President Obama’s Wednesday announcement that full diplomatic relations with Cuba will be restored this month – for the first time since 1961 – further cements his status, and his legacy, as one of the most consequential presidents in history.
Right-wing readers should read that sentence carefully, lest their heads needlessly explode. I’m not saying whether Obama’s actions and policies have been good or bad. I’m merely saying that his impact on America has been profound – just as I would stipulate that Ronald Reagan’s impact on America, regardless of whether one judges his policies good or bad, was similarly profound.
Obama’s thawing of the Cold War with Cuba is the latest historic example. Our embassy in Havana will reopen on July 20; that same day, the Cuban embassy in Washington will reopen. Our diplomats down there will be able to travel more freely around the island than ever before. Trade restrictions are slowly being loosened; American tourism is slowly on the upswing. He has spent six years nurturing normalization of relations – a move that is broadly supported by Cuban-Americans and the general public.
Obama is ushering in a new era; as he said yesterday, “Sometimes we allow ourselves to be trapped by a certain way of doing things….We don’t have to be imprisoned by the past. When something isn’t working, we can and should change.”
That’s what consequential presidents do. They ditch the past and change the paradigm.
No, the guy hasn’t been perfect (no president has ever been perfect), and liberals as well as conservatives have fumed and grumbled. But his consequentiality, most notably on the domestic front, is self-evident. Obamacare – twice vetted by a Republican Supreme Court, establishing access to health care as a basic human right – will rank in history with FDR’s signing of Social Security and LBJ’s signing of Medicare. He succeeded where at least five presidents over the last century had failed.
Let’s see, what else…a random sampling: He ended the ban on gays serving openly in the military. He has ratcheted up federal spending on clean energy, and has taken bolder steps than any of his predecessors – via executive actions and a pact with China – to curb global warming. He laid the groundwork for gay marriage by putting the government’s lawyers on the side of the gay plaintiffs; he appointed two of the Supreme Court justices who helped make marriage equality the law of the land. He successfully pushed for the Dodd-Frank Act, which has the toughest Wall Street reforms we’ve seen in at least a generation. Last week he overcame Democratic opposition to win “fast-track” authority for the biggest U.S. trade deal in more than 20 years – and he did it with major help from the Republicans. This week he’s poised to unveil an executive action that would hike the wages of millions of Americans who work more than 40 hours a week – by requiring employers to pay overtime; in the first full year of implementation, five million people will reportedly benefit.
I’m well aware that he has been less than consequential abroad. Vladimir Putin doesn’t seem to fear him. The death-by-drone strategy doesn’t seem to be making the world a safer place. The administration seems tentative about how to best combat ISIS. His nuclear negotiations with Iran – the deadline is looming – could conceivably yield another Obama breakthrough…or not.
But whether you love or hate his record, it’s cognitively impossible to deny his place in history. And if indeed a president’s impact hinges in part on his ability to command the bully pulpit, on his ability to articulate the nation’s values – as Ronald “The Great Communicator” Reagan was favorably judged, by liberals and conservatives alike – then we need only watch Obama’s Charleston eulogy. If you haven’t seen it in full, do so now. Then ask yourself how many of our presidents could’ve done better at speaking the truth, with the requisite eloquence and passion, about our unfinished American experiment.
Better yet, ask yourself whether Barack Obama was consequential when you’re vacationing some day on a Cuban beach.