The work of unraveling President Barack Obama’s legacy is underway, but even if the Trump administration and a Republican Congress reverse every last law and regulation, they won’t be able to touch the core of it.
Obama’s enduring legacy will be as a cultural symbol, the first African-American president, who represented a current of social change in the country and reflected the values and attitudes of the progressive elite.
He will be remembered — and revered — by his admirers as his generation’s JFK. The standards here are largely stylistic, and Obama checks nearly every box: He was a young president; a photogenic man with a good-looking family; a symbol of generational change; an orator given to flights of inspiring rhetoric; if not a wit exactly, a facile talker with a taste for mocking the other side.
The process is a little like Romans deciding which emperors to make gods after their deaths, depending on their reputations. For Democrats, LBJ and Jimmy Carter were too unglamorous and too obviously failures, whereas Bill Clinton gave too much ground to Republicans (and didn’t keep his dalliances discreet). Obama won two terms, is as ideologically pure as reasonably possible, and has cultural staying power.
The original myth of Camelot was borne aloft by the tragedy of JFK’s assassination, which created a suspension of disbelief about the martyred president.
Obama isn’t a martyr, but his supporters have experienced the election of Donald Trump as a major trauma. For them, the poignancy and power of Obama as a symbol of what they consider a better America will increase every single day of the Trump years.
The New York Times columnist Tom Wicker once wrote a book on Richard Nixon called One of Us. The liberal opinion elite fell in love with Obama because he was one of them. In sensibility and worldview, he’s a writer for the New Yorker who happened to win two presidential elections.
Words matter to Obama. He is comfortable with popular culture and embodies a certain kind of cool. When he is not whipping up a crowd, he has the affect of a Harvard lecturer. His politics are assumed to be unassailable common sense wherever unreflective liberals gather, from faculty lounges to Hollywood fundraisers.
One of the root causes of Obama’s domestic political failure was the tension between his pitch for himself as a unifying figure and the fact that he was a committed man of the Left. He could be one or other, but not both. He always chose his left-wing politics.
His favorite rhetorical crutch was to portray his positions as the centrist path between two extremes, although this was convincing only to people who already agreed with him. His inability or unwillingness to compromise proved devastating to his party, which got wiped out in 2010, 2014, and most importantly 2016. This puts much of what he accomplished legislatively and unilaterally in jeopardy.
Obama the symbol, though, will remain wholly intact. His election in 2008 was a genuinely historic and affecting cultural milestone. The country had sent to the White House man who a few decades prior wouldn’t have been allowed to stay in some motels.
Attitudes notably shifted to the Left during Obama’s presidency on highly contested cultural issues. In the space of about seven years, he went from opposing gay marriage to lighting up the White House in rainbow colors to celebrate the Supreme Court’s gay-marriage decision.
At least temporarily, he discovered a different way to win elections that had almost as much cultural resonance as electoral significance. When and if the so-called coalition of the ascendant rises again, Obama will be remembered as its architect, and an exemplar of the demographic changes behind it.
And Obama isn’t going away. He will be a memoirist, lecturer, and late-night-show guest representing enlightened liberalism in exile, stoking nostalgia and yearning among his supporters.
Even as his substantive legacy washes away, the apotheosis will begin.