The man who is taking over the Oval Office presents such a striking contrast with the man who vacated it that it almost seems extraneous to evaluate Barack Obama’s presidency right now. At Thanksgiving, it was far easier and less necessary to defend Obama’s record to my relatives than it might have been if his recently elected replacement had been an ordinary conservative. But as a historian and longtime Obama observer and fan—and as someone who sat down with him to discuss a strategy for repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell”—I am finding it impossible to avoid the obligation to offer a preliminary appraisal as we all settle in to watch—and shape—what happens next.
Much of what impressed me about Obama has to do with his character, and thus with the process by which he leads. It is clear, first of all, that the man is not only brilliant, but that he uses his intelligence to great effect—in applying it both to himself and to the world he has sought to affect. According to a recent New York Times interview, Obama spent years in college in “a focused period of deep self-reflection and study, methodically reading philosophers from St. Augustine to Nietzsche, Emerson to Sartre to Niebuhr, to strip down and test his own beliefs.” This blend of curiosity and discipline was an effort to absorb enormous amounts of information while ever mindful of his own biases. Michelle Obama commented on her husband’s almost supernatural penchant for self-improvement. Except it’s not supernatural; it’s a matter of understanding and caring about how humans change and progress, and how, in turn, a country can evolve.
Obama’s understanding of his own capacity—and need—to continuously evolve is something he deftly applied to social change. His life story and his campaign approach—constantly telling supporters that they were they change they sought—made him into a kind of tabula rasa on which millions projected their hopes for both substantive and utopian progress. Of course, millions of others projected their fears of seeing their country captured by black and brown takers bent on smothering liberty with government excess.
Through this fog of mass fantasy, Obama always saw the long game. “Progress in a democracy is never instantaneous and is always partial, and you can’t get cynical or frustrated because you didn’t get all the way there immediately,” he told comedian Marc Maron in 2015. “Sometimes the task of government is to make incremental improvements.” He likened democratic republics to a cruise ship requiring constant course adjustments. What’s needed is to turn the vessel just two degrees at a time “so that 10 years from now, suddenly we’re in a very different place.” Yielding to boisterous demands for a 50-degree turn will turn the ship over. “Societies don’t turn 50 degrees,” Obama said. “Democracies certainly don’t turn 50 degrees.”
This rule of history may be a comforting thought, or a terrifying one, at a time when the man taking Obama’s job has shown himself to be a toxic mix of toddler and tyrant. As president, Donald Trump may try to turn the ship too far too quickly and send it into the depths of the sea. Or he may find that, as Obama noted, the ship simply won’t turn that quickly. If that’s the case, Obama’s accomplishments may be safer as a result of his understanding of the oft-derided but inescapable fact that change normally happens incrementally.
Indeed, Obama’s resounding successes—and there were many—came directly from understanding the ocean liner aspect of democratic liberalism, a view he often had to explain to supporters disappointed by the pace or limits of change. (This included many supporters of Bernie Sanders, whom I did not support precisely because I believed his well-intentioned and morally correct agenda would yield far more disappointment and dysfunction than either Obama’s or Hillary Clinton’s.)
The gains seen in LGBTQ equality under Obama are a case in point. As a pragmatist, Obama abandoned an earlier commitment to marriage equality as he inched closer to a presidential campaign. Was it dishonest pandering? Of course, as politics sometimes requires. Was it effective political compromise? Absolutely. At the time, no national political figure had ever taken office while supporting marriage equality. But once in power, Obama gave his administration’s full support to total LGBTQ equality.
Again, however, he went about it in pragmatic, incremental fashion. His retreat from marriage equality put him in the same camp as many LGBTQ activists, who, for a mix of ideological and strategic reasons, spent years pressing for civil unions instead of marriage. Obama explained that he was trying to “achieve the achievable” and promised that he would be a “fierce advocate” for LGBTQ people.
But first, he took plenty of heat for dragging his feet. Activists, including me, lambasted him for slow-rolling repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” as he worked behind the scenes to line up military support while—quite properly—prioritizing saving the economy, passing health care reform, and managing an increasingly chaotic and dangerous succession of global crises. LGBTQ advocates were right to apply pressure. We saw a brief window of Democratic control in Washington and knew that without being pushed, Washington almost surely would not have delivered repeal. But Obama, despite getting testy at times in the face of protest, understood how change happens. “I want you to hold our government accountable,” he had said while campaigning. “I want you to hold me accountable.” He was channeling Franklin D. Roosevelt’s exhortation to his supporters when he said, “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.” These presidents understood the inside-outside dimension of social change, in which political leaders rely on a base of activists to move the public and press the levers of power, thereby making it safe for political leaders to enact durable change. Activists are the foot soldiers, the laborers who grease the gears and clear the way for the ship to move. We don’t holler from the shores; we enter the bowels of the boat and the surf of the sea and ready the waters for the captain to oblige.
