In what was one of the most political “non-political” speeches ever given, last night President Obama attempted to define his legacy.
As usual, he chose to define himself more by what he is not than by defining what he is. He remains a political spectre in many ways. He is not Clinton. He is not Bush. He is not “the Republican Party”. He is not Romney. And now, last night, he is not Trump.
The problem with his strategy is he is exiting the office as not much of a president in the eyes of millions of Americans. Whatever he actually is, voters have had enough of it.
Obama leaves behind a broken and desperate country, once mesmerized by his promises of hope and change but today victimized by his failure and indifference. And his failure drives the presidential politics we are struggling to explain today.
His goals were to unify the country and transform our politics. But today, America remains more deeply divided than ever and largely untransformed economically and compromised internationally.
Obama’s job approval rating on the economy is underwater. Obama has added over $8 trillion to our national debt, possibly doubling it by the time he leaves office. Wage growth is flat and five million jobs are unfilled. Health care costs continue to rise and as payers and providers race to merge with each other in an effort to manage these costs, the end result could be fewer choices for consumers. American businesses are forced to flee the unrelenting beast known as the US tax code in order to remain competitive in the global marketplace. Americans are frustrated and scared by these changes, and the president has done little to nothing to address these fears, especially with the white, working class voters that are hurt by them most.
Obama said he would “lead from behind” and improve America’s standing in world. He cites foreign opinion polls to support his contention it’s working but Americans think his foreign policy stinks, disapproving 57% to 37%. Americans are growing progressively uneasy as Putin proactively wages a new Cold War to preserve and expand Russia’s client states, Iran and Saudi Arabia ease dangerously close to a proxy war, North Korea expands its atomic testing and, of highest concern to most voters, ISIS reaches silently into our streets with the poison gas of lethal hate, murdering innocent victims not just in the Middle East but on the streets of Paris and California.
Pessimistic on the economy. Scared on security. And scared people get angry and defensive.
Our politics are stuck like Flick’s tongue to the school flagpole. Democrats defend Obama. Republicans loathe him. No one listens to anyone but shouts at everyone and generally, all stay surly. One of the most shocking stats: America’s mood on race now stands at a 20 year low, positive views on race relations plummeting 43% since Obama’s election. This is a stunning collapse under our first African-American president, an extraordinary tearing asunder of the conscience of our country on the watch of a man once perceived to have such great gifts to heal.
People have given up. Seven of 10 Americans believe the country is off on the wrong track. 73% of voters think the next president should take a different approach from Obama. Which explains, in part, the current state of the race for President.
In Iowa and New Hampshire, the two states where the most campaigning has been done, I give you the respective leaders for their parties’ nominations:
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
Think about that. This is what two terms of Barack Obama has wrought. In Iowa and New Hampshire, two Purple states, swing states that decide presidential elections, the Democrats want a declared Socialist and the Republicans want an angry Populist.
Obama’s legacy could actually be a Sanders vs. Trump general election. Yes, I realize that there are miles to go in this race, and yes I have the humility to realize I might have a better chance of winning the Powerball than to explain right now who will win this race. But to be here, in this place, three weeks out from the night of the Iowa Caucuses, is truly extraordinary.
Democrats are ready to trudge through the snow and cold to declare that a grumpy Socialist should be president. And Republicans are willing to raise their hand in a room full of their neighbors and say “I’m for Donald Trump”, an angry populist.
Desperation from Democrats. Indignation from Republicans. That’s the Obama legacy. That’s why, in the form of Trump and Sanders, millions of Americans in both parties seem to be telling him to get the hell off their lawn.
PS: I explored some of this on CNN yesterday with Kate Bolduan, John Berman and Donna Brazile. The conversation on this point starts about :30 in.
*Polls cited include the most recent NYT/WSJ and the CBS/NYT.