Obama’s Good Week Less About Him

The American president just happens to be in office at a time of rapid political and social change.

American president Barack Obama smiles during a meeting in the White House in Washington DC, November 17, 2014
American president Barack Obama smiles during a meeting in the White House in Washington DC, November 17, 2014 (White House/Pete Souza)

It was a good week for American president Barack Obama.

As Confederate flags — seen by many as remnants of a racist past — came down across the Old South, a rainbow flag was projected on the facade of the White House to celebrate the Supreme Court’s effective legalization of gay marriage nationwide.

The decision came only days after the court upheld a key provision of the president’s signature health reforms and Congress gave up its resistance to the Trans Pacific Partnership which is a critical component of the Asia “pivot,” Obama’s defining foreign-policy initiative.

The president ended the week singing in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, reviving hopes that he could after all play an important role in helping America transcend its racial divides.

The Financial Times wondered if Obama was “finally ushering in the change he promised?” and progressives undoubtedly had much to celebrate.

But it seems that rather than effecting change, Obama simply happens to be president at a time when American society is undergoing a transformation.

Politico argues that what Obama first represented, “as a half-white, half-black man of a new generation, with the middle name Hussein and all the rest, seemed to have actually arrived in America — that guy America voted for in 2008 seemed to suddenly (and to a lot of his supporters, finally) show up.”

But the political news website also reports that progressive lawmakers, “especially those still burning over how hard he steamrolled them on trade, are rolling their eyes at the lionizing.”

Remember, they point out, that many of the big things Obama gets the credit for didn’t originate with him — people like Nancy Pelosi were pushing him further on health care than the White House wanted to go or out in favor of a gay marriage plank in the 2012 convention platform when he was still deciding what to say.

Obama only came out in favor of marriage equality in 2012 when polls showed a majority of Americans shared his view. And even though he ended the discriminatory “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the military, his administration made no effort to legislate for gay marriage.

Whatever it did to improve race relations has borne little fruit. The Financial Times points out that tensions between blacks and police forces in many parts of the country are heightened while large chunks of society remain institutionally racist, from prison sentencing to job interview bias. The wealth gap between African Americans and whites is also wider than when Obama took office.

Perhaps the massacre in Charleston — where a white supremacist killed nine black churchgoers last week — will have a lasting impact. But previous mass shootings did not prompt Congress to do anything about the ease with which clearly deranged individuals like the Charleston shooter can buy guns.

The president has long urged stricter gun laws. He has been unable to get his way.

It’s doubtful he’ll be able to get his way on anything of significance during the remainder of his presidency. Opposition Republicans control Congress and will be increasingly reluctant to give Democrats a victory as the 2016 presidential campaign gets underway.

Reuters suggests that the reason Obama seems to be in such a good mood may be the “recognition that he has few big-ticket policy achievements left to enjoy in polarized Washington.”

Progressives may come to look back on the Obama era as one of major accomplishments. But they may also come to regret that Obama didn’t do more himself to bring those accomplishments about.

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