Then came Jimmy Carter, a good man whose accomplishments — though underappreciated — were lost beneath the Iran hostage drama.
Carter lost in 1980 to Ronald Reagan, who led a conservative revolution and drove American politics sharply to the right. His successor was George H.W. Bush, underrated for his pragmatism but far from being a game-changer. Bill Clinton revived the Democratic Party’s electoral fortunes and oversaw a booming economy, but also passed a wide range of bad policies on prisons and crime, trade and welfare reform. George W. Bush succeeded Clinton (after the “hanging chad” drama of the 2000 election), was completely unprepared for the 9/11 attacks, launched us into a destructive and immoral “endless war” in the Middle East and deregulated the economy into the Great Recession. And the current president, the one who followed Obama and likes to claim credit for the economy he inherited — well, you know about him.
So there are a few presidents with mixed records and several whose legacy is downright terrible. And in the middle of that bunch comes Obama, a president whose biggest sin is that he wasn’t transformative enough … but when you get right down to it, he was was nevertheless transformative.
We can start with how Obama handled the biggest crisis he faced. It’s easy to forget how the Great Recession was destroying America on Jan. 20, 2009, Obama’s Inauguration Day. After the economic collapse of the previous September, unemployment had jumped from 6.2 percent to 8.3 percent by the first full month of the Obama administration. Thanks to his $787 billion economic stimulus package, the unemployment rate plateaued between 9 percent and 10 percent between April 2009 and September 2011, before gradually starting to decline. By the final months of his presidency it was regularly at 5 percent or lower; when he left office in January 2017, the unemployment rate was at 4.7 percent and hadn’t been above 6 percent since August 2014.
While pulling America out of the Great Recession may have been his most pressing priority, it wasn’t Obama’s most significant achievement. In fact, there are too many to count: He passed the Affordable Care Act, which has provided health insurance for more than 20 million Americans, saved the government trillions of dollars and protected people with pre-existing conditions from discrimination by insurance companies. He expanded hate crime laws to protect members of the LGBTQ community, signed the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” became the first sitting president to support same-sex marriage and did what he could to support the cause of equality in the landmark Supreme Court case that decided that issue.
To deal with America’s mass incarceration crisis, Obama backed off states that had legalized medical or recreational marijuana, reduced the sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine offenders and commuted the sentences of more than 1,000 people (more than any other president).
Although Obama did indeed oversee a large number of deportations, he also passed the DACA policy that protected undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. before their 16th birthday and announced a plan to resettle at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in this country. He worked hard to protect the environment and address man-made climate change, although his efforts at the international level (such as during the Paris climate accord) were more successful than they were on the domestic front, where he repeatedly resorted to executive orders to circumvent congressional obstruction.
Indeed, Obama’s greatest hardship as president was that after the Democrats lost control of the House of in 2010 and then the Senate in 2014, it became virtually impossible for him to pass any legislation in Congress. Executive orders — as some people observed at the time — could be easily reversed by a Republican successor. (Oh, how right they were!) That didn’t stop Obama from the achievements listed above, nor did it prevent him from authorizing the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the 9/11 mastermind that George W. Bush had failed to bring to justice, and more or less concluding the Iraq war, thereby fulfilling one of his signature promises of the 2008 campaign.
All these achievements must also be considered in the broader context of what Obama represented for the office of the presidency itself. As the first African-American president, he broke a longstanding racial barrier in a way that would have been inconceivable in the year he was born, 1961, when Jim Crow laws were widespread across the South and meaningful civil rights legislation had yet to be passed. He also had a remarkably scandal-free presidency — there were no accusations of financial and sexual crimes, nor (beyond a handful of ludicrous right-wing conspiracy theories) any evidence of significant abuses of power. Finally, Obama’s persona was precisely what Americans should want in a leader — intellectual but not pretentious, cool but compassionate, charismatic but still relatable.
This isn’t to say that the Obama presidency didn’t have its shortcomings. By not moving aggressively enough to fill judicial nominations earlier in his presidency, Obama set himself up to be blocked by Mitch McConnell once he became Senate majority leader, and then for the next Republican president to shape America’s benches. He was arguably too weak on Russia when it became clear that nation was meddling in America’s elections, and in an effort to stay out of the 2016 election, he avoided calling out the Trump campaign’s involvement, thereby inadvertently enabling one of the worst assaults in the history of our democracy.
Yet one thing that should not be held against Obama is his gradualist approach to progress. The last president to be an outspoken and assertive liberal, Lyndon Johnson, had left office in disgrace, as mentioned above. Since then, presidential politics had become increasingly conservative, with the only other Democrats (Carter and Clinton) seeking to avoid being labeled as overly liberal or activist. Johnson’s failures in Vietnam, of course, had nothing to do with his domestic successes on matters like health care (Medicare and Medicaid), civil rights (the landmark bills of 1964, 1965 and 1968), fighting poverty, liberalizing immigration policy, providing equal rights to women, protecting the environment and a host of other issues. But Johnson’s downfall and the catastrophic electoral defeats of George McGovern in 1972 and Walter Mondale in 1980 had the unintentional consequence of empowering conservatives in general, and that was felt through every presidency afterward.
Depending on what happens in the 2020 election, Obama’s presidency will be remembered in one of two ways. Because the Democratic Party appears to have moved left of where Obama stood from 2009 to 2017, any Democrat who replaces him is likely to build on his legacy, meaning that Obama will be viewed as a transformative figure who helped move America away from the era of post-LBJ conservatism toward a better, more inclusive future that followed (and improved millions of lives in the process). If Donald Trump is re-elected, however, he may be remembered as an oasis of good government during a long downward trajectory.
Either way, there are many good reason why 97 percent of Democrats had a favorable view of Obama as of January 2018. Criticize him at your peril, 2020 candidates: We’ve had no better president in at least 50 years.