One year ago this month Barack Obama was sworn in for his second term as president, but more significantly it marks half a decade since he was sworn in as the first African-American president of the USA. Looking back over these past five years, what legacy can we begin to see Obama forming for himself?
The fact of the matter is that those who are well remembered and have carved strong legacies in the history books have clichéd titles to go with them. George Washington is the ‘First President’, Abraham Lincoln is the ‘Great Emancipator’ and ‘Saviour of the Union’, Teddy Roosevelt is the ‘Youngest President’, JFK is the ‘Catholic President’. Obama will fit neatly and welcomingly into this trend as ‘The First Black President’.
Of the four presidents I’ve mentioned above, arguably the only one to have earned his title based on merit was Lincoln. However, there are two other presidents that come to mind that seem to have achieved great legacies based on their achievements. There is firstly Woodrow Wilson who, despite his policies to racially segregate federal government, is warmly remembered as the man who brought peace to a war torn Europe in 1918, lead the subsequent peace talks and formed the League of Nations. However, the more significant legacy is held by FDR. FDR brought America out of the Great Depression, he rallied the public to fight the evils of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, won a staggering four elections and all of this was achieved by a polio stricken premier form the confines of his wheelchair.
If there are two types of legacies a president can achieve (a titular legacy and a merit based legacy) which one is Obama destined to have? For Obama, there is no way of escaping the fact he will have a titular legacy as he will always be the first black president. But will he be able secure himself a merit based legacy? JFK certainly secured himself both; he was the first Catholic president and the Playboy president. But he is also remembered as an accomplished foreign policy diplomat who refused to escalate American involvement in Vietnam and avoided nuclear war in the ideological stand-off that was the Cuban Missile Crisis.
So what are some of Obama’s achievements? Four main achievements come to mind. Firstly, in the infancy of his presidency he introduced his $787 Billion stimulus package which spurred America’s economic recovery amidst the worst recession since the Great Depression and has been estimated to have created 3.7 million jobs in the private sector. Secondly, he has had success in reforming the American health care system with his Affordable Health Care Act in 2010 which, starting this month, has helped somewhere in the region of 32 million uninsured Americans find affordable health insurance. Thirdly, Obama ended the highly unpopular war in Iraq. The last American troops left after eight and a half years of service in December 2011. Lastly, what I believe will endure the most is the death of Osama Bin Laden in May 2011. Not only did this eliminate who America saw as the most dangerous man in the world, but it also brought a symbolic closure to 9/11; the most enduring and emotive episodes in recent American history.
However, is Obama without his flaws? Although his stimulus package boosted American industry and eased America out of the recession caused by the global financial crisis, it has left Washington with greatly unbalanced books and a mountain of debt. This will no doubt be an issue future generations will be forced to tackle long after Obama’s time. Also, Obama’s pledge and drive towards healthcare reform has been nothing but a headache. From the beginning of his presidency his attempts for reform have been opposed and scrutinised by the Tea Party and other conservative Republicans. Healthcare reform was ultimately the issue that caused the federal government to be shut down in 2013. For these reasons it is very possible that Obama will be remembered as the man who plunged the United States into unmanageable debt and as the man who divided politicians so much that he made the very workings of federal government impossible.
In the end, all we can know for certain five years into Obama’s presidency is that he will forever hold the legacy as America’s first black president. It is also likely he will be characterised in the box as historic civil rights activists such as; Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.. Whether or not he will gain any legacy based on the merit of his achievements during his presidency is widely open to debate, which is effectively up for the historians and political commentators of the future to decide upon.
For more on Obama, and other great US Presidents, see Sam’s US Presidents: Top 10 for Fortitude Magazine.