SUSAN DAVIS: Barack Obama won the White House on the promise of hope and change. As the first black president prepares to leave office, we look back on what he delivered. I’m Susan Davis. The Obama legacy, tonight on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) By so many measures our country’s stronger and more prosperous than it was when we started. And you can’t argue that we’re not better off. We are.
MS. DAVIS: Barack Obama inherited an economy in crisis, high unemployment and record-setting home foreclosures. Eight years later, the stock market is strong, the economy is stable, and health care has become a reality for millions of previously uninsured Americans. But critics, including the president-elect, say the recovery has been too slow and too many people have been left behind.
PRESIDENT-ELECT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Some of you in this audience, hardworking, incredible Americans, were making more money 20 years ago than you’re making today. And in many cases, you have two jobs.
MS. DAVIS: As commander in chief, Obama gave the order to take out Osama bin Laden, and drawdown American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The president helped broker the Iran nuclear deal and restore diplomatic relations with Cuba. But Obama’s legacy has been tarnished by setbacks and failures. The Guantanamo Bay prison remains open. The rise of ISIS and the humanitarian crisis in Syria have plagued the White House. And the expanded use of weaponized drones to kill suspected terrorists remains controversial.
We explore how history may remember the 44th president with Dan Balz of The Washington Post, Jackie Calmes of The New York Times, Michael Duffy of TIME Magazine, and Michael Fletcher of The Undefeated.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, Susan Davis of NPR.
MS. DAVIS: Good evening. Barack Obama entered the White House with high expectations and an inspirational “yes, we can” vision of a post-racial America. But as Gwen Ifill wrote in her book, “The Breakthrough,” post-racial means different things to different people. Gwen wrote, “In politics, this usually signals that a painful and challenging power shift is under way.” She went on to say what happens with a breakthrough, “The first ones through the door often get bruised.”
Dan, Obama’s victory was heralded as a victory for a post-racial America. Was that optimism misplaced?
DAN BALZ: Certainly, although I don’t think President Obama ever believed that he was going to be able to usher in a post-racial time. That was something that other people ascribed to him. You know, if you think about the way he ran his campaign in 2008, he basically stayed away from racial issues. He was drawn in with the Reverend Wright controversy and the very eloquent speech he gave at the National Constitution Center in response to that, mostly a way to get out of a political predicament.
As president, he never called for a national conversation on race, as President Clinton had done. And yet, he was constantly drawn into discussions of race because of events, because of outside events, particularly police shootings of unarmed black citizens. Time and again, he had to talk about racial issues, both from the perspective of the president of all the people but also uniquely as somebody who had grown up with those same experiences. And so he often spoke personally about it. When Trayvon Martin was killed he said at one point, that could have been my son. He said, that could have been me 35 years ago.
But he also, even in speaking to the country as a whole, always tried to speak to the white community as a person of color, and basically saying: You have to understand, America – white America – the experiences and perspectives that people of color have and why they are responding to these moments the way they have.
MS. DAVIS: Michael, you’ve written so much about this over the years as well. And as Dan referenced, there were so many moments in this presidency of racial tensions. You mentioned just a couple – Trayvon Martin, the shootings, think of even the rise of birtherism. Was there a philosophical approach Obama had to how he tried to address and soothe those tensions?
MICHAEL FLETCHER: I think so. I think, you know, Dan touched on this. I think the president tried to sort of draw on people’s empathy. And he used his biography to do that. I mean, he – you know, he grew up as a black man, but grew up with his white grandparents for the most part. He would often reference that when he talked about race. And he would sort of talk to both sides.
And he would be a guy kind of straddling the fence, in a sense, you know, explaining to the white community the outrage that black citizens would feel, say, behind racial profiling, but also explaining to black citizens that, hey, when you use the term of, say – term white privilege, for example, you know, not all white folks feel privileged. You know, he would sort of talk about things like that, and talk about his personal experience as a way to kind of – you know, just to get people on board, and get people to – sort of like get their better angels involved.
And when he could, quite frankly, he ignored the question of racism, interestingly. I was talking earlier this week to Jim Clyburn, you know, one of the senior members of Congress. And we were talking about Obama’s legacy around this. And he was recalling the whole controversy around the Joe Wilson “you lie” comment. And he led the effort in Congress to censor Joe Wilson. And at the time, the health care bill was just percolating in Congress.
