PHILADELPHIA ― President Barack Obama, who began his presidential career as the victor of a divisive primary, may be ending it this year as the Democratic Party’s greatest unifier.
While the divisions between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters are still healing, few Democratic delegates in either camp had all that much negative to say about their outgoing president, who addressed the Democratic National Convention in an optimistic speech Wednesday night.
“I think he’s already made his mark on America,” said Percy Johnson, a Hillary Clinton delegate from Florida, who predicted Obama would be remembered as one of history’s most well-regarded presidents. “His legacy of course will be health care, LGBT rights, marriage equality. I think the other thing will be his footprint on the world ― that we don’t necessarily have to be the policeman of the world, that we can engage people through diplomacy.”
Jerome Thompson, a Sanders delegate from New York, pronounced himself “a big supporter of Obama.”
“There’s only a couple of things I’m not happy with, like the TPP,” he said, referring to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. “But, you know, he brought health care to millions of Americans, and that’s a powerful accomplishment. He’s been keeping us safe from terror for the most part. He’s a very intelligent man, and he was up against a mighty brick wall. He accepted the challenge, and he did well. Wish we could have another four years.”
Obama acknowledged in his remarks that “we still have more work to do ... for everyone who hasn’t yet felt the progress of these past seven and a half years.”
But he defended his legacy as a positive one, painting the upcoming election as a choice between “deeply pessimistic vision of a country” and an America “full of courage, and optimism and ingenuity.”
Democrats largely believe in the latter. While Americans as a whole are split on Obama’s record, members of his party say that his tenure has left the nation stronger internationally and improved economically. More than 80 percent of Democrats approve of Obama’s job performance, a number that has varied relatively little during his years as president.
Some of his supporters struggled to think of ways Clinton could improve on his legacy.
“Maybe she can do some things that he wasn’t able to with Congress blocking him at every turn,” said Helen Kyle, a Clinton backer from Virginia who lauded Obama’s expansion of health care.
Asked what specifically that might be, she said she “can’t honestly think of what that is.”
Does that mean he’s checked off everything on the list? “My list, anyway,” she said.
Others who felt Obama had fallen short in some way blamed it largely on Republican intransigence.
“Clearly he hasn’t been able to accomplish everything he wanted to do,” said Boyd Walker, a Sanders delegate from northern Virginia. “Close Guantanamo Bay, pull all the troops out of Afghanistan, I’m sure one of his biggest regrets is not being able to reform police departments … but it’s all because we have a Republican Congress.”
“I’d like to have seen him accomplish single-payer [health care], but the votes just weren’t there,” said Will T. Cheek, a superdelegate from Tennessee.
But outside the convention hall, not everyone is so unflaggingly enthusiastic about the state of the nation. Although positive views of Obama are on the rise, fewer than a quarter of Americans think that the country is on the right track, and the majority of voters expect that disaffection with the current government will benefit Donald Trump in November.
Mike Schweinsburg, a Sanders delegate, said that while he’d been “delighted” by Obama’s eight years in office, he didn’t want to see Clinton’s campaign paint her candidacy as a continuation of his presidency.
“That’s my biggest worry. The ascendancy of Bernie, and the only thing you can attribute the popularity of Donald Trump to is that the country wants change,” he said. “They do not want more of the same. They also don’t want anybody who’s establishment. She can’t get away from that. But she can get away from, oh, ‘This is a third term for Obama.’ She should herald his accomplishments and acknowledge his defeats, and say how she is going to make that difference.”