The President who never got a break

By Isaac Simon

President Barack Obama answers questions from the press for the first time since the historic 2016 presidential election in the Press Briefing room of the White House on Nov. 14, 2016 in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/NTS)
President Barack Obama answers questions from the press for the first time since the historic 2016 presidential election in the Press Briefing room of the White House on Nov. 14, 2016 in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/NTS)

It will be left to the historians and scholars to determine President Barack Obama’s place in history. For the rest of our lives, people will be trying to accurately assess Obama’s legacy in relation to the legacies of other presidents. But whether people choose to look upon this part of our history favorably or unfavorably is not of the utmost importance. President Obama made many mistakes and disappointed millions of people, including myself at some points. This much is true. But he is also the President who was never given a break.

When Obama came onto the national scene, he was a fresh face. He wasn’t even a United States Senator when he delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. The speech he gave that night, viewed by millions of people, struck a chord with myself and the rest of this nation when he proudly declared that, “There is not a liberal America, and a conservative America, there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a white America, and Latino America and Asian America, there is the United States of America.” There is irony here. As Obama will soon depart from the White House, he will step down from leading a country that in many ways has never been more divided. For it was the 2016 election that solidified how polarizing people’s politics are. The left has moved further left, and the right has moved further right. Racial tensions are at an all-time high, the Islamic State has massacred tens of thousands of innocents and threatened the lives of many more, and the Syrian civil war has claimed the lives of over 400,000 civilians and is about to enter its sixth year.  I am not suggesting that these events happened as a direct result of Obama’s presidency, but as the leader of the free world, they happened under his watch. As a candidate, he vowed to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and “to have all US troops out of Iraq within 16 months of taking office, which would be about May 2010.” He failed to keep that promise, and sent an additional 100,000 troops to Afghanistan in his first term alone. He also vowed to close Guantanamo Bay. It has remained open. His further implementation of the drone campaign has raised legitimate concerns by American citizens with regards to viewing the United States as a global empire. Arguments of this nature are completely valid. But he is also a President who, for the past eight years, was belittled and delegitimized by a Congress so corrupt and incompetent that there reached a point where there was only so much this President, or any president in such a position, could do.

The election of 2008 depicted candidate Obama in an inaccurate light. People said he was a Muslim, when in reality he has strong Christian faith. Then, there was the birther question, in large part spearheaded by the current President-elect. It turned out that he was born in Hawaii, and upon receiving the long-form version of his birth certificate, The New York Times published a photo of it on the front page of their newspaper. People called him a socialist who was trying to subvert the United States Constitution and follow in the footsteps of Marx and Lenin. Nothing could have been further from the truth. He renewed the Bush tax cuts, bailed out the financial sector in the hopes of preventing yet another recession, and passed the Affordable Care Act, his signature piece of legislation, which ended up costing $947 billion  and gave even more power to private insurance companies. The irony here is that people want to call the law “government-run health care”, when there is very little government involved. In 2009, Obama  was opposed to same-sex marriage. For the past eight years, he has remained a centrist Democrat. The naysayers believed that this country would run rampant with illegal immigrants. The reality of the situation tells a very different story, showing a President who has deported more immigrants than any other President in American history. Illegal immigration is at net-zero, and yet this belief managed to persist.

In an interview with Charlie Rose following the inception of his second term, Obama mentioned how one of the failures from his first term was that it wasn’t all about getting the policy right. Obama believed his Presidency was more important than that. Perhaps we should understand him in ways other than just policy.

Obama has been hailed a masterful orator. Whether it be his delivery, or his calm and collected nature, one can’t help but sit in amazement at the ease and professionalism he has shown during these past two terms. Whether it be at the State of the Union or at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, not even his most popular detractors and opponents doubted his ability to speak to the masses. He took with him to the Oval Office a sense of humor and the ability to crack a joke, but more importantly, an ability to listen and connect with voters. Although I am to a certain extent speculating, much of this seems to be part of his character. Some of it, though, he needed to acquire in part because the opposite would have never been an option. If he had a bad temper or the ability to easily lose his cool, he would have been branded as a stereotypical “uppity Black man.”

I was in 8th grade when this country elected Obama as the first African-American President of the United States. But it was a title that came with its challenges and a subject he never fully tackled in depth. It is also something this country never fully accepted, especially if we are to understand slogans such as “Make America Great Again” as meaning nothing more than “Make America White Again.”

In the end, he did the best he could with the time he had. He passed a stimulus package to help put millions of Americans back to work. He bailed out the financial industry. He gave 20 million Americans healthcare who hadn’t previously had it. He oversaw a Supreme Court that proclaimed gay marriage a right, not just in a few states, but in all 50. He lifted the trade embargo with Cuba and passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act for women. He watched unemployment go below five percent and the stock market rebound to where it was before the Great Recession.

Say what you want about the man who will become our 45th President, but I can’t help but believe that America will miss Obama, if not for his policies, then certainly for his character. In an interview with David Remnick, Obama had this to say about our time on this earth: “I think we are born into this world and inherit all the grudges and rivalries and hatreds and the sins of the past. But we also inherit the beauty and the joy and goodness of our forebears. And we’re on this planet a pretty short time, so that we cannot remake the world entirely during this little stretch that we have. But I think our decisions matter. At the end of the day, were part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”

Isaac Simon is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]