Friday 27th January 2017
President Obama: Tribute, Reflections & Legacy
How would you best sum up the achievements and legacy of former President Barack Obama? This is what a group of professional Black men set out to do during a two hour discussion in central London. In a way it was a tribute to Barack Obama that this is what the largest gathering yet for a Reach Society discussion in over 5 years of discussions on topics of importance to the Black community. The discussion, led by one of the Reach Society Founders, Mr Rob Neil, took place exactly one week after Obama left office and was the 61st discussion night and the first of 2017. As such, it was an opportune moment to reflect on Barack Obama’s 8 years running America.
Before you read on you might want to think for a moment about the opening question and more specifically, as attendees on the night were asked, consider what one word alone, for you personally, sums up Obama’s 8 year presidency. I share the responses from the night at the end of this review.
Initial Thoughts before Obama took office
Discussion commenced with collective thoughts about how people were feeling just prior to Obama taking office on 20 January 2009.
A sense of pride, change and hope were common at the time. Pride at having a new President, America’s first African-American president. Delight in change from the presidency of President George Bush II and hope for a change in America’s fortune. People thought back to how America was at the time. The economy was in dire straits. The economy was in recession with every chance of nose diving into depression. The image of America and respect for the President was at a real low due to the perceived ineptitude of Bush, combined with various military interventions in foreign affairs.
First Term: 2009 – 2013
Moving on to discuss first term achievements, 2009-2013, the biggest single achievement cited was the $trillion economic stimulus to the economy. Initially it created a degree of stagnation as Government offices closed down until Congress accepted and passed the bill to permit Obama’s stimulus package. Once it was agreed, the long term effect was successful, for it worked to really stimulate the economy. Basically, the act single-handedly rescued the US economy and saved the US motor industry, not to mention a number of dependent economies around the world including Great Britain.
President Barack Obama
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (2010), nicknamed ‘Obamacare’ was also pushed through. This resulted in 20 million of the poorest having affordable healthcare for the first time. It showed for the first time arguably that the US government cared about the health of its poorest citizens.
The rights of homosexuals and lesbians were recognised with legislation passed that legalised same sex marriage. Some saw that as a huge legacy. Others perceived that as a real negative, that went against the grain of an essentially God fearing, Christian nation and all that that means.
It was pointed out that his success was not down to him alone, but a key triumvirate featuring Campaign Adviser, David Axelrod, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and of course President Barack Obama himself at the centre of it all.
Also the selection of notable individuals of colour; Charles Frank Bolden Jr, Head of NASA and the 1st African American; Eric Holder, the 1st African American Attorney General and Justice Sotomayor, the 1st Hispanic/ Latina to serve on US Supreme Court.
Second Term, 2013-2017 and Presidency overall legacy
The symbolism of having a Black President was a frequent theme. There was great pride taken in that achievement, which also smashed the glass ceiling for Black people in a hugely symbolic way. No longer could they or anyone outside of that ethnic group say that Black people could not attain and achieve success in high office. The message of hope in his appointment and the erudite, statesmanlike manner in which he conducted himself was found to be inspirational, effective and powerful.
One of Obama’s most notable achievements was with regard to bringing about significant economic and employment improvements and by doing so stimulated the economy and averted an American economic depression. It’s important to recognise what President Obama inherited and what he achieved after 8 years for the economy and employment, for instance he pared down America’s deficit from 10% in 2009 to 3% by January 2017.
Obama appointed Loretta Lynch to be the 1st African American Women Attorney General and only the second ever African-American to hold the post. The first was her predecessor Eric Holder. She held office from 27 April 2015 – 20 January 2017.
Michelle Obama and her legacy were seen as part of Barack Obama’s too. She left a legacy of increasing access to education for girls and women around the globe. In an age when many girls around the world do not have the same equal access to education that we take for granted in Britain and America, she fervently and passionately highlighted this throughout her two terms as First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS). I recall her visits to Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (EGA) School in particular, as well as visits to Mulberry School for Girls and addressing the Oxford Union as major highlights of her time as FLOTUS. The images of the rapturous reception she received at EGA especially lives long in the memory. Her speech there and at the Oxford Union were memorable and inspiring to those girls and students listening and to those beyond who were able to watch on TV.
