From President to Citizen Obama: A Mixed Legacy
President Obama’s spokesman barely paused this week when asked what his boss was doing on a rainy afternoon, days before beginning the second half of a still-young life.
The president, Press Secretary Josh Earnest said, was working, talking, moving ahead with initiatives to the final hour of his term.
Behind the scenes, aides and advisers throughout the West Wing tossed their mementos, photos and binders into government-issued moving boxes. Trash bins filled. Desk surfaces emptied, and bare shelves beckoned for dust rags. Into the cartons went spare neckties, extra shoes, and gold-lettered reminders of state visits, Air Force One flights and history-making encounters, year after year. At the same time, every last official record, tweet and email of the Obama era was packed up, labeled and preserved by the National Archives for research to come.
Handing the keys to Donald Trump and his staff members, some said, felt like bequeathing a lovingly renovated structure to newcomers who move in with gasoline and matches. The staff was blue. The president insisted he was not.
While he might have faded from public view if Hillary Clinton had won the presidency on Nov. 8, the 44th president has suggested Trump changed his thinking about the virtues of invisibility among ex-presidents. He’ll be living in a rented Washington home with his family until youngest daughter Sasha graduates from high school in two years. Obama will have an office and space for a large staff in a Washington building. He’s hired some former White House staff members to help him write a new memoir, help plan his presidential library in Chicago, and remain an activist citizen.
But first Obama is prepared for some post-presidency R&R in Palm Springs, Calif., where he and wife Michelle will relax after departing as private citizens now that Trump has taken the oath of office. During the swearing-in ceremony Friday, it appeared that Obama had comfortably shifted to out-of-office mode, looking relaxed as his successor assumed the mantle of power and responsibility.
To prepare for his personal transition to ex-president, Obama sat down for interviews, delivered dewy-eyed goodbye speeches, threw some parties, and answered questions at news conferences. By turns, he practiced promoting his record, and assured Americans that Obamacare, trade pacts, the Supreme Court, financial regulations, and U.S. alliances abroad could all survive President Trump and the Republican-led Congress.
“I think at the end of the day, if we work hard and if we're true to those things in us that feel true and feel right, that the world gets a little better each time,” Obama told reporters on Wednesday. “That's what this presidency has tried to be about.”
Obama enjoyed a long and remarkably warm national send-off in his final months, with nearly six in 10 adults saying they approved of the job he did, according to the RealClearPolitics Poll Average. His job approval rose steadily throughout 2016, and pollsters credit the lift to a strengthened economy and a surge of support from independents, perhaps because the Obama-Trump contrasts came into sharper relief.
Historians will spend years studying Obama’s two terms. But in the interim, the outgoing president kept his eyes on his own record, working until his final day to drive up the stats. Twice in his final week in office, Obama granted hundreds of commutations and pardons to inmates, including a shortened sentence for Chelsea Manning, an Army intelligence analyst who served nearly seven years of a 35-year prison sentence for stealing classified and sensitive materials and giving the information to WikiLeaks.
Spokesmen for the White House and the Justice Department boasted that Obama used his commutation powers more actively than the last 12 presidents combined. With the power granted presidents by the Constitution, Obama shortened the sentences of more than 1,715 inmates, including 568 who were serving life sentences, predominantly for nonviolent drug offenses. In Obama’s view, America should overhaul its criminal justice system, if Congress would show some political guts.
Although Obama did not focus on clemency until halfway through his second term, he managed to get the total number of pardons to 212. And on Thursday, Obama announced his final round of clemencies – 330, the most issued in a single day by any U.S. president. (Commutations and pardons are two forms of clemency; the former shortens a sentence while the latter is a complete forgiveness that expunges the conviction.)
But as with many chapters in Obama’s record, there have been contradictions. The merciful man that Obama perceived himself to be also prosecuted more leakers under the Espionage Act than any of his predecessors. His Justice Department went after journalists suspected of accepting secrets as the feds pursued leakers in the government. Obama defended his decision to free Manning, who will walk out of a military prison in May. The president said she admitted guilt, expressed remorse, was punished and has suffered enough.
In some communities, Obama’s clemency decisions, especially for criminals who would never receive such long sentences if convicted today, were hailed as the most righteous use of executive power they’d seen during his entire presidency. Yet, it took six years in office for Obama to recognize it.
The former Illinois senator’s late-blooming, sometimes risk-averse, and I-know-best qualities will be scrutinized by scholars, along with his clear claims to presidential history: first black president; rescuer-in-chief of the U.S. economy during a global crisis; lethal warrior against Osama bin Laden; and successful health care reformer who bet the ranch on an imperfect law that Americans, including Trump, love to hate.
