THE BLOG

Rethinking the Legacy of President Obama

03/23/2015 11:58 am ET | Updated May 23, 2015
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

President Obama has less than two years remaining in his presidency. Recent events have caused me to rethink some initial conclusions I had been considering about the future historic legacy of his administration.

The fight against ISIS, the ongoing negotiations with Iran, the U.S. Supreme Court's pending review of a key section of the Affordable Care Act, the events of Ferguson, the National Urban League's Annual Report on "The State of Black America," and numerous racially charged incidents, including the fraternity song at Oklahoma University, the confrontation between police and an African-American student over the validity of his campus ID, the unexplained hanging of an African-American man from a tree in Mississippi, racist police behavior in Fort Lauderdale, and a rising tidal wave of race-based resistance to President Obama mandate a more clinical review of his presidency in the future pantheon of American history.

When he was elected in 2008, there was an outpouring of media commentary from the left, right, and moderates.

Businessweek's Nov. 11, 2008, issue described Barack Obama as "A Leader for the 'We' Generation":

The sweeping victory of Barack Obama ushers in a new era of leadership that will affect every aspect of American institutions and that sounds a death knell for the top-down, power-oriented leadership prevalent in the 20th century.

A new style of "bottom-up, empowering" leadership focusing on collaboration will sweep the country. A new wave of 21st century authentic leaders will take oversee U.S. institutions of every type: business, education, health care, religion, and nonprofits. These new leaders recognize that an organization of empowered leaders at every level will outperform "command-and-control" organizations every time.

Recent estimates are that thanks to the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, about 16 million additional persons now have health insurance. Assuming this is so, this is encouraging if not remarkable. However, as I begin to rethink and review the Obama presidency, I think history will judge it based principally on two other matters: his foreign policy and the consequences of his presidency on the unfinished business of race relations in America.

Left with the financial and ideological results of our preemptive attack on and invasion of Iraq and the winding down of our war in Afghanistan, Obama has had to develop and implement a foreign policy limiting Iran's nuclear ambitions and safeguarding America from the maniacal, ideologically driven violence of ISIS. How much he succeeds or fails in this effort will indelibly define his presidential legacy.

However, what is likely to overshadow all other issues defining President Obama's legacy is how successful he was, as America's 44th president and first African-American president, at resolving the issue of race in America.

In writing about the 2012 campaign to reelect President Obama, I wrote:

There is one issue ... notwithstanding the paramount importance of the economy, that continues to be the common denominator of the presidential election in 2012, as it was in 2008: the historic issue of race and race relations in America.

Not since the Civil War and the failed Congressional Reconstruction thereafter has race been such an explicit or implicit national issue. "Race relations" principally, but not exclusively, between black and white America continues to be the 800-lb. gorilla in most American households.

Perhaps only surpassed by sex, is any public discussion -- or lack of discussion -- about race in America weighted down with more hypocrisy, ambivalence, fear and misunderstanding.

In the most simplistic sense, use or disuse of the so-called "race card" will cease only when there is a completely new "deck" from which the card is drawn.

Some 600,000 Americans killed one another during our civil war over the issue of the abolition or continuation of slavery. However, as Eric Foner writes in Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Business:

Virtually from the moment the Civil War ended, the search began for legal means of subordinating a volatile black population that regarded economic independence as a corollary of freedom and the old labor discipline as a badge of slavery.

The failure of Reconstruction irrevocably hindered the intended outcome of the Civil War: the full restoration of all the rights and privileges of citizenship owed to African-American slaves under our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, as amended with its Bill of Rights

Lest we forget, as James W. Lowen writes in Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, "Perhaps the most pervasive theme in our history is the domination of black America by white America. Race is the sharpest and deepest division in American life."

In a speech titled "Mystic Chords of Memory," delivered at the University of Vermont on Sept. 12, 1991, celebrated documentary filmmaker Ken Burns said:

The black-white rift stands at the very center of American history. ... If we forget that -- if we forget the great stain of slavery that stands at the heart of our country, our history, our experiment -- we forget who we are, and we make the great rift deeper and wider.

Presenting a more optimistic outlook on race, in a December 2014 interview on BET, President Obama said:

It's important to recognize that as painful as these incidents are, we can't equate what is happening now to what happened 50 years ago. If you talk to your parents, your grandparents, they'll tell you things are better. Not good, in some cases, but better. The reason it's important to understand that progress has been made is that it then gives us hope we can make even more progress.

Regrettably, however, our 2015 existential reality repeatedly confirms that a deep and abiding derivative of the white supremacist racism of slavery is still alive and well under the presidency of Barack Obama. It is more insidious than ever, only today existing in a form commensurate with the ubiquitous and advanced technology of the communication of information in the second decade of the 21st century.

Perhaps unfairly, but I believe unavoidably, Obama's presidential legacy will be determined by the success or failure of our collective effort to finally resolve the issue of race under his presidency. Historically, this is likely to be more definitive than any other single issue.

I had hoped it would be otherwise.