When Barack Obama took office in 2008, he vowed to bring to America a host of changes. Chiefly among these, America’s first African American President promised to overhaul the nation’s healthcare system, provide additional rights to Gay Americans and stricter policies on gun control. While his presidency has seen incremental victories, his efforts have largely been thwarted by partisan politics and heavy Republican opposition.
As recently as two weeks ago, Obama’s legacy looked to be mostly that of a lame duck. All of that changed with three momentous victories . On June 26th the Supreme Court legalized the right to marry for Gay men and women. This decision was the peak of a pivotal week of change in both American history and for Obama’s legacy as president. In just a few short days, Obama won a major trade battle with Congress and the Supreme court upheld housing rights and swept aside the last major threat to his signature domestic policy achievement - expanding healthcare coverage to millions more Americans.
To be sure, these victories were not solely Obama’s. Republicans and the business community had strongly backed his trade agreement. Mitt Romney vocally supported the removal of the confederate flag. Moreover, these changes mark a significant shift towards a more progressive attitude amongst an increasingly diverse America, especially amongst the nation’s youngest voters - the Millenial generation.
Obama's recent reversal of fortunes began when Congress, which had previously stymied his efforts to pass a measure to give him "fast-track" authority to negotiate a 12-nation trade pact, sent the same bill to his desk for signature. Effectively reversing the rebuke from earlier in June led by labor unions and the vocal left of the Democratic Party.
On Thursday, June 25th the Supreme Court issued 6-3 ruling upholding subsidies for Americans purchasing insurance through the federal health exchange. The ruling not only shielded more than six million Americans from effectively losing their insurance coverage, but it signaled the likely end of legal assaults on the bill both panned and praised under "Obamacare”.
In what is seen as a big victory for civil rights advocates and the Obama administration, the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday also rejected an attempt to narrow the scope of the Fair Housing Act, one of the nation's most important civil rights laws.
And on Friday June 26, Obama again responded to another ruling from the high court — this time a landmark decision that protected the constitutionality of the right to same-sex marriage.
The Supreme Court's decision surpassed a surprisingly rapid change in American public opinion on acceptance of same sex marriage, largely during Obama's time in office.
In October of 2009, just 41 percent of Americans favored allowing gays and lesbians to marry, while 62 percent opposed such a move, according to polling from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal. Now, nearly six-in-ten back the right to marry, with just 33 percent opposed. Obama himself changed his opinion on the issue, announcing support for gay marriage in May 2012.
Instead of riding a wave of victory for the week, Obama returned to address another issue that his administration has encountered – race relations. In Charleston South Carolina following the shooting murder of nine parishoners of a black church by a white man with racist beliefs. Eulogizing Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine attendees killed, Obama firmly addressed not only violent racism in America but the less overt and deceitful aspects of prejudice that restrain real equality.
"Maybe we now realize the way racial bias can infect us even when we don't realize it, so that we're guarding against not just racial slurs, but we're also guarding against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal," Obama said.
While his speech in Charleston was very moving, it also reflected the limits of what Obama has been able to accomplish. The progress towards better race relations has been markedly slow.
“Are we going to make this a more inclusive economy, a more inclusive society, a more fair, just society?” he asked. “If that's our North Star and we keep on tacking in that direction, we're going to make progress.”
I largely believe Obama’s historical significance would be for being the nation’s first African American President. Perhaps for that reason I did not hoist such lofty expectations upon him. Taking office in the midst of the worst recession our nation has seen since the Great Depression, I figured the odds were already stacked against him. I can see now how I may have prejudged his abilities. Though the adage that “success has many parents, failure is an orphan” is very true, we cannot underestimate the role that Obama has played in shaping the tides of change in our country.
As Obama’s tenure in office draws to a close, I am reminded of the powerful image of Obama created by artist Shepard Fairey used in the 2008 campaign – and its one word – Hope. I am more hopeful now that future generations will work towards an America that is more inclusive for all its citizens.