Not only that, she represented an idealised what some would say is ordinary black family unity, which to the media might well have appeared extraordinary, but which to many families is completely normal. There was great joy and pride seen in looking at the many 1’000’s of photographs of the couple and their family throughout the 8 years, as if it represented the African-America dream of a married, African-American couple with 2 children. They presented a united front throughout and she embodied the spirit of “behind every great man is a great woman” supporting him. She did that and much more. At a time when the widespread public perception is of the fractured black family unit, countless single mothers out there and an overwhelming image of successful Black men often having non-Black women as partners or wives many found this to be refreshing, something to be extremely proud of. It showed that you didn’t need a white woman to achieve and occupy a certain space in society.
It was stated that there had been some opinions voiced on-line that Obama had done little for Black people. That he had not done enough to curb Police brutality and the out of control gun culture and countless killings. That was shot down by comments stating that this was beyond his power thanks to American’s love affair with guns and the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms. Furthermore, no other president had been able to tackle this and why was he expected to just because he was Black? People didn’t ask what had President Clinton, President George Bush 1 and II, Prime Minister’s Tony Blair, David Cameron or Theresa May done for Black people, so it was unfair to ask this of President Obama. More to the point, to paraphrase JFK’s famous phrase, this should be more about “Ask not what has my country done for me, but what have I done for my country?” Phrased here as ”It’s not what has Obama done for me, but what has I done with the opportunity Obama has created for me?” It is not the President’s or Prime Minister’s job to sort out African-American lives. It’s their’s. People need to understand the power and limitations of being a political leader. They can only do so much. People have to help themselves as much as a President or Prime Minister can do their part on a wider, macro level of political intervention.
It was said that he lacked a certain common touch and didn’t highlight loudly enough his achievements in office. I would dispute that as first of all it’s not his job to blow his own trumpet! Secondly, I perceived him to speak to the ordinary issues of the day affecting ordinary and poor citizens of the country. He seemed equally at home entertaining fellow political leaders as meeting ordinary Americans at work. As comfortable on a chat show as on a serious political news programme. He was real. He was unafraid to shed a tear and showed he really cared. Too many times he had to address the nation to speak about a mass killing spree and racial tensions over heating. He did so bravely and eloquently, showing that he wasn’t immune to what was happening, be that as a father, a man, an African-American and President. That was powerful beyond words. Who will forget post Charleston church killings when he spontaneously decided to lead the congregation in singing ‘Amazing Grace?
What was especially impressive, not that many people expected any different, was how his presidency on a personal level and governmental level was scandal free throughout his tenure. You can imagine if there was anything the media and public would have had a field day. He didn’t give them that opportunity.
One word to sum up Obama? For me it was thoughtful. I admired his academic, thoughtful style of speaking, be that in a press conference or TV interview. He knew his every word would be pored over so wasn’t afraid to take his time before pronouncing.
Numerous words from the floor summed up his term of office:
Inspirational. HOPE. Restricted. THOUGHTFUL. Success. EXTRAORDINARY. Compassionate. PERSISTENT. Healthcare. VALUES. Liberal. EMOTIONAL. Passionate. TRI-ABULATIONS (trials & tribulations). Brave. MICHELLE. Mixed. ELEGANT. Standard (raising them). CHANGE.
Most President’s and remember there have only been 45 to date, only have a maximum of two terms in office and generally, if lucky, get to leave one legacy. I believe taking the above into consideration, President Obama has bequeathed America with quite a few legacy’s – a revived US economy, a record 82 consecutive months of jobs growth and falling unemployment, Obamacare, improved status of the office of President, family values, less interventionist foreign policy, gay rights and smashing the glass ceiling for Black people.
President Barack Obama, we salute you.
© Tiemo Talk of the Town
This discussion was chaired and facilitated by Rob Neil. Some of the participants were lucky to get their hands on Ebony Magazine’s President Obama commemorative issue which was published in December 2016.
Reach Society meet once a month and will be holding their 6th annual Career’s Conference on 4th April 2017. The conference aims to inspire young people aged 14+ Over 3,800 have attended the first 5 conferences held.
- As Obama Bids Farewell, We all need to say Thank You – Rev Jesse Jackson, The Voice, 8th January 2017
- Bye, Bye Barack: The Worst President Ever? – Battle of Ideas 2016 topic
- Battle of ideas 2012 Debate – Can Obama Recover to win a Second Term? – 27th October 2012
- Obama’s Top 50 Accomplishments – Washington Monthly – March – April 2012
- Reach Society Career’s Conference Review – 7th April 2013