Thursday, January 19, 2017

End of the Obama Era

Eight years ago on this exact day I took to my blog to mark the final full day of the George W. Bush presidency, putting it in context with my own growth as a political animal (and a blogger, given that I started posting on this site in frustration the day after President Bush's re-election). But now here we are, two terms later, and I'm once again taking stock of a closing administration -- this time that of Barack Hussein Obama at the end of his last full day as POTUS. For context, this is what I said way back then:
Whether Barack Obama measures up to the symbolic promise and historic weight of his victory, whether he truly is the right man in the right job at the right time, will be something we'll surely dissect in the days and years ahead
Reading that eight years later, I'm still not sure I know the answer. What does "The Obama Era" mean? Maybe it'll take some time under "The Trump Era" for the answer to finally concretize. There are of course always disappointments when expectations bump up against reality, and Barack Obama, more than most, is a politician who built his career on expectations. And while he built his electoral success on the back of a political movement unlike any I'd ever seen, there's also no question that -- even with the winds of social change at his back -- he ran headlong into a wall of partisan obstruction also unlike any I'd ever seen.

Nonetheless, with the Republican then-minority staunchly arrayed against him and making a backroom pact the very night of his inauguration to rob the incoming Commander-in-chief of any legislative victories (which in turn managed to rob him of a Supreme Court appointment in his final year), Obama still did what he could. For one thing, he was able to take immediate steps to rescue the fraying economy from an unfolding meltdown initiated in the latter days of the Bush era. In fact, he arguably did such a good job there that we've sort of forgotten just how catastrophic things had gotten.

There's also healthcare reform. While it's even now hooked up to a ventilator thanks to the machinations of the post-Obama, Republican-run congress, the Affordable Care Act brought relief to millions and made the notion of health care as a basic right part of the policy conversation. I have no idea what'll become of the law (which my family has benefited from here in Cali), but the Republicans are now dealing with the reality it represents, and even if only vestiges of it remain, it'll be because President Obama staked his credibility on that fight.

Still, while he rode to a 2012 re-election with relative ease, Obama's coattails unfortunately weren't enough to maintain a Democratic majority in Congress, or lead to a Democratic successor in the White House. The partisan polarization in Washington and the media only worsened, and the emergence of the Tea Party and "fake news" and, ultimately, President Donald Trump all serve as uncomfortable markers of the divides Obama was unable to bridge despite his implicit and explicit promises to do so. While his election was an indicator of how far we'd come, his tenure was also a sign of of how far we still have to go.

And then there's the uncomfortable aspect of drone warfare, the mechanization of war, and increased domestic surveillance, all of which happened on Obama's watch and further expanded the powers of the executive in a way that I have little doubt will be fully taken advantage of by his successor. That he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize within months of taking office was a repudiation of George Bush, but it was also a window into the international community's hopes for a change in American war-making policy that I'm not sure ever happened.

Despite all those misgivings, however, I have no doubt President Obama's remarkable story will continue to be an inspiration for generations to come, as it should. I'm grateful to have been alive to witness his presidency, and I'm grateful I was able to stand in his presence and watch him speak firsthand. More than that, I'm glad my kids got to witness his administration. My oldest son (who just turned ten) was two years old when the president first took office, and he spent much of his early life referring to the American flag as "Obama." For me, Barack Obama was the first black president. To them, he was just the president.

Looking ahead, I don't feel nearly the optimism I did eight years ago at this time. However, if the Trump election is an inverse, opposite, funhouse mirror version of the same passion that propelled Obama to the White House, then that's still something we can take solace in. The pendulum must inevitably swing back, and until it does, we keep fighting for the things that matter, and make the case for them in the best way possible. That's something our outgoing president repeatedly cemented for me, and it's something I'll carry with me always.

Thanks, Obama.

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