Barack Obama ceded the presidency to Donald Trump approximately a year ago. In the subsequent time, Trump’s administration has uprooted foundational elements of Obama’s legacy. Among other things, he has pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Accord, removed the individual mandate from Obama’s landmark Affordable Care Act, eliminated DACA, pulled the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and reversed net neutrality.
These reversals of policy are significant and, in a vacuum, it could be argued they will undermine the way in which Obama’s presidency is portrayed for years to come. Future students of history will reasonably ask why we should respect a man’s policy achievements if they were erased within a year of his egress.
Obama’s legacy was not clear to begin with. During his tenure, the political right despised him (often for racially motivated reasons). To be blunt, the Republican base was not comfortable with a black man as our president. The left had its own issues. Many were strongly opposed to his drone strike policy, claiming it was immoral and extralegal. Additionally, some critics do not think he did enough to help get Hillary Clinton get elected.
However, none of these elements that muddy Obama’s legacy matter. The man who succeeded him is the most outwardly dysfunctional president in the modern era. In the context of Trump, Obama’s legacy is secure.
Trump’s administration has been a mess. Whether or not you believe in his policy initiatives, his presidency has been decidedly un-presidential. Trump (and his administration) have become tabloid fodder. Just a month ago, Trump was alleged to have cheated on his current wife with a porn star, who was then paid over a hundred thousand dollars to sign a non-disclosure agreement. The caveat of this story is it’s shockingly quick run in the news cycle. In another presidency, such as Obama’s, a story like this would have dominated headlines for months and years, but not in Trump’s.
Also, Trump is outwardly racist. He recently referred to various predominantly black nations as “shitholes,” adding that we should only accept immigrants from places like Norway. He defended literal nazis after the Charlottesville protests over the summer. He retweeted videos from a British far right, anti-Islam party. His attorney general is a man who was once barred from being a judge because he was deemed too racist. The level of racial vitriol on display from him and the people he associates with on a daily basis is unprecedented in the modern presidential era. Even before he was president, his most famous political moment was the campaign to make Obama release his birth certificate, which was widely criticized as racist.
Obama is the polar opposite. His presidential scandals were absurdly trivial. He was criticized for things ranging from wearing a tan suit to putting dijon mustard on his hot dog. His golfing habits were widely ridiculed by the right, but Trump has far surpassed him on that front as well.
Contrary to Trump, Obama’s racial legacy is probably his greatest accomplishment. The first line of any historical write-up on him will include his status as the first black president. A generation of black children grew up knowing the most powerful office in the world was occupied by someone who looked like them. In a nation which has been shaped by its legacy of slavery, the importance of a black president cannot be understated. Beyond this, Obama handled racially charged situations like the Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin shootings with aplomb. These were situations in which he could have been furious, and rightfully so. As Obama himself said, “Trayvon Martin could have been me.” However, he continually attempted to appeal to the broader country, and explain why events like this shook the African-American community to its core.
Obama will go down as a great president, in part due to the context Trump’s chaotic and bigoted presidency provides. Obama is now embedded in the general public’s memory as a dignified, trustworthy voice of reason. His legacy could have emerged as positive before Trump, but it was unclear. Trump’s presidency has fully solidified it.
Harry Zehner is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org