Obama's Legacy

Long before the 45th president of the United States is inaugurated in January 2017, President Barack Obama will have to grapple with how others will choose to define his  legacy. And like every other aspect of his hopeful, fraught, and ultimately challenging presidency, it depends on the eye of the beholder.

Take, for instance, the eyes of Jorge Mújica, a former journalist who today is Strategic Campaigns Organizer with the non-profit Arise Chicago, where he works with large groups of workers who are interested in organizing for long-term workplace improvements:

“There are a few things to say about what he’s accomplished and the most immense one is Obamacare, which I see not as health reform but semi-regulation of how insurance companies charge you. And there are some things, through the U.S. Department Of Labor, the National Labor Relations Board and OSHA – small steps here and there – that, overall, have made workers’ lives better than they would have been with Mitt Romney. But that doesn’t compare to economic and job prospects for Latino workers in a post recession world where salaries are not rising and the minimum wage remains low.”

Mujica bemoans that supporting such agreements as Obama’s Trans Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement among twelve Pacific Rim nations will ultimately make life harder for Hispanic workers.

“The industrial jobs we don’t lose are going to become so incredibly bad and cheap – less-than-minimum-wage jobs – that you can forget the idea that if you get an industrial job it’ll be better than McDonald’s. Soon all factory work is going to be minimum wage and that’s it,” Mujica said.

And he sees Obama’s record on immigration in no better a light. Mujica, one of the three original organizers of the historic immigrant rights marches that began in Chicago in 2006, foresaw Obama’s limp showing on the very issue that propelled a historically large Latino voter turnout for the president in 2008.

“We had trouble with Barack Obama ever since he was in the U.S. Senate,” Mujica said. “He voted for the border wall, and the [2005] Sensenbrenner legislation [the catalyst for the 2006 immigration protests] – and so did Hillary Clinton for that matter – then he wouldn’t apologize.  He said, ‘You have to give a little to get a little,’ but he still hasn’t gotten ‘a little.’ His whole strategy was wrong even at that time. Every time you back-step, every time you agree with Republicans [on immigration] it’s bad for community.”

“After Obamacare was passed, Cecilia Munoz said immigration reform is next, but no,” Mujica said. “Obama really believed Rahm Emanuel when he said that immigration is the 3rd rail and you never touch it. So instead, it’s ‘Lets blame the Republicans every step of the way.’ Six years passed and nothing happened. We don’t have immigration reform and people are still saying you need votes from the Republican Party but Obamacare didn’t have a single Republican vote. He could have done the same with immigration – he chose not to.”

Indeed, it will difficult to reminisce about the Obama presidency without recalling the damning moniker “Deporter-In-Chief.” According to the Migration Policy Institute, the Department of Homeland Security has deported approximately 2,894,758 immigrants between 2009 and 2015 with the trend being that since 2009, more of those removals have occurred at the border than from the interior.

Fay Hipsman, Associate Policy Analyst with the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute said, “Total removals from the interior vs. the border is an important distinction. The interior refers to people living in U.S. communities and settled for a long time. Potentially their children were born in the U.S. and their removal is far more disruptive than for, say, border removals, which are intended to target first-time, recent crossers who lack those ties to U.S. communities. The idea is that if you apprehend and remove them quickly from the border, you deter them from crossing in the future.

“If you look at the trends, one major reason for the border removals getting higher is that in 2010 and 2011 the administration issued memos refining their enforcement priorities, placing more emphasis on the border, with the recognition that interior removals can be disruptive to communities. Obviously the Obama administration was under political pressure to reduce deportations, which had reached record levels,” Hipsman said.

But in the last year of President Obama’s time in office, even as the flow of immigrants from Latin American to the U.S. at the Mexican border were at historic lows due to economic and demographic changes in Latin America, federal law enforcement launched raids over the Christmas holidays, deporting families back to unstable Central American countries.

“It’s complicated,” says Marielena Hincapie, the executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, noting that the president’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program has made a meaningful impact on the lives of at 660,000 least Dream Act-eligible young immigrants even while leaving some of the most vulnerable at risk.

“Part of the presidents legacy will be that he’s been overly cautious and hesitant around issues of immigration. From the beginning he made the failed strategic decision to be really tough on immigrants and that would somehow bring Republicans to the table, but it’s been proven a failed strategy,” said Hincapie. “It has not in any way brought Republicans to the table yet there has been an inhumane impact on communities – we have 5,000 children a year going into the foster care system because their parents have been deported, not to mention the economic impact of people being deported or leaving the country.”

In reference to the Christmas raids on immigrant families who were not criminal threats, Hincapie said: “Worse, the president is going to wrap up his two terms and he’s still not enforcing the law. There’s a big question mark about how history will judge president Obama on immigration – he’s the first African American president and he’s deported the most brown people in history. He’s continuing with this failed approach in detaining mothers and children who are fleeing violence and yet he’s defended sheltering refugees from Syria. Is there a hemisphere bias here? Why isn’t he welcoming people from Latin America in the same way? We are at risk of deporting people back to rape and death rather than ensuring access to attorneys and due process or making sure we’re creating refugee resettlement programs instead of adding to the trauma. It’s probably one of the darkest blemishes on the administration; there’s no way history will judge him well about this, in particular.”

