Like a child star who reached his peak at age 15, Barack Obama could never fulfill the inflated expectations that accompanied his election. After all not only was he heralded as the “smartest” president in history within months of assuming the White House, but he also secured the Nobel Peace Prize during his first year in office. Usually, it takes actually settling a conflict or two — like Richard Nixon or Jimmy Carter — to win such plaudits.
The greatest accomplishment of the Obama presidency turned out to be his election as the first African American president. This should always be seen as a great step forward. Yet, the Obama presidency failed to accomplish the great things promised by his election: racial healing, a stronger economy, greater global influence and, perhaps most critically, the fundamental progressive “transformation” of American politics.
Rather than stress his biracial background, Obama, once elected, chose to place his whiteness in the closet and identified almost entirely with a particular notion of the American black experience.
Whenever race-related issues came up — notably in the area of law enforcement — Obama and his Justice Department have tended to embrace the narrative that America remains hopelessly racist. As a result, he seemed to embrace groups like Black Lives Matter and, wherever possible, blame law enforcement, even as crime was soaring in many cities, particularly those with beleaguered African American communities.
Eight years after his election, more Americans now consider race relations to be getting worse, and we are more ethnically divided than in any time in recent history. As has been the case for several decades, African Americans’ economic equality has continued to slip, and is lower now than it was when Obama came into office in 2009, according to a 2016 Urban League study.
The economic equation
On the economy, Obama partisans can claim some successes. He clearly inherited a massive mess from the George W. Bush administration, and the fact that the economy eventually turned around, albeit modestly, has to be counted in his favor.
Yet, if there was indeed a recovery, it was a modest one, marked by falling productivity and low levels of labor participation. We continue to see the decline of the middle class, and declining life expectancy, while the vast majority of gains have gone to the most affluent, largely due to the rising stock market and the recovery of property prices, particularly in elite markets.
At the same time, Obama leaves his successor a massive debt run-up, doubling during his watch, and the prospect of steadily rising interest rates. Faith in the current economic system has plummeted in recent years, particularly among the young, a majority of whom, according to a May 2016 Gallup Poll, now have a favorable view of socialism. Economic anxiety helped spark not only the emergence of Bernie Sanders, but later the election of Donald Trump.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com. He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, was published in April by Agate. He is also author of The New Class Conflict, The City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.