The Obama Legacy: It could be Monumental -- By Dan Falcone
On August 4, 1961 Barack Hussein Obama II entered the world and ever since then his public and private life has offered a varying array of interesting story lines and topics. Obama’s political career in itself is one for the history books. His formative perspective (his years in Honolulu), experiences at Harvard (taught by luminaries such as Charles Ogeltree), intellectual developments (Harvard Law Review and later a civil rights attorney), rise in the Senate (recall Republican Jack Ryan was set to defeat Obama in Illinois), rise in the Democratic Party (Hillary Clinton was thought inevitable), and revolutionary campaigning (Hillary Clinton has hired Jim Messina) are topics for individual research. Luckily, his political life has culminated into two very important victories over John McCain and Mitt Romney.
I would like to however, offer a perspective that lies outside the everyday dominant party skepticism. I am completely aware of Obama’s inherent weaknesses, or any President for that matter. While I do not wish to engage in an Obama or Democratic love-fest, I will also not automatically discount or dwell on the limitations found in the “tendency to focus on short-term parochial gains," . . . "a core element of our socioeconomic institutions and their ideological support systems.”
But to be clear, from a consensus historian point of view, or a purveyor of public history and naming, President Obama is poised to make history, and in unprecedented fashion.
1. Obama's Legacy: Biology
In 2012 it was reported in Scientific American, that sitting President Obama was to have a beautiful orange and blue darter fish named after him. The honor and effort was designed as a pledge and token of gratitude for Obama’s at least acknowledgment of conservation and environmental protection. Although the Obama administration has approved the use of “sonic cannons” to explore for oil and gas off the Eastern Shore (in the process of destroying a significant amount of sea life); Obama has done something in the way of conservation as opposed to what Republicans likes to do: cut.
As if a couple of biological designations were not enough for a sitting President, another species, lichen, in the fungus genus (Caloplaca obamae) went down as the first species of its kind to be named in honor of United States President. University of California - Riverside Scientist Kerry Knudsen remarked, "I discovered the new species in 2007 while doing a survey for lichen diversity on Santa Rosa Island in California, and I named it Caloplaca obamae to show my appreciation for the president's support of science and science education.”
In other words, it was much easier to forge an appreciation of the Executive Office and to have a President who took science seriously. Even if he does not take an authentic policy shifting interest in science at all times it is far better than promoting creationism at the Grand Canyon or denying climate change.
According the Chinese zodiac, Obama, born in 1961, would also be a “Metal Ox” – whom is born on the years 1901 (the great Louis Armstrong, 1901) and 1961: “Like metal, these Oxen are amazingly strong. They’re extremely hard-working individuals who will do whatever is necessary to achieve their goals. They’re trustworthy, dependable individuals who are not likely to show emotion. They have difficulty interpreting the feelings of others.”
2. Obama’s Legacy: Education and School Naming
While it is impressive that Obama (a sitting President) has roughly, an astounding 10 state-span of schools with his name, the even more impressive aspect of this phenomena is the cultural, regional, pedagogical, instructional, and institutional diversity within the dozen plus schools across the nation that already bear his name.
For example, Obama has an international school in liberal Pittsburgh for grades 6-12 and also has a male leadership academy in the not so liberal state of Texas. Other Presidents have many more schools named after them but remember that Obama is still in his presidency. One school in particular, a service learning center in Minnesota, is named after the President AND the First Lady. It is also interesting (notwithstanding locality intricacies) that two of the places, Missouri and Texas, are homes of Obama schools in states he did not carry in either 2008 or 2012.
The Obama naming of schools may be alarming if you critically think it through in connection to the embrace of "Race to the Top" (Bush 43 NCLB’s ugly cousin) and hidden privatization schemes that promote a top down education through an extreme hierarchical educational model. Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, Randi Weingarten, Dennis van Roekel, Arne Duncan and Diane Ravitch all have diverse opinions when it comes to schools and their purposes, although not too diverse.