The immigration disappointment has even tarnished some of Obama’s slam-dunks in terms of high-level cabinet appointments, such as Hilda Solis and Tom Perez as Secretary of Labor; Ken Salazar as Secretary of the Interior; Julian Castro as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development; and Maria Contreras-Sweet to head the Small Business Administration.

But the overall feeling is that those appointments, notable as they’ve been, have been overshadowed by the tenure of Cecilia Muñoz, now director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, who was seen by many – fairly or not – as Obama’s henchwoman on immigration.

Still, no one will ever forget the magic of Obama’s 2009 appointment of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, even as it underscored the difficulties the president had in making such a radical-at-the-time move. Sotomayor was labeled a “judicial activist” and was made to walk back comments about the impact of a “wise Latina” on the nation’s highest court.

And, there’s no denying the door-busting impact that the first African-American president will have on future “firsts” – even if all the future firsts have as many challenges as president Obama faced from day one.

“Americans have very short memories,” said Sylvia Puente, the executive director of the Chicago-based Latino Policy Forum. “Let’s acknowledge where the economy was as we were transitioning from the former president to Obama. Even before his inauguration he began putting in place a whole series of policies that I think we do have to give him credit for. The housing market was crashing, Wall Street, the auto industry was going into bankruptcy – for better or worse he tackled those issues head-on. There was no honeymoon or grace period for him. How he handled it all is really, really notable.”

“It’s a real paradox, with a mixed legacy that, will really tilt toward ‘Deporter-in-Chief,’” said Puente, “but he’s also the first president in recent memory that has been scandal-free. It’s really important to note that not only will he be remembered as our first African-American and biracial president, but he’s really lived out some very important Latino cultural norms. He’s managed to raise a family and have an intergenerational family living in the White House, with Michelle’s mother being with them. He’s been a very positive role model, even despite the challenges with our political system and the, frankly subtle and overt racism that he’s had to content with. From day one he has had people who have not acknowledged his legitimacy as a president and his right to govern. Hopefully what he’s gone through will make it a little easier for those who come after, but there are no guarantees.”

Indeed, some people are sunnier in their assessment of what the next “first” will experience than others. But Jorge Mújica remains unmoved by the notion:  “Obama is proof that it doesn’t matter your gender or your race, the president of the U.S. is the president who is chosen by the corporations. I’ve said many times that Barack Obama is the first U.S. president who just happens to be black – he didn’t get elected because of being black. Clinton just happens to be woman and, also, one day there will be a Latino president, a gay president, sure, but that won’t be the reason why they become president.”

Hincapie, however, said that the value of seeing a person of color get elected to the White House and the promise of forthcoming “firsts” is incalculable. “In this last year he, as an African-American, has really started finding his voice and really speaking to the issues of race and this is extremely important. There are some in media who think it’s divisive but he’s making that space to have some very hard conversations about race in this country. Of course for Latino communities, we won’t see the benefits of that for a while but Latinos and African-Americans both suffer from the high levels of mass incarcerations and it’s our communities who are finally getting the space to engage in that conversation.”

Ali Noorani, Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum, had similar thoughts about, yes, acknowledging the terror that has run through the immigrant community with the constant threats of deportation and upheaval, but still recognizing the historic proportions of Obama’s election. From a political and policy perspective, Obama ultimately played the hand that he was dealt and while it could have gone better, at least the executive actions he put in place offered real relief. But, “We would all be committing a disservice if we skipped over the fact that not only is he the first African-American president but also he’s one of only a few whose parent, his father, was an immigrant. That’s important as we remember who he is and what he represents in that role – the guy’s a person, after all,” Noorani said, noting that barrier-breaking is difficult even under the best of circumstances.

And the circumstances for this president have been dire, with many in the African-American community expressing the disappointment – especially after the Republican Party’s declaration to obstruct Obama’s late term Supreme Court nominee after the unexpected death of Justice Antonin Scalia in mid-February – that the president has never been given his due. This perceived treatment of Obama as a sort of illegitimate or second-class president because of his race might, to some, not bode well for the first woman president, the first Hispanic president and other historic firsts.

“My family came from Pakistan and my sisters and I were the first in my family to be born in the U.S. but my beef was always that they had it easier because I was the one who had to break mold. We should hope this would be the case with Obama. Any president is going to face a diverse set of unique dynamics but I do think the Obama presidency has proven to America that we can handle big change. It doesn’t mean we have to agree, but we keep things keep moving.”

“I remember when the was addressing a joint session of Congress when Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) heckled him,” Noorani continued, “and I though what was it about this president that made it OK for someone to heckle him on immigration?  That moment sticks in my head but I guess the way I look at it is, the folks that harbor racial animosity toward Obama, they were, for better or worse, racist before he got elected. I say ‘for better’ because their ugliness has seen the light and we can look to others and say ‘Are you with them or with those who want to find a way forward?’ Future firsts will have to contend with that animosity but I’d rather have a president that presents a clear choice and helps the country navigate then tensions that rather than pretending those tensions don’t exist.”

By Esther Cepeda