But the list of Obama demerits is noteworthy, too. The senator who campaigned to end two wars became the only two-term commander-in-chief at war all eight years. Trump is inheriting more than 5,000 U.S. forces in Iraq and hundreds of Special Operations commandos now operating inside Syria. Under Obama, authorization, accountability, definitions, and boundaries tied to warfare lost their once-crisper edges.
Obama said he protected U.S. interests by not putting more “boots on the ground,” even as he ramped up unmanned drone killings of suspected terrorists, turned to intelligence and clandestine fighters, and deployed cyber techniques against an enemy. He drew a rhetorical red line with Syria and then backed off, and he underestimated the early warnings of the Islamic State. The “reset” with Russia proved a failure.
With Congress, one of the great mysteries was why the former senator could never perform better with the legislative branch he supposedly understood. Lawmakers from both parties complained about Obama’s lecturing, and said the White House staff did not communicate enough with them, changed its mind or its decisions, and tried to direct Congress from inside the West Wing.
Transformative legislation enacted in 2009 and 2010 – the Affordable Care Act; Dodd-Frank financial reforms; an $800 billion stimulus measure; and the second wave of the Troubled Asset Relief bailout program – bolstered the economy. But such big federal investments came at a political cost: the grassroots, conservative Tea Party was born, and Democrats everywhere began to lose elections.
Obama won his 2012 contest against Mitt Romney, but the rest of his party did not fare nearly as well in election after election. On his watch, Democratic candidates lost more than 900 state and local seats, in addition to governorships.
The outgoing president has suggested more than once that Democrats lost seats in 2016 because they did not venture into the heartland to attend fish fry gatherings and to reach out, as he had when he won Iowa in the Democratic primaries.
“Part of it is … Democrats not working at a grassroots level, being in there, showing up, making arguments. That part of the critique of the Democratic Party is accurate,” he told Rolling Stone. “We spend a lot of time focused on international policy and national policy and less time being on the ground. And when we’re on the ground, we do well."
Obama has never been particularly humble about his political and communications gifts. He has said he could have beaten Trump if they had competed against one another. But history will show that Obama struggled to transfer the support he attracted as a candidate to the issues and programs that meant the most to him. When he experienced political and policy problems, Obama, like a lot of presidents, blamed it on communications and the news media.
He failed to mobilize sufficient public support to pass gun safety measures. Immigration reform died. Criminal justice sentencing reforms went nowhere. The ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership was deep-sixed. Senate Republicans refused to take up his nominee to the Supreme Court following Antonin Scalia’s death, and the majority party paid no political price for allowing the vacancy to wait for President Trump.
As it turned out, Washington changed Obama, not the other way around. And he has said it was one of his deepest regrets.
But even Obama’s analysis of circumstances in 2010 that pushed Democrats into the minority, that made way for the Tea Party, that emboldened disaffected Republicans and helped pave the way for a reality TV billionaire to become president missed something.
“We were going to get clobbered in 2010, probably no matter what we did, just because on my watch people were really hurting,” Obama recalled during a podcast interview this week with former White House staff members who created a series called “Pod Save America.”
Obama said he didn’t need to change his message, but tried to upgrade his methods. The lecterns and teleprompters did not bring him closer to Americans who were struggling, or resentful, or both.
“I’d think about how I got here and spend that same effort and energy touching people directly, instead of standing behind a podium and giving a bunch of grim lectures,” he said on Wednesday.
“Really Spock-like,” was the way he remembered presenting himself.
As his job approval numbers sagged in the summer of 2011, Obama hit the road to campaign for re-election. He tried to sharpen his empathy skills, but not entirely successfully.
This is how RealClearPolitics described the president’s efforts:
When a young woman in Cannon Falls prefaced her question by telling the president that she was recovering from lung cancer and had slept in her truck for two nights to get a chance to ask her question, Obama, the wonk, missed what was really on her mind.
He did not ask the woman about her cancer, her family or how she was feeling. The president did not try to learn her name or her hometown, or the type of truck she drove. He did not thank her for her efforts to see him or to be heard. And he did not volunteer to turn the government loose on her problem.
What did she ask the president? “I tried to get Social Security disability and they turned me down. My question to you is, can we talk about Social Security a little bit?”
And what did Obama respond? “As long as I’m president of the United States -- Social Security will not only be there for you, but it’s also going to be there for the next generation and the generation after that, because it’s one of the most important social insurance programs that we have.”
He had a lot more to say about Social Security. In fact, he spoke for another five minutes before calling on the next questioner. But the president never really heard the woman with the raspy voice, who slept in her truck so she could hear him. It was a small moment that needed a presidential embrace, and Obama missed his chance.