In any event, the Obama legacy will clearly be seen in school naming, and often rightfully so, for years to come. I have given the President the benefit of the doubt and appreciate his realization and belief that public education (albeit “tinkering”) and the Department of Education must exist.
Perhaps one of the more significant educational legacies of Obama will be his expansion of Pell Grants to students with lower incomes. The First Lady has also encouraged a new look at school nutrition in promoting the Healthy-Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010.
3. Obama’s Legacy: Cultural Geography and the Landscape
Obama’s legacy and public memory thus far is not simply limited to the United States. In July of 2013 the President visited Tanzania in East Africa. Obama and Bush II were visiting to commemorate victims of the 1998 terror attack at the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam. Margaret Talev and Julianna Goldman reported, “from welcome home signs in Senegal to Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s challenge to him in South Africa to be a peacemaker, to the Tanzanians’ renaming a road in their capital as "Barack Obama Drive", each stop on Obama’s three-country trip with his wife and family highlighted Africa’s expression of ownership and expectations for the son of a Kenyan who became the first black U.S. president.”
And just recently The Associated Press reported that President Barack Obama “is gathering nearly 50 African heads of state in Washington for an unprecedented summit aimed in part at building his legacy on a continent where his commitment has been questioned.” This too will likely culminate into a manifestation of public history.
As far as the United States goes, Obama is represented by Florida, (an Avenue, Parkway and Boulevard), Illinois (an Avenue), and California (a "Way"). This trend will likely continue as Obama lends his weight to the country's vast infrastructure needs.
See page 10-11:
Lastly, if you were to travel to Antigua and Barbuda you might find the former "Boggy Peak" now known as "Mount Obama." Prime Minister Winston Baldwin Spencer, member of the United Progressive Party made the name change in 2009.
Currently, there are several proposed naming projects for Obama, including three more streets (two U.S. and one in Europe) and an airport, already in the works.
4. Obama’s Legacy: Exposing a Lingering GOP Racism
Another one of President Obama’s legacies will be his dismantling of the Republican Party. The Party has split into five convoluted (hopefully) non-entities: Religious Rightists, Libertarians, Neo-Conservatives, Tea-Partiers, and the orthodox conservatives (what’s left of them). Most prominent members of these respective groups do not even hold office - they are radio, TV or print media opportunists. Critics of Obama from the right range from calling him, “weak, feckless, corrupt, illegal, dishonest, Un-American", and so on.
Doug Lamborn of Colorado has called Obama a “tar baby.” Sarah Palin accused Obama of “shuckin’ and jivin.” These "micro-aggressions" have obviously hurt the Republicans cumulatively and thus exponentially.
Republicans rotate through Obama’s “scandals” like a desperate lawyer trying to find a non-existing precedent for political fuel in a series of voluminous texts. All the while knowing the answer is not to be found.
For instance, the GOP fails to gain the moral high ground on the Obama Administration when it comes to say, the Benghazi question. Why? Because the main crime in Libya was the intervention in itself and our NATO led military humanism is far from noble, just and well-intentioned. This of course is immaterial to Republicans because they love imperialism. It is just Obama they dislike and the potential for Hillary Clinton. (By the way, add to the Obama legacy; First Black President that helps pave the way for the First Woman President – pretty substantial)
Some of the Republican behavior is a sign of just how well Obama has done in certain areas. When Representative Joe Wilson shouted “you lie!” during Obama’s speech to Congress on health care, he helped to highlight what Obama had done and the GOP had not. Wilson’s resentment was spiteful and nauseating like a small dull child yet it only reminded me of François de La Rochefoucauld, who once penned, “If we had no faults of our own, we would not take so much pleasure in noticing those of others.”
Especially enjoyable of late is Obama speeches where he cites the Republican obstruction and mocks their idea of suing him. There he is showing true nuanced wit, even in a hip sense in urging them to “stop hating.” Here too Obama reminds me of another satirist in poet Dorothy Parker: "Wit (Obama) has truth in it, wise-cracking (GOP) is merely calisthenics with words."
