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President Obama: A look back

Obama legacy: Highs and lows
President Obama's legacy: The high and lows 09:26

Five days before the inauguration of Donald Trump as our 45th president, we take a look back at our 44th president, Barack Obama. Our Cover Story is reported by Martha Teichner:

“Because of what we did on this date in this election at this defining moment, change has come to America.”

It was a moment that seemed to hold so much promise, such optimism: Barack Obama facing that sea of supporters in Chicago on November 4, 2008, after being elected our first African-American president:

“And where we are met with cynicism and doubt and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: ‘Yes, we can.’”

What began that night is ending now. The assessment of the Obama legacy is already underway.

“I think that moment, that Grant Park moment, will be remembered symbolically in history as a moment when America thought, ‘We’ve done something and we feel good about that,’” said Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

“In history, we always talk about, is it the man or is it the times that makes for a presidential legacy? And that moment in Grant Park, it seemed like the man was even bigger than the times.”

But “the times” set the agenda from Day One. As soon as Barack Obama took the oath of office, he inherited the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The big banks, and GM and Chrysler, were teetering. Unemployment was pushing 8%.

It’s easy to forget how scary it was. Now, unemployment is 4.7%. Since early 2010, more than 15 million jobs have been created. By most accounts, a big check in the plus column of the Obama legacy tally.

“It’s a huge achievement to save the economy,” said Goodwin. “It’s not something that’s just a statistical thing you’ve done; you’ve affected people’s lives and affected their futures. And that is real.”

For President Obama, virtually every accomplishment was a struggle. He was blindsided by the partisan ugliness of the opening battles, as he told our Lee Cowan a year ago: “In those early months, my expectation was, is that we could pull the parties together a little more effectively,” he said.

In 2010, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell defined what Democrats call Republican obstructionism: “Our top political priority over the next two years,” he told the Heritage Foundation, “should be to deny President Obama a second term.”

Not one Republican, in either the House or the Senate, voted for the Affordable Care Act, what came to be known as Obamacare. The president wanted his signature expansion of health care insurance to be the biggest check in his legacy “plus” column, but Republicans are already dismantling it.

What about President Obama’s foreign policy legacy?

“Tonight I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama Bin Laden, the leader of Al-Qaeda.”

The killing of bin Laden: Definitely, a plus. The way he pulled out of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Iran nuclear deal, the now-dead-on-arrival Trans-Pacific Partnership, claimed by the administration as pluses; by his critics, not so much. And his handling of Syria, according to many policy experts, a big check in the “minus” column.

“I would argue that the decision not to make good on the American threat on Syrian use of chemical weapons was the single biggest flaw and mistake of Barack Obama’s presidency,” said Richard Haass, president of the non-partisan Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “This sent a message to our friends and our allies, who are inherently dependent on us, that we could not be counted on.

“And I think he had a view of the world that it would somehow sort itself out just fine even if the United States made the decision to do a lot less, and that’s simply wrong.  What we’ve learned, particularly in the Middle East, but also elsewhere, is if the United States dials down, benign forces don’t fill the space.”

“Now I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were 10 or 20 or 30 years ago, no matter what some folks say.”

Which brings us to what may be President Obama’s most provocative legacy: He changed the conversation about the nation’s social issues.

“The idea that people now talk about systemic racism and systemic bias, that it showed up on the campaign trail, that’s new,” said New York Times op-ed columnist Charles Blow. “The idea that it bubbles to the top while he is president is a real thing.”

“That can’t be undone,” said Teichner.

“You can’t put that genie back in the bottle,” said Blow. “Now that is at the top, on the surface. Now we have to deal with that.”

President Barack Obama looks at the portrait of Abraham Lincoln hanging in the Oval Office, June 29, 2009. Pete Souza/The White House

Just this past Friday, Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the results of a 13-month investigation of the Chicago Police Department

For Chicago, substitute Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland … to name some of the cities whose police practices have been scrutinized.

“That is him,” Blow said. “That is the influence that he is having on our discussion. And that comes to the front during the Obama years.”

Now consider this:

“Strangely enough, it’s not really him being African-American, I think, that is most remarkable of his eight years,” Blow said. “It is the incredible movement on issues like same-sex marriage and gay rights and inclusion. It has been the civil rights movement of our time, and it has changed over his tenure more than at any other time in American history.”

But what has also changed in President Obama’s eight years: devastating Democratic Party losses at the polls have left Republicans firmly in charge -- a big minus that will have an impact on his legacy.

Still, for historians, how a president is judged changes over time.

“When you think about Harry Truman having left the presidency with such a low level of approval rating, and yet now being considered one of the near-great presidents,” said Goodwin. “And you think about President Johnson having left the presidency with such sadness, feeling like the Vietnam War was a scar forever on his legacy. there’s no question that domestically he did far more than we realized at the time.”

Teichner asked, “Do you think history will be kind to President Obama’s presidency?”

“I do.”

The symbolism of President Obama’s legacy can’t be ignored.  The image of this particular first family, of a president who sang his heart out over the killings in that Charleston church, of a White House that was hip for a change. 

Is symbolism equal in value in assessing a president’s legacy -- President Obama’s legacy -- as legislative achievement?

Charles Blow said, “I think absolutely. I believe in image. I believe in representation. I believe that it is a powerful, powerful thing. I have three kids who have grown up, and they have never known anything but a black president. I mean, their consciousness about a president begins with him.”

In his farewell address last week, President Obama said, “I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents.”

It is with symbolism in mind that President Barack Obama returned to Chicago -- where it all began -- to say goodbye, and to consign his presidency to history.

“A creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written:  Yes, we can. Yes, we did. Yes, we can. Thank you, God bless you, may God continue to bless the United States of America.”

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