June 1, 2023
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ColumnsElephant in the Room

Obama chose legacy over leadership

As I write this, my copy of President Obama’s second book, “The Audacity of Hope,” sits on my desk. The paperback spine shows wear and tear. On the cover is a youthful and energetic then-Senator Obama. Holding the book brings back memories of sixth grade, when Obama announced his candidacy, and when I enthusiastically supported the Illinois senator. As the most important political figure in my lifetime, Obama has been crucial in shaping my understanding of politics and leadership.

President Obama ran on the promise of hope and change for all Americans. I don’t doubt that Obama had a genuine desire to improve the U.S. It was Obama’s failed leadership, however, that made me slowly realize that I sided with conservatism. I saw a president who, instead of building bipartisan coalitions around his proposals, chose to label his opponents as on “the wrong side of history.” I saw a president who chose celebrity friends over a commitment to working class Americans. And I saw a president who chose legacy over leadership.

Some will say it was Republicans who undermined Obama at every turn, but partisan fights have gone on for longer than the U.S. has even existed. And sure, there are some people who opposed Obama simply because he is black. But to shout racism every time someone criticizes Obama demonstrates a lack of substantive rebuttals to those critiques.

So maybe then it was Obama’s obsession with his own place in history that led to his downfall. During the midterm elections, he repeatedly said that while he wasn’t on the ballot, his policies were. Those policies cost Democrats elections, as Republicans control both legislative chambers in 32 states, while Democrats only have five. Leading up to the 2016 election, Obama urged Democrats to vote by saying it would be an insult to his legacy if they stayed home on election day. As President-elect Trump now prepares for his own administration, it seems that Americans were fed up with Obama’s legacy. Numerous counties in Ohio and Pennsylvania that voted for Obama by double digits, flipped to Trump in 2016.

As we embark on the last weeks of Obama’s presidency, I still have hope. I thank President Obama for his service. He sparked my interest in political journalism, as I collected every Time Magazine cover about him during the 2008 election. But I hope that in the coming years, a new leader will emerge — a leader who unites us, who protects the Constitution and who leaves this country better than he or she found it. We need a leader who can truly give the people of the United States the audacity of hope.

Kyle Stewart can be reached at kstewart1@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @KyleStew107