Today is a day many people fear and others have longed for: the last day of the Barack Obama administration after eight years. At 11 a.m. our time Friday, real-estate magnate and reality TV star Donald Trump becomes president of the United States. Journalists will accelerate their coverage of what promises to be a chaotic Trump administration. Historians will seek a keener perspective on the Obama tenure.
President George W. Bush, who in 2009 left his successor to face two wars and a devastating economic recession, said that decades must pass before historians and society can fairly gauge the success or failure of any presidential administration. Many decisions may not fully gestate or shake out till many years later, for better or worse. Too, past administrations can wax or wane dependent on how successors conduct themselves and address challenges.
If Bush’s statement is true, then much time must pass before we can gauge Obama’s foreign policy legacy, though his administration’s problems in Syria and Libya suggest a lack of resolve and consistency. Whether those failings rise to the level of Bush missteps in Iraq and whether one president rates more blame than the other for, say, the spread of Islamic terrorism must again await the seasoned view of history.
Certainly, history will mark Obama as our first black president — a triumph for a nation whose grand experiment in liberty and equality from the start has been marred by institutions of slavery and racial discrimination. Some Obama critics actually claim racism flared up because of his remarks on race, though these tend to be the same folks who excuse Trump’s reckless rants on race.
From what I saw, racism swelled partially because it was politically convenient for Obama’s opponents. I remember a local tea-party rally in 2009 when organizers earnestly raced around, trying to discourage anyone flying the Confederate battle flag. A few years later, too many Republicans here and elsewhere were instead putting such hateful sentiments in harness to belittle and stymie Obama.
Whatever else, this much became clear: The Party of Lincoln is long dead and something festering with malignancy has arisen from its ashes.
While my conclusions about Obama’s abilities to reach across the aisle are admittedly drawn from Capitol Hill Republicans in their own moments of deep introspection, Obama seemed to decline to govern as inclusively as promised. No one doubted his intellect and public charisma, but his political attitude was often cool and professorial to the extent he wouldn’t waste time trying to work with even willing Republicans. At some point early on, Republicans understandably decided to return the favor, which in the long run proved disastrous for the nation.
For me, the defining moment of the Obama administration came into full view only a month after his 2009 inauguration during a White House fiscal summit. Republican Congressman Joe Barton of Texas humbly asked the president to persuade Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to include Republicans in the decision-making process. Obama’s response was aloof and, unfortunately, non-committal.
Result: Obama’s signature domestic achievement, the 2010 Affordable Care Act, passed without Republican input or even a single Republican vote. As U.S. Sen. John Cornyn recently noted, this consigned the ACA to defeat when Republicans finally take power of all branches of government. (Unexpectedly, GOP efforts to shut down Obamacare lately have spurred national support for the controversial program to degrees never seen.)
Similarly, the economic stimulus bill passed in 2009 with no Republican votes in the House and only three in the Senate. As Barton said at the time in his remarks to the president, “I think the House Republicans have shown that, when we’re not included in the decision-making, we’re disinclined to sign off on the solution.”
That’s for sure. In 2013 I interviewed Waco native John C. Goodman, president of the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis and strong critic of the Affordable Care Act, before his talk at the McLennan County Republican Club luncheon. He said the health-insurance law was a mess, assembled with little logic and doomed to slow death and possibly pitiful transformation.
“The law is a Rube Goldberg contraption,” Goodman told me. “It was put together with a bunch of special interests sitting around a table. Each was asked the minimum thing they had to have to support the law and no one was making sure all the parts fit together. And, well, they don’t fit together very well. The troublesome thing is it passed on a pure party-line vote. Normally, when legislation is passed and you need to change it, it’s not that hard to make small tweaks to it. But the Obama administration and Democrats can’t even change a dotted ‘i’ or crossed ‘t’ because Republicans won’t let them. So both sides have squared off.”
Republican Congressman Michael Burgess confirmed this sad truth at last year’s Texas Tribune Festival when he told the audience that Republicans felt little obligation to fix Obamacare, given that it passed without their contribution or approval. (Rep. Burgess, a physician, made his comment at a segment titled “Obamacare After Obama” — and when Trump’s Republican presidential bid was stumbling.)
Even for those of us who might not have smiled on President Obama’s administration, the level of disdain displayed by some of our neighbors was disheartening. Anyone remember those who in 2015 turned a long-planned, eight-week U.S. Army Special Operations Command warfare exercise in Texas and the Southwest into a conspiracy theory in which President Obama would take over the land and scuttle the republic? One local reader did banish this absurd possibility but with some disdain of his own for the Obama regime: “These are the same people who couldn’t set up a website where medical insurance can be purchased.”
In Republican Central Texas, the knee-jerk response is to refuse Obama his due when he did things well. Obama does rate credit for a warmly reassuring eulogy for the fallen first responders of the April 17, 2013, West ammonium nitrate explosion. His observations in that April 25, 2013, address at Baylor University about small-town values demonstrated his unquestioned oratorical skills and societal insights into towns such as West (which federal funding also helped rebuild). His comments are even more remarkable when one considers that such towns across rural America played a key role in rejecting his chosen successor in November 2016.
Obama also will be remembered locally for designating the Waco Mammoth Site as the Waco Mammoth National Monument on July 10, 2015, fulfilling hard work by private citizens both Republican and Democratic after efforts in Congress continually stalled. Again, this doesn’t fit comfortably with the typical Obama narrative in our parts, given this particular national monument staff works in intimate partnership with the city of Waco, Baylor and a private foundation of donors. It’s certainly not the U.S. government reigning amok.
As Interior Secretary Sally Jewell remarked during formal site dedication three months later: “From this point forward, Waco will be known for its mammoths, which it should be known for, and for its community stewardship and philanthropy that has been so well demonstrated.” She also noted pointedly that Obama had to make the monument designation through executive action — a power many believe he abused in such areas as immigration and gun control — only after a dysfunctional congress repeatedly failed the people supporting the Waco Mammoth Site.
President Obama departs from the White House with astounding popularity numbers ranging between 55 and 60 percent. As he leaves, I lament as an American that he couldn’t have done more to govern inclusively, just as I also lament the low road that too many in the Republican Party chose in response — a road of conspiracy theories and political obstruction and ugly demagogy.
Among my personal regrets is that I didn’t make any easy bets with those who shamefully claimed Obama would take control of Texas through martial law in 2015 or find some way to retain power beyond his constitutionally limited two terms. Instead, I demonstrated the quality of mercy, not wanting to separate fools from their money. That’s far more mercy than some showed this president.