UB students and faculty discuss Barack Obama’s presidency
Dr. James Battista still remembers the uncertainty he felt watching President Barack Obama give his initial inauguration speech in January 2009.
“The first time you’re seeing an African American get sworn in, I think a lot of people were nervous through the whole time,” Battista, a political science associate professor, said. “Is this going to go off without a hitch? Is nobody going to kill him?”
Obama’s presidency felt unlikely and unprecedented eight years ago, yet his two terms left a legacy on the U.S. and made history as the first black president. Although not everyone has warmed up to Obama the politician over his two terms, Obama the man has been natural in the public eye during his administration.
William Coates, a junior economics major, said he understands Obama’s race will ultimately be a big part of his legacy, but he hopes it won’t blind people to both the positive and negative decisions he’s made since taking office.
“I think he’ll be remembered fondly because he was the first black president, which I think is kind of unfortunate because I’d hope that he’d be judged by what he did as a person rather than the fact that he’s black,” Coates said.
Coates says that he feels Obama is a good man and has been a “good but not great” president. Overall, he said he has been a little bit disappointed by Obama.
He thinks Obama did a great job with certain issues, specifically in lifting the economy out of the 2008 recession by borrowing money and creating a stimulus package, which he says was “in line with a lot of economic theory done during the Great Depression.”
Other students admire Obama’s presidency.
Jason Eisenoff, a junior psychology major, said Obama made as much change as he could given the circumstances of his presidency. While he agrees with Coates that Obama faltered on a few occasions, Eisenoff points to Obama’s appearance on the Jerry Seinfeld web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, as an example of Obama’s accessibility to younger Americans in the social media era.
“He was driving around making jokes with Jerry Seinfeld, not all presidents would do that,” Eisenoff said. “It’s a good influence because it shows you even in this position of great power and great responsibility, you’d still be down to Earth and think for the common person.”
Battista feels that a major part of Obama’s legacy will be the fact that under his leadership, he lifted Americans out of a recession.
“The big thing is going to be the first couple of years, trying to avoid a second round of the Great Depression which we did,” Battista said. “Not that times were great for a couple of years, but there was a certainly a point in September of ’08 where you’re looking off the edge of a cliff and things could have gotten 1933 bad.”
Battista said the next few decades – if the GOP opposition in Congress continues to the extent that it did during the Obama administration – could go a long way in shaping the political narrative attached to Obama’s name.
Obama struggled throughout his presidency to work with Republicans in Congress, who oftentimes blocked his legislation.”
“One of the things that could be is Obama is the president at the start of a historic era of Republican obstruction,” Battista said. “If that’s the thing that continues, then that’s sort of going to be the story, what we would remember him for is that he was the first president that got that kind of treatment.”
Dr. James Campbell, UB Distinguished professor of political science, does not feel Obama was a good president.
Campbell said Obama governed as “too liberal” of a partisan and did not leave the country in a better place.
“Of course a president can only do so much, but under his leadership the economy’s been fairly weak,” Campbell said. “Racial divisions are more partially divided, income inequality is worse and in terms of foreign policy we have more problems around the world, particularly in the Mid-East with Syria and Libya.”
Campbell refers to Obama as a great orator, a man who could inspire large groups of people. However, unlike other great orators who have graced the Oval Office, he does not feel Obama has given one particular speech that stands out as being individually memorable.
“A lot of his speeches, I think kind of blend together,” Campbell said. “I think his way of delivering a speech, whether it’s in a campaign or to Congress about policy, tends to be similar and I think because of that, I don’t see one as being especially memorable.”
Scott Langhamer, a sophomore political science major, remembers one particular Obama speech from the night of May 1, 2011. All major television networks cut away from regularly scheduled programming to broadcast Obama’s announcement that U.S. forces had tracked down and killed al-Qaeda founder and 9/11-mastermind Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
“The way he carried that speech, it truly showed how much he cared for the country,” Langhamer said.
Battista also remembers the speech Obama gave in Charleston, South Carolina after the mass shooting that killed nine people in a black church.
Near the end of his speech, Obama unexpectedly began singing “Amazing Grace.” He ended his speech by listing off the names of the nine people killed in the shooting and emotionally shouted after each name that they had “found that grace.”
Campbell presumes Obama will be remembered as an above average, but not great president by presidential historians and scholars, even though he does not necessarily agree with that assessment.
As a politician, even those who admire him most will likely remember Obama as being well intentioned but somewhat imperfect. His political legacy won’t take full shape until the decades following his presidency play out.
Obama will be remembered, first and foremost, for being the first African-American president of the United States and for handling the pressure that came with it with such a calm grace that his skin color hardly ever became a factor in his presidency.
He will also be remembered as a family man. No matter what was going on in his work, he was seemingly able to maintain a relationship with his wife Michelle and two daughters Sasha and Malia.
“There’s a lot of people who are going to miss Obama, even people who didn’t like him a lot politically,” Battista said. “He always had a smooth style and an easy grace and he’s somebody that, even if you don’t agree with what he’s saying, you’re kind of proud that somebody is up there saying it as well as he usually did.”
Michael Akelson is the senior sports editor and can be reached at Michael.firstname.lastname@example.org