And the president, you know, was, like, you know, don’t pursue this, Jim. You know, we don’t need to talk about this. We need to do stuff. You know, drop that. And, you know, Clyburn refused to drop that. But to me, that sort of spoke volumes about how Obama – you know, and this was seen as a big racial insult to many people. But Obama didn’t want to go there. He said, let’s keep our eyes on the ball.
MS. DAVIS: One of the issues that Obama did seem to want to talk about race was about inequality in the justice system, that he focused – he was the first president to go to a federal prison, and the commutations of sentences for non-violent offenders. Do you think that that is a part of his legacy that will last?
MICHAEL DUFFY: Well, I know that he would hope that it is one that has a big legacy. Particularly in the second term, Sue, he put a lot of emphasis. He and previous Attorney General Eric Holder really set out in the second term to do something significant about the way African-Americans were sentenced. It’s tough at the federal level, because most sentencing takes place at the local level. There are guidelines. And they worked hard to change those. They worked hard, as we’ve seen just in this last week, to change, as you said, clemency and commutations.
And that was something that they did not, clearly, want to do in the first term – they had other priorities – but they moved really aggressively in the second term on. And I think you can tell by the way he talked about it – which wasn’t that often – but when he did it mattered a great deal to him. And I would say one other thing about this issue, with respect to President Obama. He was aided, strangely, by technology. The shootings, which – of African-American suspects and just witnesses to crimes has always gone on. It was – it’s well-known in the black community, but white America doesn’t really know about it.
The cameras and the videos that capture those incidents in these last eight years changed the conversation. And if technology put that on the front page, the Black Lives Matter movement kept it there. And I think that – they really made that issue something the rest of the country couldn’t walk away from, couldn’t ignore. And he was drawn into that as well.
MS. DAVIS: And the conversation did change in some ways on that as well because I think the Congress and Washington as a whole looks at that conversation a little bit differently at the end of Obama’s term. There’s some Republican allies in Congress on that issue now as well.
MR. DUFFY: Particularly with respect to sentencing and prisons.
MS. DAVIS: Yes, exactly.
MR. DUFFY: Their agendas are different, but there is a confluence of – one is about budget, one is about justice.
MS. DAVIS: Exactly.
Well, the president also inherited one of the worst economic crises in America’s history. Obama’s economic stimulus package and the bailouts for Wall Street and the auto industry helped prevent a bigger global meltdown. But critics still question whether it was the right thing to do. There’s been a steady, if slow, economic recovery over the past eight years, but a majority of Americans still believe that the country has been on the wrong track.
Jackie, as someone who has covered so much of the economy over the last eight years, why the disconnect?
JACKIE CALMES: Well, you start from the fact that the Great Recession – I mean, think about this, there were 2.3 million jobs lost between Election Day of 2008 and inauguration in January, 2009. But the trends – those job losses exacerbated trends that had been hurting the middle class back to the ’70s. You know, the idea of lower productivity and more automation, globalization with trade, and wage stagnation and inequality. And so a lot of – with the Great Recession, a lot of the good jobs didn’t come back. And what they were replaced with was more of the service jobs, that are the current trend of where most of the new jobs come from, with little if any benefits and lower pay.
So all of that has come into play. And even as there’s been steady job increases since 2010, there’s very little credit. And President Obama’s been hobbled. I’ve seen this throughout his entire term, that as things got better he could only take credit so far. And he always had to couple every bit of good news with, but things aren’t good enough yet. And Democrats had to do the same thing, or they would have seemed to be tone-deaf to people’s worries.
MS. DAVIS: But could he have done more?
MS. CALMES: He could have done more. And he would be the first to admit to. He tried to do more. And that gets sort of to a second – the second reason for why people – there’s this disconnect, is that, you know, you got to call it the big lie, which is that the stimulus failed. It did not fail. It should have been bigger, arguably, or sustained over a longer period of time. And that’s not me talking. That’s the consensus of economists in this country across the range. The University of Chicago does surveys of economists. And I was told recently, when I asked economists – I was told that there’s more consensus on this question that the stimulus was successful than any other question.
