After eight years in the White House, President Barack Obama is waving goodbye. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay recalls the first time he met Obama, back in 2007, when he was campaigning for the New Hampshire primary.
Six inches of fresh powder covered the streets of Manchester outside the red-brick Armory on a chilly December evening. Inside a crowd of about 700, garbed in fleece and down, listened as the young Illinois senator endured the timeless rituals of a New Hampshire presidential campaign.
He took endless questions from local librarians, teachers, snow plow drivers and the occasional crank. Near the end of the q and a, a burly fellow stood up with a query for Obama. The man had a thick Scottish burr.
Obama flashed his neon smile. ”I detect a bit of Scotland in your voice …you know I’m half Scots-Irish. That’s my mother’s side of the family.”
A knowing smile rippled across the auditorium at the sight of the senator, known even then as the first serious African-American presidential candidate, charming the crowd.
I’ve often thought about that comment, particularly during the nasty birther controversy shamelessly incited by Fox News and the right wing propaganda asserting Obama was a Muslim. His enemies ceaselessly tried to portray him as un-American, the other. Never mind that he worshipped at a Congregational church, the denomination founded by the Pilgrims and the Salem Covenant of 1629.
His opponents never questioned the Scots-Irish ancestry or his embrace of New England’s founding Christian religion. But they heaped abuse on his African-American lineage. As he has said more than once, "If I watched Fox news, I wouldn’t vote for me."
Obama’s eight-year legacy, like his background, is more complicated than facile conservative-liberal narratives. He didn’t turn the country into a socialist dystopia, as those on the right claim. Nor did he usher in an updated New Deal era of big-spending government safety nets, as some on the left wanted.
He did reshape health care and environmental policy. His policies helped save the economy from a Great Depression-like crash. If you think blue collar Rust Belt workers have it tough, consider how much worse things would be without his rescue of the auto industry. He expanded health insurance to millions of Americans with a template forged by such moderate Republicans as John Chafee and Mitt Romney.
Obama has been pilloried for his foreign policies. Again, the world is a complicated place. The Middle East is still a mess, as it was when he took office. Russia is newly aggressive. The political systems of our western allies are shackled by jingoism and anti-immigrant sentiments. Europe looks more like 1939 than 1989. And Guantanamo is open still. He didn’t end international terrorism; no other leader has.
Yet he resisted Pax Americana adventures engaged in by his predecessor that cost too much in U.S. blood and treasure.
He wasn’t always the best politician. He didn’t do enough to fight the Tea Party uprising over Obamacare that led to disastrous 2010 mid-term Democratic blow-out, when his party lost more House seats than at any time since 1938. Republican control of Congress stopped much of the progress he hoped for, particularly on immigration reform. It can be argued, particularly in light of the 2016 election results, that he didn’t do enough to quell globalization and income inequality.
Too often he was thrust into the role of the nation’s pastor. School shootings, gun violence by and against the police and the racist horror of the Charlestown church murders evoked his eloquence and compassion. Who can ever forget his breaking into "Amazing Grace" at that funeral.
Through all the abuse that was heaped upon him and his family, Obama maintained composure. His administration was pretty much scandal-free. He didn’t indulge in embarrassing marital infidelity, as was the case with presidents Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Lyndon Johnson. His family was our real-life Huxtables, with a First Lady who was an inspiration to millions. He has been cordial to President-elect Trump, the man who gained political traction by spreading the Big Lie of birtherism.
Obama didn’t have the deep ties to Rhode Island of JFK and Clinton, or even Eisenhower, who summered in Newport, but he twice won the Ocean State by landslides. He leaves office with a job approval rating of nearly 60 percent.
By just about every economic and social measure, Obama leaves us a better country than the one he took over in 2009. This week, we’ll see the simple majesty of our democracy, as governments change without riots or tanks in the streets. And we’ll say farewell to this good and decent man who tried to do the best he could in some of the worst of times.
Scott MacKay’s commentary can he heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our On Politics blog at RIPR.org