The Obama legacy, with both gains and failures, is remarkable.
PRESIDENT Obama leaves office this week with a remarkable legacy already intact. He exits with grace, eloquence and optimism, his administration unblemished by scandal. The economy is humming for much of America. The U.S. standing in the world is vastly improved. He bent the arc of history toward justice.
It is a complicated legacy. His presidency, by his admission, failed its lofty promise. The country is more hyperpartisan and certainly not post-racial. How much blame Obama bears — aloof and hampered at times by his own partisanship — is a question not easily answered in the moment. But Obama and his extraordinary wife rose above racially tinged political attacks with dignity and discipline.
Listen to Obama’s first inauguration address. He accurately described the challenges he inherited — palpable fear of economic collapse, perpetual war, a health-care system that excluded one in five adults. He met them all.
He dragged the country out of the economic ditch and oversaw a dramatic rebound. This month marked the 75th consecutive month of job growth, a modern record. His administration created five-and-a-half times more jobs than George W. Bush. Gutsy federal loans saved the American auto industry, although Obama did not reinvigorate the blue-collar manufacturing base, to his party’s detriment.
The Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature domestic policy, extended insurance to about 20 million Americans. It needs tweaks that Republicans in Congress refused to pass.
The Obama environmental record is mostly strong — cleaner fuel standards and cleaner cars, and new protected lands. He was also the first president to fully embrace climate change science and perhaps the last to be able to alter its course, as the potential for federal carbon legislation evaporates like a mirage.
He came late to the ceremony for marriage equality, but he did arrive, enthusiastically, and ended the wrongheaded military ban on gay service members. He doggedly committed to chipping away discriminatory drug policies and discriminatory policing. Seattle police are the better for his administration’s intervention.
On the international front, Obama wound down Bush’s wars in the Middle East, saving thousands of American lives, despite the rise of the Islamic State group.
He made mistakes too: Obama lists a lack of stronger intervention in Syria as his biggest regret. His “strategic patience” with North Korea resulted in a threatening new nuclear power. But despite the campaign rhetoric, Obama leaves as an icon around the world for American exceptionalism.
On Obama’s first day in office, he signed public-records reform, yet his administration set a record for denying records requests. His administration’s pursuit of whistleblowers is shameful. His example might embolden future presidents to retreat to secrecy.
Separate Obama the man, as an example for the nation, from his policies. From his breakthrough speech at the Democratic convention in 2004 to his farewell address in Chicago last week, Obama had an unsurpassed capacity to inspire and to encourage the better angels of our nature. The contrast this week to his farewell and his successor’s first news conference was bitter and stark.
The Seattle Times editorial board in 2008 was the first major newspaper to endorse Obama for the general election. Despite being young, he had the intelligence, steady temperament and thoughtful policy ideas to lead. He proved that, and more.
He will be sorely missed.