In 1961, the year Barack Hussein Obama was born, 10 students (8 black, 2 white) boarded a bus in Nashville, Tennessee. Knowing what would meet them at the next stop — lead pipes, baseball bats and broken bottles held by Klansmen — the students hopped on the bus anyway.
One of those Freedom Riders was John Lewis, whose service in Congress now spans three decades. Lewis also happens to be a recent target of President-elect Donald Trump’s social media rants. “All talk, talk, talk—no actions or results. Sad!” Trump tweeted.
If not for the courage of Lewis and fellow civil rights warriors, the election of President Obama 46 years later would never have happened.
Obama’s two terms as president proudly reflect our country’s evolution. And though his presidency never ushered in a post-racial America or healed the race divide, it is under the banner of “First” that Obama’s legacy will stand.
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But it doesn’t stop there.
As Harold Moss, former mayor of Tacoma, recently told the TNT, above all else Obama’s legacy will not be about the color of his skin. It will be, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have wanted, about the content of his character.
Indeed, Obama’s scandal-free two terms left even his harshest critics calling him a man of great discipline and diplomacy. He never missed an opportunity to remind us of our identity, to direct Americans toward a more perfect union.
Through the Obama lens, the country’s biggest strength is, and always will be, in the diversity and multiculturalism of its people. Even though he didn’t openly support same-sex marriage early on, he had the White House illuminated in the rainbow motif after the Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality.
Yes, his record sometimes fell short of his sublime rhetoric. Progressives complain about his high immigrant deportation numbers and the normalization of counterterrorism drones.
Conservatives cry about the national debt that almost doubled in the Obama years.
His domestic policies, particularly the 2010 Affordable Care Act, are a heated matter of partisan dispute.
But more than 20 million Americans now receive health insurance because of the ACA, about 750,000 of whom live in Washington. Our state receives $3 billion a year in federal money for premium subsidies and expanded Medicaid funds.
Obama also protected over 550 million acres of land during his term, including the San Juan Islands National Monument in Washington.
Through executive order, Obama committed the U.S. to the Paris Accord, a climate change agreement that raises the chances future generations will inherit a livable world. His insistent message caused other countries, including big polluters India and China, to join the collective effort.
He went against the current of his party and promoted the Trans Pacific Partnership, the 12-country trade agreement that would limit tariffs that burden U.S. exports to Pacific Rim countries. Passage of TPP would have benefited Washington’s No. 1 trade economy, but political will on both sides of the aisle was absent. (Trump’s “America-first” message against TPP won him support, so it’s not likely to come back soon.)
From the beginning, the odds were stacked against Obama. His presidency began with a near-catastrophic economy, which he countered with a controversial $787 billion economic stimulus package. Partisan opponents made no secret of their intent to make his job difficult, if not impossible.
As Obama leaves office, he does so with a 64 percent approval rating. Agree or disagree with his policies, our 44th president was a gentleman and a scholar.
In the new era of Trump, a time when the 45th president picks Twitter fights with journalists, actresses and civil rights heroes, Barack Obama leaves us with a great commission:
“You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it. You can question somebody’s views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism.”
Let’s hope that we are not all so reflexively anti-Trump that we cannot heed Obama’s words. Therein may lie his legacy.