President Barack Obama leaves office the same way he came in, riding a wave of soaring rhetoric aimed at inspiring Americans to reach for the heights of their potential.
His eloquent farewell speech in Chicago last week touched again on the messianic themes of his 2008 nomination acceptance speech, in which he prophesied future generations would say, “... this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation ...”
Obama set those lofty goals for himself and the nation, and from Tuesday’s speech, you might believe he’d achieved them.
The reality of his two-term presidency, which ends Friday morning, is he didn’t deliver the hope and change he promised. America remains divided and discontented. The world is more dangerous. And even on climate change, the obsession of his policymaking, the results are inconclusive.
The agenda he pleaded to preserve in his final address could not carry a Democrat to victory in November, leading to the ascendancy of Donald Trump, who in every way but one is Obama’s polar opposite, the exception being a lack of humility and self-doubt.
There has always been a healthy dose of delusion in the way the president viewed his own performance and that of the country under his captaincy. Let’s look at Obama’s self-declared achievements.
■His signature Affordable Care Act has wrecked the private insurance market. Although designed to ensure every American has health insurance, only about one-third of the 45 million people who lacked insurance when it passed are insured today. Meanwhile, for the rest of the country, particularly the middle class, the cost of policies are moving beyond reach. High co-pays and deductibles make policies too expensive to use. There is little likelihood that Obamacare in its current form will survive the next four years.
■While still new to the world stage, the Nobel committee awarded Obama its peace prize in anticipation of his healing powers. He leaves office with the world in turmoil, and America’s leadership role greatly diminished. His reluctance to engage enabled the rise of ISIS. His bungling of the Israel/Palestinian conflict has pushed a solution further away. Iran is already violating the shaky nuclear deal he negotiated. The red line he drew in front of Syrian butcher Bashar al-Assad blew away with the sand, with genocidal consequences. The void he left in the region is filled by Russia’s Vladimir Putin, hardly an honest broker for peace.
■Obama is most proud of his work to save the earth from climate change. But his own administration acknowledges the vaunted Paris accord will not noticeably reduce global warming. The same is true of the Clean Power Plan he imposed through the regulatory process. But it has cut jobs. Tuesday night, Obama spoke of his empathy for those Americans who have lost good-paying jobs in old industries and now feel betrayed and angry. Yet it was his pen that killed jobs in the coal fields of Appalachia and the oil rigs of the Gulf.
■The bright spot, though a dim one, is the economy. America was in a deep recession when Obama took over. His $800 billion stimulus program helped get the country growing again, though too much was wasted on political priorities. He is the rare president who enjoyed eight straight years of growth and job creation. And the auto industry and the city of Detroit certainly are in his debt for both the bailout and the federal assistance he directed to the city during its bankruptcy. Still, the recovery was never robust. Obama is the only president to have failed to post a year of GDP growth above 3 percent, and workplace participation lags.
Blame the sluggishness on his appetite for regulations. Obama governed as a classic liberal elitist, not trusting either businesses or individuals to act honorably and intelligently of their own accord.
When he couldn’t get Congress to enact the restrictive measures he sought, he bypassed the legislative branch and imposed his will through executive orders and agency rule-making.
In the process, he so damaged the constitutional design of separation of powers that we may never again have a president who is checked by the people’s representatives.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that the country’s first African-American president did not bridge the racial gap. It widened under his watch. While he paid lip service to healing, he never moved beyond lectures and into leadership.
Similarly, he failed to close the income and opportunity gaps, despite his relentless pursuit of Robin Hood policies. Over eight years, the poor got poorer and the rich richer.
But while reluctant to jump into any arena with both feet, say this about Obama: He was a president of high character and his personal conduct in office was beyond reproach.
That makes it even more regrettable that the great hope of 2008 went unfulfilled, and any change Barack Obama brought to America promises to be fleeting. He was a fine talker who could make Americans see a better tomorrow. But he didn’t lead them there.