As I discovered touring the country to assess Barack Obama’s legacy, it’s almost impossible to find an American who wasn’t affected, in a positive way, by his presidency. His effort to end the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression produced the longest period of job growth in history. His rescue program saved the auto industry. Under this president the decline in real estate was reversed and Wall Street rebounded. With his aid, gay and lesbian Americans gained in their fight for equality. His administration made our air and water cleaner and his leadership moved the world to address climate change. And for all its flaws, Obamacare increased the ranks of the insured to a record height and literally saved lives.
The achievements are great, but as Obama leaves the White House his most profound legacy resides not in his programs but in the hearts of Americans. We can argue about policy, but there is no denying that he made us recognize the better angles of our nature while he brought decency, and competence to the presidency and political life.
The dignity of the Obama presidency includes both his personal style but also the restoration of a government that obeys the law. Although Americans have grown accustomed to prosecutions and convictions of high-level officials, not one person in a top Obama administration job was ever charged with a crime let alone prosecuted. And despite fevered partisan efforts to create the impression that the White House lurched from scandal to scandal, actual controversies were few. Obama made mistakes, but you have to go back to Dwight D. Eisenhower to find a president with a cleaner record.
In addition to bringing honest competence to Washington, Obama delivered to the American people a kind of leadership that was optimistic though realistic, open-hearted but watchful, and most of all, authentic. He burst onto the national scene in 2004 with a soaring speech that challenged the idea that the country is hopelessly divided into Red and Blue and he began his departure with a farewell address that rejected partisan impulses while calling for continuous effort to create “a more perfect union.”
Throughout his presidency Obama appealed for unity and sought common ground. During the debate over health care he even attended the annual retreat held by his Republican opposition, where he answered pointed questions and listened to challenging ideas. The president, who never called political opponents enemies or disparaged them with childish taunts, practiced what his wife Michelle preached– “When they go low, we go high.” When he was subjected to the “birther” movement’s effort to delegitimize him as foreign born, Obama responded with patience and humor. As he compared it with other forms of nonsense including the notion that aliens in flying saucers once crashed in Roswell, New Mexico, the president was reiterating his faith in the American people.
Critics who complained about Obama’s calm in the face of birtherism and other challenges, mis-read the man. Of course he was steady, and even professorial, but he was hardly dispassionate. The difference between Obama and others was that his emotional repertoire wasn’t just about clichéd displays of machismo. George Bush would growl, “Bring ‘em on” when discussing America’s enemies. Obama preferred a more measured tone, saying of the terrorism threat, “We will prevail by being strong and smart, resilient and relentless.” This resolve represented strength, but so did the president’s display of compassion and love. Consider Obama after the mass murders tragedies including Sandy Hook, Orlando, and Charleston and you see a man openly grieving in a way that requires real courage. Similarly Obama’s expression of love, sometimes accompanied by a tear or a hitch in his voice, showed genuine maturity.
As decent a man who has ever served in the White House, Obama stood as an actual grown-up amid the childishness that often dominates politics. In the years to come, as he is compared to his predecessors and his successors, this achievement may stand as his greatest. He demonstrated that big problems can be tackled, and victories can be won on the basis of goodwill and respect. Having shown it can be done, he challenges successors to follow his example.
A Pulitzer Prize winning writer of books, articles, and original stories for film, Michael D’Antonio has published more than a dozen books, including The Truth About Trump and A Consequential President: The Legacy of Barack Obama (Thomas Dunne Books).