How will Barack Obama be remembered?
It's a question that seeped its way into my mind this morning on the walk to work. My morning newsfeed was simultaneously blowing up with alternating stories about the day's two big events: The issue of marriage equality being heard before the Supreme Court and the protests (or riots for the mainstream media) in Baltimore. As I meandered though multiple city blocks, what struck me most was how much America has changed in the time that Barack Obama has been in office and how the world was fundamentally different than when he entered office a mere six years ago.
However, to properly address a president's legacy, historians will always look back on the person's accomplishments as a whole. Whereas today's mainstream media has knee-jerk reactions geared toward boosting ratings or catering to their target audience, historians will look at the policies, their intent, their results, and both their intended and unintended consequences. It is this inevitable lapse of time that allows us to properly gauge a president's influence. Sure, trickle-down economics sounded great and was a main reason that Ronald Reagan's approval rating was sky high when he left office. Yet, here we are a generation later with corporate profits at at all-time high and the gap between rich and poor being at its widest point in a century.
Despite their popularity at the time, Reagan's policies were woefully inadequate.
And so, we now turn our attention to what will factor into Barack Obama's legacy. Already, his laundry list of accomplishments in the face of unprecedented obstruction remains remarkable: The stimulus to avert a second Great Depression, saving the auto industry, the Affordable Care Act, removing Muammar Gaddafi from Libya, taking out Osama Bin Laden, ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, single-handedly initiating immigration reform, normalizing relations with Cuba, being the first president to openly support marriage equality, taking the first steps to legalize marijuana, and most recently agreeing to terms with a nuclear Iran.
Imagine what the man could have done with a functional Congress.
And yet, as I've thought more and more about this remarkable man's legacy, what dawned on me what that it may end up being something more than those accomplishments.
Barack Obama has always meant different things to different people. For many African-Americans, he personifies Martin Luther King's vision of what the world could be like if we judge people on the content of their character. For many immigrants, he personifies someone who found a home in this country and who is a living embodiment of the American dream. For single mothers, he personifies the end result of sacrifice and love to help your child succeed. For the LGBT community, he personifies a true leader following heart and not popular political opinion. For millennials, he personifies the first true politician to inspire us with not only his words but his deeds as well.
And so, when we consider Barack Obama's legacy, it must go beyond his already impressive legislative accomplishments. It must go beyond his remarkable campaigns, the first of which saw him down 30% in the Iowa polls and the massive coalition he built that will keep the Democratic Party relevant for decades to come. It must go beyond his speeches to both those of us here at home and the world at large. It must go beyond his character, as a role-model, a family man, a husband, and a father who has been bombarded by racism and prejudice from the day he set foot in the Oval Office. It must go beyond everything that he has accomplished in his personal and professional life and yet still be something that will endure for generations to come.
Barack Obama's true legacy? The conversations we as a nation are now able to have.
And that is what struck home for me on my morning commute. For the first time in our nation's history, we are actually addressing the root cause of our problems. We are acknowledging that we, in fact, are a great but flawed nation. Can you imagine a person having that sentiment at the height of Reagan's presidency? How about in the days and weeks after September 11th? Yet here we are at a specific time and place where we are having open debates about some of the most pressing problems in our society and how to fix them before it's too late.
These debates are possible because we finally have a president who isn't hellbent on the philosophy of "American exceptionalism or bust." We have a man in the Oval Office who has brought his own experiences into his administration's policies. He had a single mother who, at times, struggled to put food on the table. He had undocumented friends at school. He saw social inequality when he worked as a community organizer in the south side of Chicago. He has gay and lesbian White House staff. He has young children and is deeply concerned about what the world will be like when they grow up.
It is with this perspective that America under Barack Obama has been fundamentally changed due to the conversations we are having. The Affordable Care Act finally got the nation talking about our broken health care system. Occupy Wall Street finally got the nation talking about income inequality. We now have open conversations about issues like immigration, the failed drug war, privacy, marriage equality, climate change, and police brutality. The mainstream media now has enough fodder to discuss for the entirety of their 24-hour news cycles and it is because that these conversations have now awoken after decades of being dormant.
What happened to Freddie Grey in Baltimore happens everywhere, despite what our friends at Fox News say. Yet for Barack Obama to come out and say that this has been a "slow-rolling crisis" shows the magnitude of the conversations that we as a nation are having. A generation ago, it would be unthinkable to question the men in blue. Now, we have a commander-in-chief who is openly suggesting that certain police practices need to be evaluated and, in some cases, eradicated. Instead of having the death of an innocent African-American man swept under the rug, we as a national are engaged in a vigorous debate about racial profiling, police tactics, and social inequality and immobility in our nation's cities.
In the end, it is these conversations that will be the hallmark of Barack Obama's presidency. America in the year 2015 is a lot better off than it was in 2008. However, for the first time in recent memory, our nation has not been content to rest on its laurels. For the first time, we are acknowledging our flaws and our faults and are engaging the citizenry as to how to be better as a nation. For the first time, we are admitting that we have made mistakes and that we can, and will, learn from these mistakes. For the first time, we have a president who is able recognize the greatness of our nation and simultaneously sees room for improvement. It is that uncanny ability to balance both the prowess and potential of our nation that will ultimately serve as Barack Obama's legacy to this nation.
A nation that will be vastly improved because of the conversations we are having.