And so then – but the very people then who have said – including, in this 2016 presidential campaign and congressional races – still saying the stimulus was a failure, were, you know, forces in the other party that were obstructing when he tried to do infrastructure, when he tried to do additional spending in areas that he thought would be stimulative – like education and human resources. So now it’s interesting that President-elect Trump will come in and there’s all this talk about infrastructure and stimulus, and the market – and the stock market goes crazy over it. So it’ll be interesting –
MS. DAVIS: Is Republican spending OK when it’s Republican spending? (Laughter.)
Michael, but Jackie touched on something there, that we talk about the climate that President Obama lived in. For six years of his presidency, it was a divided government. He faced Republicans in Congress. How did he navigate that? And how did a divided Washington affect what he was able to do?
MR. FLETCHER: I think the divide became one of his greatest frustrations. I think he said as much. He came as a guy who saw himself as being able to bring people together. And he’s going to be a guy who embraces good ideas, is going to try to tone down the partisanship. And I think he started off that way. But you look – we were in crisis as a country when he came into office. And you start with his very first big piece of legislation, the stimulus package, barely got it through. It became a partisan bill, when the country’s kind of in this moment of crisis. So I think there was a big lesson drawn from that.
And he continued to negotiate with the health care bill, and that dragged on and on and on. And eventually, the Democrats had to push it through in a partisan way. And then immigration comes along, and the president can’t get consensus on that. And again, you know, he ends up going to the power of the pen and using executive orders to do things that he wants to get done. So you saw the president move from wanting to sort of have this kind of bipartisan moment, sort of bring the country together, to sort of – you know, sort of using the power of the presidency to move some of his initiatives. And I think that’s probably one of his lasting frustrations and something that, you know, he wishes would be different.
MS. DAVIS: But, Dan, you brought up the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare. Considering all the political fallout from everything that’s come since passage of the health care law, do Democrats broadly, and Barack Obama specifically, still think it was worth it?
MR. BALZ: Oh, very much so, and certainly President Obama. I mean, he will mark that as one of his greatest achievements as president, no matter what happens afterwards. I mean, I think where he failed was in his ability to sell it to a broader part of the country. He and his advisors always believed that as it became implemented, as it became embedded in the fabric of the health care system that people would accept it and come to embrace it and come to say this was a very good idea. Because of the partisan divisions in the country, that never happened. And so that’s why we have a situation now, as he goes out of office, Republicans are kind of champing at the bit to be able to try to repeal it and replace it.
I think the president’s view also is: Easier said than done. That as the Republicans look at this, they will find how complicated and how difficult it is going to be. But I think he has no question that this was the right thing to do. He went against the advice of some of his advisors to scale back at the moment when it looked like it was going to be tough to get through. He said, we have to do it now. We’re going to do it big. We’re going to do the whole thing. So that, to him, is a proud piece of his legacy.
MS. DAVIS: Let’s shift now to national security and foreign policy. The president gave the order that took out Osama bin Laden. And he made good on his campaign promise to withdraw nearly all U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011. But the withdrawal of the military forces there created a vacuum that many believe led to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Michael, I want to ask you about the Obama doctrine, broadly, which seemed to favor negotiation over confrontation on the world stage. How did that work out for him?
MR. DUFFY: Well, no president goes into office with a doctrine that survives all the way through the end of four or eight years. (Laughter.) They always look really different. But if you had to sum up what it looks like, in retrospect, in hindsight, because I think that’s what we’re here to do – (laughter) – I’d say that it was – it’s a foreign policy that favors multilateral action over unilateral action, that favors a limited interpretation of U.S. power overseas – some said too limited – and that was definitely keen to reduce the size of the U.S. military footprint and approached complicated global problems that can’t be solved by one nation or another through negotiations, in the case of certainly Iran, certainly the Paris climate accords. Those were multilateral, complicated negotiations that took years, and involved more than one administration.