Reflecting on his LGBTQ legacy, Obama said in his final press conference that he was proud of his administration’s work on equality, but he graciously credited movement activists and ordinary LGBTQ people who bravely came out and changed hearts and minds. The White House, he said, pushed DADT repeal by being systematic, “methodical,” and respectful of different opinions—all with an eye toward avoiding “an enormous backlash.”
Both activists and the president built on the success of DADT repeal to advance marriage equality. Seeing only political benefits, and no costs, for having achieved repeal, the Obama administration yielded to pressure to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act, a crucial step in advancing successful litigation in federal courts. The next year, aware of majority support for marriage equality and citing the hardships and inspiration of lesbian, gay, and bisexual soldiers who served their nation but still couldn’t marry their partner, Obama finally endorsed marriage equality (again). The first sitting president to do so, he handily won re-election and helped further advance public approval, which reached new heights after his announcement. The president’s two liberal Supreme Court justice appointments, of course, made possible the triumph of marriage equality in 2015, a sobering reminder to Bernie or Bust types, if they still need one, that elections have consequences; they are not occasions to express your feelings.
Both before and after the White House helped make major legislative and legal gains on lesbian, gay, and bisexual military service and marriage, it made dozens of administrative and agency-wide rule changes that directly affected millions of LGBTQ people at home and abroad. These ranged from federal employee partner benefits and protections to bold policy and legal pronouncements on transgender equality in public accommodations, military service, and education. The heartening focus on the continuing hurdles to full transgender liberation was made possible, in part, but the growing approval of lesbian, gay, and bisexual lives and goals—and by the position of political strength created by lesbian, gay, and bisexual equality achievements.
While there is obviously more work to be done, and although the president’s role was often indirect, Obama’s legacy on LGBTQ issues may prove to be among his deepest and most complete—and thus the safest from reversal under Trump. Still, the successes of the president’s pragmatic incrementalism are visible in many other realms. The Affordable Care Act insured 20 million additional Americans, pushing the uninsured rate to its lowest ever. It was achieved through a politically compromising but successful plan to expand coverage in ways that wouldn’t alienate insurance companies. The law is vulnerable, but, having radically moved the bar toward universal coverage, even Trump is now (for what it’s worth) promising “insurance for everybody.”
Saving the American economy from the Great Recession would be an impressive legacy even if it were a president’s only major achievement—far from the case here. But the 2009 stimulus included measures that put money into the pockets of low-income workers, and it was followed by deals that extended tax cuts for the working poor and ended ones for the very rich. As Jonathan Chait has reported, when combining the effects of tax policy and expanded access to health care, Obama’s policies increased effective incomes for the poorest tenth of Americans by 27 percent while reducing slightly those of the top 1 percent, quietly denting inequality in modest but significant ways. The economy added more than 10 million jobs under Obama, and the unemployment rate dropped to historic lows. Add to this record substantial progress in addressing climate change, education improvements, worker pay, and the opening of Cuba, and you’re staring at a legacy difficult to rival in modern history.
Even in areas where Obama, and our nation, came up short, his pragmatic liberalism had a positive impact. His failure to push through meaningful gun control measures in the wake of the Sandy Hook school massacre was bitterly disappointing, but by using wrenching press conferences to deploy rare flashes of deep sadness and anger, he instantly justified his emotional restraint in so many other instances—and raised the moral bar for action. The intractable problem of race and the indefensible violence against African American men cried out for more from the first black president, but Obama’s reticence was born of a wish to avoid backlash—he was always sensitive to the need to meet people where they are. Sometimes he got the balance wrong, but eventually he found much-needed ways to confront the nation about race. “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” he told reporters the month after unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by a neighborhood vigilante. Obama chided Black Lives Matter leaders for spurning his White House invitation, telling them that being “as uncompromising as possible” could make them feel “moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want.” But he also told white Americans that they needed to engage in serious soul-searching and, drawing on the best tradition of American liberalism, urged a widening of empathy through the recognition that “what happens to [black] kids matters to me even if I never meet them.” More than just talk, Obama advanced criminal justice reform, signing legislation that reduced sentencing disparities that disproportionately punished African Americans, and he used his executive authority to commute unfair sentences and to change funding and prosecution practices that had exacerbated mass incarceration.
Societies don’t turn 50 degrees. But to Obama, “As long as they’re turning in the right direction and we’re making progress, then government is working” as it should. Sure, liberals want—and deserve—more, faster. But sometimes our instincts to express our righteous outrage come at the expense of working to create the change we want to see. We opt for moral purity over results. Recognizing that risk, and guarding against it, means recognizing the pragmatic liberalism of Barack Obama.
The impressive results of that liberalism are now vulnerable to Donald Trump’s rearguard agenda. But those changes, LGBTQ equality among them, whose roots were given time to deepen, that resulted from incremental change, are safer for having given Americans time to get used to them. President Obama made a promise early in his tenure that must have been based on his confidence that this pragmatic worldview could create a presidency that would make government work and thus help steer the ship in the right direction. “By the time this administration is over,” he told a room full of activists at a White House reception, “I think you guys will have pretty good feelings about the Obama administration.” We do.