This week’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia was about much more then Hilary Clinton officially becoming the party’s nominee, it was about the passing of the torch from Barack Obama to his former secretary of state. It was about celebrating the successes of Obama’s presidency and highlighting his substantial legacy. He will now attempt to safeguard that legacy by helping Hilary Clinton to win the presidency.
But it did get me thinking, how good has Obama’s presidency been and what is his legacy? Will he become another forgotten name of a long list of presidents, or will he live on in hearts, minds and the history books?
In terms of his eight years in office, Obama has had a pretty successful presidency. The economy has slowly but surely recovered from the great recession: nearly 10 million new jobs have been created, reducing the unemployment rate by 5% and meaning the jobless rate has dropped to below the historical median. Homicides and violent crime are also down (despite The Donald Trumpeting otherwise).
But because he has not presided over an economic crash, or won or lost a war, it is his long term legacy and not those eight years themselves, that will determine Obama’s standing in history.
The simple fact is, Obama made history on the day he was inaugurated. To be the first black president is a massive achievement by itself. At the DNC this week there was an emotional moment as Jerry Emmett, 102, who was just six years old when women were given the right to vote, cast a portion of Virginia’s votes for Hilary Clinton and helped make her the first woman to ever be nominated for president by a major party. There are African-Americans who helped elect Barack Obama president that will be able to remember the segregation and racial violence of the 1960’s, and who will also remember that many southern blacks were not ensured a right to vote until Voting Rights Act of 1965. Having a black president will undoubtedly inspire countless people of ethnic minorities to believe that they too can be president.
But it is not just his race that will ensure Obama is remembered as a significant president. His flagship domestic reform, Obamacare, may prove to be one of the most important pieces of legislation passed in decades. Though it is undoubtedly flawed, thanks to Barack Obama there are now 15 million fewer people who lack health insurance. It is hard to overstate the significance of that. But these health care reforms are more important because of the impact they will have on future policy. By guaranteeing healthcare as a right, Barack Obama has paved the way for a single-payer healthcare system. Given the support Bernie Sanders has received with such a policy at the core of his candidacy it is likely that we will see a national health service adopted by a democratic President some time in the near future.
Foreign policy, the area where the president has the most direct power and thus where Republicans have been least able to interfere, is perhaps where Obama can claim the greatest amount of success. From negotiating a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program, to thawing relations with Cuba, Obama’s foreign policy decisions have altered the geo-political landscape significantly. For better or worse, Obama’s dismantling of sanctions with Iran and Cuba should lead to increased economic growth for those countries, which may well empower reformist movements within these nations that want to bring them back onto the world stage and out of diplomatic isolation.
The simple fact is, however, that if Donald Trump is elected President in November, Barack Obama will not have a legacy. The Republican candidate has already promised to overturn pretty much everything I’ve mentioned in this column. From Obamacare to the Iran nuclear deal, years of Obama’s hard work will lie in ruins. Although Barack Obama may have a substantial legacy, for the time being, it is a very brittle one indeed.