And it’s – I think if Obama were here, he would say, look, I reduced our presence in Afghanistan to 10,000 troops. It was 15 times that 10 years ago. I reduced our presence in Iraq to 5,000 troops, it was 30 times that 10 years ago. I’ve increased our presence in Syria in the last year to between 500 and 1,000 troops – we don’t really know how many, they haven’t really said – because of the rise of ISIS. And I would bet, that if we were polling, most Americans would say individually all of those decisions were good. But they also gave rise to criticism.
From the left, a kind of interventionist mindset, particularly on the humanitarian front, says you could have done more. On the right, a more ideological mindset says America needs to play bigger. And there was some of that that affected the presidential campaign in 2016.
MS. DAVIS: Did the president miscalculate how serious a threat the Islamic threat was, or how serious a threat Americans saw the rise of ISIS as?
MR. DUFFY: Certainly the second. You know, President Obama always said ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States, and he was right. He was talking about the continental United States. They weren’t going to take it out. But Americans, I think, regard it as a threat for three reasons. One is that – the first is it grew out of Iraq, a war they didn’t particularly love and thought was coming to the end. And at the end of that movie comes this threat that no one anticipated. Secondly, the threat was more barbaric and atavistic than even al-Qaida. And most Americans had not seen a threat greater than al-Qaida in their lifetimes. And out comes ISIS, and it’s worse.
And that – and the third reason is that – is that by the end of 2015, whether it’s in recruiting stations in Tennessee or military bases in Texas or schools in California, you had lone actors claiming an allegiance to ISIS. So while a president can stand up and say, this isn’t a threat to our national security, Americans felt personally terrified.
MS. DAVIS: Jackie, I want to ask you about Syria, because I think one of the moments for Obama there was the red line, that the use of chemical weapons was a red line for the U.S. The red line was crossed. And the U.S. has been hesitant in Syria in some ways. Did his decision making there – how much has it impacted what’s happened there, and how much has that tarnished the U.S. as sort of a moral authority in these engagements?
MS. CALMES: Well, it’s very interesting because – looking back, as that’s what we’re here to do – that August 2013 period really was a dividing line in his administration. Up to then, a lot of his effort and the focus was on domestic and fiscal policy and economic policy. At that point, when he drew that red line and then failed to cross it when there was evidence that Syria had used chemical weapons, and going forward – not just for that reason, but it has happened – ever since then, there’s been much more of a national security-focused presidency.
And I mean, one lesson is don’t draw red lines unless you are 100 percent sure you’re going to cross it. (Laughter.) But second, it did diminish him. And even though – I mean, he’s the president, so the buck stops there. But he had decided he was going to go to Congress. There had been – some critics were saying: You need to get Congress’s buy in. He went to Congress, Congress wouldn’t buy in, Republicans or Democrats. So he stepped back from the vote in Congress.
And it was – and then quickly Russia brokered a deal whereby the U.S. and Russia got almost all the chemical weapons, as far as we know – although there’s some evidence there’s traces left – got the chemical weapon out of Syria, destroyed some of the facilities that make them, without firing a shot. So, I mean, there was a good end. But still the perception was there, and it has carried forward to the present in the mess that is Syria.
MS. DAVIS: And, Dan, that – as Jackie brings up – it raises the question of Russia, right? I mean, was Russia always this threat and we just didn’t see it as clearly? I mean, how did the president respond to Russia then, and considering how much it’s on the forefront of people’s minds today?
MR. BALZ: Well, I mean, it’s been an irritant throughout the tenure of his presidency. I mean, we have to remember they started with the infamous reset. But as – you know, as Vladimir Putin regained the power of the presidency there, their relationship went down from there. And then the president has gotten a considerable amount of criticism for being too passive, as he has in other areas, in his dealings with Putin and the Russians. I think his argument always is: I have done something that is practical and realistic, as opposed to trying to do something symbolic that wouldn’t do any good.
But there’s no question that the views of Putin and the views of how the president has handled him were harmful to his image as president. And, again, something that played into the 2016 campaign. We now have a president-elect who seems to want to go in a totally different direction. It’s worrisome to a lot of people who think he’s too friendly. But it’s all of a reaction to what has and hasn’t happened under President Obama.
MS. DAVIS: Hmm. You know, I don’t think we can talk about Obama without talking about the cultural shifts that have happened in this country during his administration, not necessarily that he had everything to do with it. But the Supreme Court ruled on marriage equality – in favor of marriage equality in this country. The administration has also tried to advance the cause of transgender Americans. How has the country responded to these cultural shifts?
