Obama’s Lasting Legacy — How Will Generations to Come View the Former President?

By Kallie Sherwood, 01/25/17

The flag represents the best part of our nation, united and patriotic, free from bias and hate.

As students around the nation take their first U.S. history class in middle school or high school, they’re exposed to what might be their first views on American presidents.

Abraham Lincoln? Good. Richard Nixon? Bad. The 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress report found that only 18 percent of 8th graders were proficient in U.S. history, showing that maybe our nation doesn’t understand the complexity of our past leaders.

When asked how we can view a president’s legacy, Alexis Coe, a historian and host of the podcast “Presidents are People, Too!” said “there’s both a long view, and a short view, and they often aren’t the same.”

Some presidents can be popular in office, but the results of their actions in the following years can spoil their legacy, like Calvin Coolidge, who was very well-liked but now holds most of the blame for failing to deal with the financial situation that resulted in the Great Depression.

As Obama gains the title of former president, the debate of what his legacy will be rages on. Right now, we can only have the “short view.”

More than the good leaders and the bad leaders

Rather than comparing presidents as the good versus the bad, Vox categorizes our leaders as the forgettable and the consequential.

Forgettable doesn’t necessarily mean they are unrecognizable, but that their actions carried little weight, like Jimmy Carter. Most can recall him, but his actions as president don’t affect much in our lives today.

Consequential cuts both ways. FDR forever changed the way the government serves the people and led the U.S. through both the Great Depression and World War II. He was consequential for the better. Andrew Johnson, on the other hand, ended Reconstruction in the post-Civil War south, subjecting black Americans to a century of Jim Crow laws and segregation. Consequential leaders leave an unforgettable mark on history.

It’s hard to argue that Obama’s presidency was forgettable. His status as the first black president will dominate his legacy. On the night he was elected as president in 2008, Obama said, “It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this date in this election at this defining moment, change has come to America.”

A short view of the Obama legacy

Although Obama is no longer in office, his calls for hope and progress live on.

While race is the obvious legacy of Obama’s presidency, it is not the only one. He is a powerful communicator. Obama’s national political career launched in 2004 with a memorable speech at the Democratic National Convention, called one of the best political speeches of all time. Presenting himself as a hopeful man with humble roots, he called for unity in our nation.

Obama also discovered how to utilize social media. Twitter launched in 2006 and played a huge role in his 2008 campaign and his presidency. Much like FDR mastered the radio, and JFK mastered television, Obama mastered the internet unlike any other politician of his time. Social media now arguably plays an equal role to news outlets in elections.

Whitworth history Professor Dale Soden says that a huge part of Obama’s legacy will be the positivity he and his family projected. “They set a model of moral behaviors and an image that projected exceptionally well,” Soden said. “They bore an additional burden in this as African Americans.”

Coe acknowledges Michelle Obama as “one of the most popular and dynamic First Ladies in our nation’s history.” Michelle Obama modernized the role of First Lady while bringing a sense of realism and authenticity not commonly seen in Washington. There have been rallying cries for her to run for office in 2020, which she has declined. She’s leaving with a higher approval rating than her husband, according to Pew Polls, at 72 percent.

There are a lot of “wins” for the Obama team. Ending “don’t ask don’t tell” and the legalization of gay marriage marks an era of equality for the LGBTQ community. According to factcheck.org, the economy is far better now than when he took office, and unemployment is at a recent low. Osama Bin Laden was killed under Obama’s command, and we have scaled back two wars in the Middle East. “Obamacare,” although flawed, has insured over 11 million Americans.

But there are failures too. Obama’s administration, which ran on the principles of hope and change, could be viewed as an administration of broken promises.

Racial tensions and protests have filled the news in recent years. There was a failure to work with congress to pass regulations, especially gun laws in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting. The national debt has nearly doubled. And some perceive the U.S. to be in a “weaker” place on the world stage.

A long-term view on the Obama legacy

You can’t look at Obama’s legacy without discussing his replacement, President Trump. Many Obama voters in 2008 and 2012 flipped and voted for Trump in 2016. “Trump will help or hurt Obama’s legacy, depending on how effective he is,” Soden says. “Especially with new healthcare policies.”

“I think what Trump lacks is what we valued so much in Obama,” Whitworth freshman Hannah Owen says. “Obama values all people, especially those at the bottom, not just those on the top.”

As a historian, I’m very intrigued to see how generations to come will learn and view the first president I actively lived through. Even though we only have the “short view” of Obama’s legacy right now, I don’t see him as someone being forgettable. I think Barack Obama has changed the world of politics, and inspired young people in both parties to get involved. We have no way of anticipating how his actions will be viewed over time, but I’m thankful that I got to witness such a monumental moment in our country’s history.