It was a historic night. On Nov. 4, 2008, Barack Obama became the first African-American elected president of the United States. The Harvard Law School graduate and Illinois senator, then 47, swept into office with a vision of hope and the promise of change backed by an electorate eager for a different kind of Washington. Eight years later, as his time at the White House winds down, the Gazette asked scholars from across Harvard to reflect on the leadership of our 44th president: what they most admired, what was disappointing, and what most surprised them.
Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of the Study of Latin America
What I’ve most admired is Obama’s vision of the measured relationship between the United States and the rest of the world, politically and ecologically. I believe this expansive vision springs from his mixed-race identity. To me Obama is black because he is a mixed-race man, and even though he didn’t embrace the mixed-race category, what we call mestizaje in Latin America, his political vision was inclusive of Asians, Africans, Latin Americans, and Europeans. That is, he used his own politics and appearance to communicate a smarter international politics and bigger American heart to the world.
I’m very disappointed in his immigration policy, to deport so many undocumented people in abrupt and divisive ways. He was up against this hostile, intransigent Congress, but he missed chances in the early and middle part of his administration to come up with his own smarter, more politically effective and humane immigration policy. This initial position on immigration showed a tin ear to questions of poverty in the Southwest and along the Mexican border.
I was surprised by the growth of the man, the political and cultural growth. I wouldn’t say it’s been a turnaround or transformative growth — more of a kind of fulfillment. In the face of virulent resistance and racial constraints he was able to carve out a larger space where he got smarter. He came to fill the office of the presidency both politically and culturally in ways I haven’t seen from other presidents. Perhaps this growth is because he is not only the first black president, he is the first mixed-race president. I was surprised by how effective internationally he became. He became an American leader who communicated the potential of American democracy in his own body and voice in so many places in the world. That impressed me, that surprised me: how good he was at that. We also have to give great credit, in all of this, to his wife, Michelle.
Wilbur A. Cowett Professor of Government and of African and African American Studies
Admired: Hands down — the Affordable Care Act, followed closely by his gradual (but eventually full-throated) embrace of marriage equality. People often criticize him for his pragmatism, but it’s a pragmatism anchored to a clear sense of purpose, a refreshing capacity for change, and a firm resolve to actually get things done.
Disappointed: Failure to enact common-sense gun control, for which I lay the blame entirely at the feet of the NRA and its allies in Congress.
Surprised (tinged with disappointment): Our muddled and distressingly insufficient response to the war in Syria. His embrace of executive power, though in the context of a Congress mired in dysfunction it’s not entirely surprising.
Assistant professor of History of Art and Architecture and of African and African American Studies
The Obama presidency has productively challenged the relationship between race, representation, and citizenship in this country. As a professor of the history of art and architecture and African and African American Studies at Harvard, I spend my time thinking about the nexus of vision, race, and representation in the U.S. What I’ve been thinking of often over these years is how the construction of images of the Obama presidency and first lady Michelle Obama, in particular, reveal how much race has turned looking into our collective work.
The Obama presidency also reminds us of this fact: Race has turned visual scrutiny into part of the repertoire of American citizenship. Consider as one of many examples that the intense visual study of Michelle Obama’s figure itself went beyond the scrutiny historically received by first ladies, and of the kind that exposed the very core of our nation’s stereotypes and racial views. Yet ultimately, we’ve seen her image, in particular, become that of a colossus, a towering figure into which has fallen the opportunity, challenge, and contradiction of blackness, power, and beauty.
Robert M. Beren Professor of Economics
What I most admire: President Obama’s embrace of free trade, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, despite isolationist pressures within his own party.
What I find disappointing: His tendency to demonize people who disagree with him, which has helped polarize the political environment.
What surprised me: His felicity in completely reversing himself on issues such as same-sex marriage when the political winds shift direction. For the record, I agree with his current position in favor of same-sex marriage, rather than his 2008 campaign position opposing it.
William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Government
I cannot find anything to admire in the disastrous Obama presidency, except for the exemplary family life the president has led. What most surprised me is how little he has done for the situation and condition of the black citizens of our country. The error of his signal domestic accomplishment, Obamacare, and the grave risk of the Iran deal, his most important foreign policy action, though more damaging, were less surprising.
John Cowles Professor of Sociology
Obama’s first great achievement was to have won the presidency and then governed the country with remarkable competence, unruffled leadership, and admirable dignity, in the face of unprecedented opposition and racist antagonism. He has forever put to rest any lingering doubts about not so much the capacity of black persons to direct extremely complex systems with enormous challenges (since by now only a racist minority harbor such doubts) but the willingness of the great majority of Americans to accept and confirm such leadership. In so doing, he has also encouraged millions of young minority Americans and all young girls and women that the highest level of leadership of their country is not beyond their reach.
Obama’s second great achievement is his management of the nation’s economy in a time of great crisis. He and his team rescued the nation from another Great Depression and he has supervised the steady improvement in the nation’s economy, the capstone of which was the recent news that middle-class incomes had their fastest growth on record, that the poverty rate had its steepest decline since 1968, and that unemployment is now near record lows.
His third great achievement is, of course, Obamacare: instituting a national health program, something that American presidents have tried and failed to do since the middle of the last century. The share of Americans who now lack health insurance is 9.1 percent, meaning that 20 million persons now have some form of health insurance who would otherwise not have had coverage.