MR. FLETCHER: It’s been interesting. I think it’s been kind of a mixed reaction. But first, you know, in many fronts this country is more tolerant than ever. I mean, you mentioned transgender rights. In North Carolina there was a big vote, the governor was – lost his office, something – because of their bathroom law, which required people to use the bathroom that’s on their birth certificate that corresponds with their gender, right? And, you know, who would have thought that eight years ago, 10 years ago? I know I would not have. I think there’s a –
MS. CALMES: Barack Obama wouldn’t have. (Laughter.)
MR. FLETCHER: He wouldn’t have. Well, he was evolving, right?
MS. CALMES: Right, exactly.
MR. FLETCHER: At that time. You know, you look at – gay rights is the same thing, where you have remarkably tolerant sort of view among the American people. We talked about all the fraughtness around race relations. Even there I think this country has made progress. Essentially you can go anywhere in the country now. I was at a – my son in law is basketball coach. We were in Hagerstown watching his team play. And you’re in Hagerstown, Maryland, and you’re watching any number of interracial couples, you know, grandmothers with brown grandchildren. And this is the new American in many ways. And everyone – at least on that level, obviously there are tensions underneath – they got along fine.
But fast forward to the election, you see what happened in the election. So clearly there are tensions. I think a lot of the vote wasn’t as much about economics as it was about a cultural displacement. I don’t think people are necessarily against transgender people or gay people, but they feel like they’ve been lost in the conversation. So I think there’s some feeling like people want to be included in this conversation about the new America.
MS. DAVIS: OK. Well, and finally, on January 20th, Donald Trump officially becomes part of the exclusive “Presidents Club.” Michael, you’ve written about this relationship that past presidents have with sitting presidents. Do you expect that to continue under President Trump?
MR. DUFFY: Well, I think he’ll change the name of the club to the Trump Club. (Laughter.) I think we all know that.
MR. BALZ: Big letters.
MR. DUFFY: Yeah, big letters. It’s too bad, but it’s just inevitable.
MS. DAVIS: Huge.
MR. DUFFY: So – (laughs) – well, look, if it can include every president from, you know, Harry Truman, to Barack Obama, to Richard Nixon, to Jimmy Carter, certainly there’s room for Donald Trump. What’s interesting to me, and I know we’ve all seen this and reported on it, is the extent to which the current president, President Obama, has both privately and publicly tried to support the new incoming president, both in public with some meetings, in private with more phone calls than I think they’ve probably both let on.
And both men have been outspoken – well, certainly, President-elect Trump has said – you know, he told us in an interview we did a few weeks ago, I just felt a chemistry with President Obama. (Laughter.) Well, that was not a chemistry he felt before he was president-elect. But something about stepping into this job and finally talking with someone who’s had it, and worn the mantle and shared the burden – or, you know, borne the burdens, really does change you.
And I think -- while I don’t think President Obama has become a big fan of Donald Trump’s in the last month, it’s to his credit that he has tried to offer help, guidance, and assistance. It’s clear that Trump hasn’t taken all the help, guidance, and assistance. But they are trying to teach each other. The teams are working together. There have been some – more meetings between, you know, the West Wing staff coming in, to the extent that they’ve identified that, and the one that was there, Cabinet members. This is fairly traditional, but it’s a little more involved than I would have guessed six weeks ago.
MS. CALMES: You know, it’s interesting too because Democrats are a little – a lot of Democrats are disappointed that President Obama is so respectful. And what’s going to be interesting, and given the book you wrote, “The Presidents Club,” is four years old, but still a good Christmas present.
MS. DAVIS: And that’s a good way to leave it. (Laughter.)
Thanks, everybody. Our conversation continues online on the Washington Week Extra, where we will talk about one of the most iconic images from President Obama’s time in the White House, and what Michelle Obama may do next. You can find that later tonight at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. And while you’re there, take the Washington Week-ly Quiz about the first family.
On behalf of the entire Washington Week team, best wishes to you and yours for a healthy and happy holiday season. I’m Susan Davis. Good night.