WASHINGTON – With all eyes turned to Capitol Hill, President Barack Obama began the process of solidifying his place in history in his final State of the Union speech Tuesday night.
Though he talked about plans for his last year in office – tightening federal gun laws, promising again to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center and working to advance cancer research – the president diverged from the usual to-do list and focused on the strides America has made under his watch.
And he had a fair number to choose from.
During his seven years in office, the United States has risen out of the Great Recession, ended major involvement in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, killed Osama bin Laden, legalized same-sex marriage and allowed gay and lesbian soldiers to serve in the military, insured over 17 million Americans, opened diplomatic relations with Cuba, signed a deal curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, agreed to comprehensive plans to address climate change, and weaned America off foreign oil.
Though it’s an impressive list, the ultimate assessment of many of these economic and cultural shifts may have to wait a while. Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute believes time will tell on issues like the Iranian nuclear deal and Paris Climate Agreement.
“Legacy is something that you can’t easily determine before a presidency is over, or even five years afterwards, or ten years afterwards,” he says. “We rewrite these things as history plays out.”
But put his concrete accomplishments in the context of the 2008 election, when a black man won the White House just 43 years after racial discrimination in voting was banned, and one could argue that Barack Obama appears to have a legacy of considerable accomplishment.
If so, then why does it seem that many Americans would disagree?
A Gallup poll last week pegged Obama’s current approval ratings at 47 percent. This has been the overall average for his time as president.
In a Fox News interview last month, GOP Presidential candidate Marco Rubio, who attended the State of the Union, attributed Americans’ disproval of Obama to the president being disconnected from the country’s feelings, particularly toward fears of the Islamic State.
“He’s out there telling us everything’s fine [regarding the terrorism threat], there’s nothing to see here.” Sen. Rubio said. “That’s not what people feel in their lives, and when they see a president so out of touch, it makes them more scared, not less scared.”
Now naturally there are critics of every president. As South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said in the Republican’s response following the State of the Union, “the President’s record has often fallen far short of his soaring words.”
This has proven true in some cases.
Obama can be faulted for not delivering on his campaign promise to close Guantanamo Bay’s detention facility. He can be called out for his inability to get comprehensive immigration reform passed. His inaction in Syria after the Assad regime crossed the president’s “red line” by using chemical weapons may constitute the biggest foreign policy blemish on his record.
But likely the thing that has frustrated America the most over the last seven years has been the president’s inability reap any ounce of cooperation from Congress.
In Obama’s early speeches, from his national convention acceptance speech to his first State of the Union, working together was a major theme. He was elected as an almost transcendent figure who could step across party lines and bring “change we can believe in.”
This bipartisan appeal was what first propelled him to the public consciousness at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, where he famously proclaimed, “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America.”
That vision could not seem more different from the United States of America he spoke to Tuesday night.
In his State of the Union, Obama said the rampant “rancor and suspicion” in Congress was “one of the few regrets of [his] presidency.” But is this animosity entirely Obama’s fault? Journalist Jonathan Alter, who has written two books on the president, doesn’t think so.
Some have censured Obama for being too aloof for Washington politics. They say his unwillingness to “schmooze” both Democrats and Republicans, to work both sides of the aisle, has made him a less effective negotiator than someone like Bill Clinton or Lyndon Johnson. Though Alter acknowledges this as an issue, he doesn’t believe “playing golf with these guys more” would have brought more Republicans to the table. He instead offers a more furtive explanation.
On the eve of Obama’s inauguration, he says, top Republican leaders decided that the only way their party would retain any power with a Democratic-controlled Congress and president was if they stuck together and refused to compromise. Thus began a policy of obstruction that has dominated conservative politics and plagued the president throughout the last seven years.
“He really wanted bipartisan support on the Stimulus Bill and Obamacare,” Alter said. Obama was unable to garner a single Republican vote in favor of the Affordable Care Act.
On the 2016 campaign trail, the ideological spread of candidates speaks tremendously to how this partisanship has trickled down from Washington into every nook and cranny of America.
The president addressed this fractious situation in his speech, urging people to alter their outlook if they want to see a change in business as usual.
“There are a whole lot of folks in this chamber who would like to see more cooperation, a more elevated debate in Washington, but feel trapped by the demands of getting elected,” President Obama said in the State of the Union. “If we want a better politics, it’s not enough to just change a Congressman or a Senator or even a President; we have to change the system to reflect our better selves.”
However, it’s improbable that this forward-looking advice will be quickly embraced.
As a result of the current political environment, a final ruling on President Obama’s legacy will take time. If a Democrat wins the election in 2016, he or she will likely reaffirm many of his policies and continue moving the country along the path he forged, but if a Republican wins, there will be a different story.
Republican presidential candidates, including frontrunners Trump, Cruz and Rubio, have already vowed to repeal most of Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act. Congress showed their willingness to help when they sent an ACA repeal bill to the president’s desk last Wednesday.
Though a Republican president would unlikely be able to dismantle all of Obama’s handiwork, many GOP candidates and voters obviously want to see the country moving on a different path.
“In this election, the contrast could not be more clear or more stark and the stakes could not be higher for the future of this country and the work this president has done,” says Winnie Stachelberg of the Center for American Progress.
With the future of his key legislation left largely in the hands of his successor, Barack Obama may have much of his legacy decided by American voters this November.