5. Obama’s Legacy: The Potential
Let me take a minute to consider the potential to Obama’s legacy in speculative fashion although within the realm of complete possibility. Before Thomas Friedman, patron saint of liberal elites, ever pondered the potential for a second Nobel Peace prize for the President, my friend at Critical Blackness had it on record. If Obama can create a legacy of disarming hostile regions while implementing the appropriate domestic legislation (immigration reform) and all the while aid in civil wars from afar that lie outside U.S. immediate interests, it could result in a second award. This of course would send the GOP into a mad frenzy.
Consider for a moment another possibility in Obama legacy formulation: his ex-Presidency. Obama could further his legacy in the mold of Jimmy Carter (although not in the way the Republicans hope) as a humanitarian leader.
And if Hillary Clinton decides that she would like to be President, do not be surprised if she nominates Barack Obama to the Supreme Court of the United States. Perhaps this has been discussed. This would make Obama to be the first politician to ever serve in all three branches.
If Barack Obama achieves this long list or even desires to, we could see him one day appearing on paper money (the ten dollar bill to replace an actual foreign born on its front, Alexander Hamilton). We could see Obama carved into Mount Rushmore.
We could see an Act passed by Hillary Clinton 45 and a Democratic Congress making it a federal law for each state to have an Obama monument of dedication of public space. (Something the GOP tried with President Ronald Reagan)
We could see Obama having two presidential libraries one in Hawaii, the other in Illinois.
6. Obama’s Legacy: The Reality
Barack Obama’s legacy could be monumental. Remember, I am talking about the memory of the President, not necessarily the history. Health Care Reform is a feather in his cap to be sure. It was not what some of us hoped for (single payer option), but it did bring a few more people a little more insurance. I am not sure why anyone would be against his signature achievement.
Obama’s American Recovery Act was also important. While much of it was a gift to big business and sworn pharmaceutical pockets, it did contain caveats for the poor and working poor. So, Obama needs to get the credit here again.
Obama said some nice things in regard to the LGBTQ community at least in rhetoric. His unrelenting gradualism aside, his comments at least show he is on the planet.
In my view, President Obama was fully dedicated to avoid an all-out war with Iran and Shiite Muslims. President Obama also “pressured Israel to stop carrying out assassinations of top nuclear scientists in Iran as the Islamic Republic continues its negotiations with world powers over its uranium enrichment program.” Again, he did this “for reasons of state”, but he still applied the pressure in rhetoric.
In Mystics Chords of Memory, Cornell Historian Michael Kammen says “what people believe about their past is greater than determining their behavior in response to the truth.” This is true about Obama and all Presidents for that matter. Naming is an interesting phenomenon that will surely take place in the coming months and years in relation to local history, regional history, American History and Modern World History and how it relates to Obama commemoration.
American biographical memory usually highlights one of three echelons of historic actors. First, are the unknown, the unnamed people of mass movements who drive historical force from the “bottom-up.”
Second, advisors and middle managers for a cause encapsulate the middle ground point of view in American biographical history.
Third, is the consensus history from the Rankean or what Clayborne Carson calls the tradition that featured objectivism, top-down glorification, hero-worship, and the classical great men view, often through an institutional lens.
References to Barack Obama reside in all of these areas. Hawaii, Illinois, Washington D.C., the rest of the nation, and the entire world might discover Obama with any or all of these biographical historical methodologies. The versatile constructs allow him to have naming appeal as a historical and cultural figure.
Obama served as a professor, lawyer and community organizer. This is Obama as private citizen in the service of worthy causes.
Obama served as a mid-level component in important projects and think tanks in local and national politics. This is Obama as adviser.
Lastly, we see Obama as a classical figure and politician governing in the Office of the President of the United States. President Obama is not the President of my dreams. I dream in the Near-East a two-state solution evolving into a single state with the elimination of the illegal settlement expansion. I dream to see civil liberties reconstructed. But are these just dreams?
Institutions to be named and monuments to be built will emphasize Obama’s luminary status as an evolving person and his naming appeal will be based on his political destination, and his journey. This is distinctive.
I only hope, through naming, Obama’s legacy can be resolved.