Obama’s main shortcoming is the fact that he did not do more to reduce America’s scandalously high incarceration rate. It is outrageous and immoral that the nation which claims to be the leader of the free world now has the highest proportion of its population, and the greatest absolute number of persons, held in prison in all history. He waited too long to address this scandal with the urgency it deserves and, even now, his efforts are too limited. His powers of pardon allow him to release thousands of persons now serving unjust sentences. Furthermore, many of these will continue to live as second-class citizens after serving time, which is a relic of America’s Jim Crow past. This is shameful, and Obama should have done more to undo this catastrophic moral failing of the nation.
Less serious is Obama’s political hesitancy in responding more forcefully to the unprecedented attacks on the legitimacy and proper functioning of his governance, especially in light of the fact that these attacks were inspired by nothing other than the base racism of a minority of Americans who could never bring themselves to accept the fact that a black man was the head of their government. He tried too hard, and too long, to seek common ground with those who had absolutely no intention of compromising, intent only on ensuring that he failed.
Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science
What I most admired: Obama restored dignity to the Oval Office. He is clearly a thinker with depth and breadth. Even when I didn’t agree with his conclusions, I admired his recognition that questioning and understanding and even sometimes changing your mind are not shameful, but part of true power.
What’s been disappointing: Though it’s hard to separate an obstreperous Congress from his ability to govern, the science budget — particularly for basic science — has been very disappointing. In the long term, fundamental science research is a big part of what makes this country great. We have to understand that we won’t get as far if all our research is overly targeted to immediate problems or not funded at all.
What’s surprised me: The China energy deal to me was surprising. If someone had suggested eight years ago that it would be possible I’m not sure I would have believed it. Though we have a long way to go, this was a major step toward international cooperation and attention to climate issues — as significant as (and essential to) the Paris agreement.
Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Public Policy
President Obama does not get the full credit he deserves for taking decisive action to help lift the U.S. and global economy out of the 2008 financial crisis. Monday-morning quarterbacks seem to forget just how close we came to a second Great Depression. Later on, once the Republicans seized control of Congress, it became hard to strike a deal that satisfied both sides’ political priorities. Nevertheless, President Obama still kept raising the right issues, for example in proposing the creation of a national infrastructure bank with technocratic expertise to help guide the choice of projects.
But it wasn’t just the Republicans he had to wrestle with. He was also undermined by the sharp shift to the left taken by Democratic Party. For example, the left forced him to back off support of the Bowles-Simpson proposal [for] budget reform. Left-wing polemicists complained it would cut back on stimulus, a view that is hard to see in the numbers. Bowles-Simpson would have provided meaningful tax and spending reform, for example, with Democrats especially agreeing to surrender cherished tax loopholes and Republicans agreeing to a lower trajectory for military expenditure. It may be another decade before an opportunity for tax reform comes. The left of the Democratic Party also weighed heavily against free-trade agreements, making mostly moral arguments. That is really odd, because the trade agreement would have benefitted poor countries like Vietnam and Peru immensely, and would have opened up Japan far more than the U.S. Of course, one can argue that Sanders on trade looks tame next to Trump.
Above all, President Obama carried the banner for rational economic and political debate in a poisonous environment where anyone trying to occupy the center is attacked from both sides. As time passes, people have come to appreciate President Obama’s achievements more and more. It is no accident that his popularity has soared during the presidential campaign.
Professor of English and of African and African American Studies
Most admired in Obama’s presidency: He is one of the greatest presidential orators in the 20th and 21st centuries, along with Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, JFK, and Reagan (with Peggy Noonan’s speechwriting). “A More Perfect Union” helped get him elected, and his speech on modern slavery is the first time since Lincoln that a president has focused on slavery; it’s another brilliant speech. Obama is not very good as a sound-biter, but give him 30-60 minutes in which he can weave political issues into personal narratives, and he’s stunning. And he writes or partially writes many of his own speeches, the first time a president has done that in over 50 years.
Secondly, the Affordable Care Act, despite its flaws, was signal legislation; he’ll go down in history as one of the three or four greatest liberal presidents in the 20th and 21st centuries, alongside FDR and LBJ.
Disappointments: He had a golden opportunity during a moment of crisis after the 2008 crash to make substantive changes to the financial and banking sectors that would have restored the Glass-Steagall Act and led to a dramatic reduction of the disproportionate influence of finance/banking and a reduction of wealth inequalities in the U.S. But he dropped the ball and capitulated to bankers and pragmatists. You can’t really fault him on this, since he was comparatively inexperienced and stepped into the worst crisis since the Great Depression. But compared to Lincoln’s first 100 days (Obama’s hero) or FDR’s first 100 days, both made radical, substantive changes that led to social revolutions. FDR’s first term established the foundation of economic stability and a genuine welfare state. Lincoln’s first 100 days precipitated the social revolution codified in the Reconstruction amendments that became crucial for 20th-century civil rights.
Henry J. Friendly Professor of Law
Most admire: The Affordable Care Act was a signal achievement — seemingly impossible at the outset but now the law of the land and making a huge difference in the lives of millions. The ACA will be remembered as one of Obama’s most important legacies.
Disappointing: Obama did not make criminal justice reform a major priority, and his administration has made only modest contributions to addressing this area of gross injustice and shameful waste of capital, both financial and human.
Surprising: I would not have predicted the utter impasse that Obama has reached with Congress, in which both ordinary legislation and the Senate’s confirmation of Supreme Court nominees have ground to halt, despite the president’s efforts to seek bipartisan solutions.