Barack Obama claimed the presidency eight years ago in Chicago’s Grant Park, declaring “a new dawn” in U.S. history and promising the enthusiastic crowd of a quarter-million people that “we as a people will get there.”
“Because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America,” the new President-elect vowed.
But as the nation chose Mr. Obama’s successor on Tuesday, the bold agenda he described that morning remained incomplete. What Mr. Obama discovered — and what his successor will learn — is that every presidency lasts for only a brief moment in time.
Mr. Obama’s health care bill gave insurance to millions, but he now faces calls for big changes to it. The economy is markedly better, but incomes and growth remain stubbornly low. The immigration overhaul he wanted is tied up in legal limbo, as are his tough new climate rules. Fewer Americans are fighting in overseas wars, but the Islamic State (IS) has emerged as a new threat. Partisanship and racial tensions have intensified.
“There is a lot of unfinished business,” said Tom Daschle, the former Democratic Senate leader from South Dakota, a long-time supporter of Mr. Obama. “The satisfaction comes in knowing that he has changed the landscape in a very profound way. The frustration comes in knowing what might have been.”
Mr. Obama recognised the transient nature of his tenure when he spoke eight years ago to the ecstatic crowd in Grant Park. “Our climb will be steep,” Mr. Obama said. “We may not get there in one year or even one term.”
More recently, he acknowledged recently that his legacy will be an incremental one. In an article in The Economist, he described the presidency as “a relay race, requiring each of us to do our part to bring the country closer to its highest aspirations.”
Jen Psaki, the White House communications director, said that Mr. Obama had always understood he was part of a continuum. “He recognises that who he passes the baton to will have a huge impact on whether you build on the progress he made,” she said.
White House aides point to what they call the highlights of that progress: digging the country out of a deep economic recession, rescuing the auto industry, extending health insurance to 20 million people, pressing the world to confront climate change, reducing America’s combat role in two overseas wars.
However, for a President who won the highest office in the land by promising big, sweeping change, Tuesday’s election was a reminder that it will be up to someone else to complete the change he long envisioned.
Health care may be the most important example. Passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 drastically reshaped the insurance markets in the country, improving access to medical care. But even Democrats agree that much more needs to be done to improve the cost and quality of that care.
“If this was a football field, I’d put us on the 30-yard line with 70 yards to go,” said Mr. Daschle, who was Mr. Obama’s first pick for secretary of health and human services but withdrew after questions about his taxes.
Mr. Daschle said the unfinished nature of Mr. Obama’s health care programme was partly the fault of Republican obstructionism and partly the result of delays that always occur when trying to overhaul such a large social programme. The Affordable Care Act gave Mr. Obama’s administration great latitude to reshape the nation’s health care system, and the next President will inherit that same authority.
“That latitude has worked for us,” Mr. Daschle said. “If it’s a Trump presidency, it could work against us.”
Climate change, too, remains a work in progress. Internationally, Mr. Obama successfully pressed world leaders to aggressively confront the threats from a warming planet. At home, he demanded tougher fuel standards for cars and imposed new regulations on coal-fired power plants. But the international agreements Mr. Obama helped forge will play out over decades. It could be years before his environmental regulations are in place, if ever. It will be up to future Presidents to navigate the politics of climate change, around the world and here at home. “Obama has set the stage for both effective domestic and global climate protection,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former climate adviser in Bill Clinton’s administration. “But most of the heaviest lifting is going to be done by his successor, especially regarding domestic politics.”
Mr. Psaki said the fact that large, developing countries like India and China are addressing climate change is “a tremendous step forward” that Mr. Obama can claim credit for. “Around the world, a number of countries have cemented their goals. It’s not a flash in the pan.”
And yet,Mr. Obama will have long since left office by the time the United States reaches its deadline to significantly reduce carbon emissions in 2025. And much of the rest of the world has pledged to reach their climate goals by 2030, in the fourth presidential term from now.
Mr. Obama concluded his remarks in Grant Park by talking about a 106-year-old African-American woman, Ann Nixon Cooper, who had cast her ballot in Atlanta. He wondered aloud what changes his daughters would see in America if they lived to be the same age. It was, in a sense, a recognition that the consequences of his time in office would be shaped by others long after he left.
“What change will they see? What progress will we have made?” Mr. Obama asked. “This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment. This is our time.”