I recently got what many would consider the opportunity of a lifetime: traveling with a crew of fellow student journalists to Springfield to cover President Barack Obama speech to the Illinois General Assembly. For about five or six glorious minutes, I braved the cold to shoot the president getting off Air Force One, shake a few hands and get into his limo. We were no closer than about forty or fifty yards away.
While the experience was a fun one, I was struck by the enormous amounts of hype and intrigue surrounding his visit — people from the Champaign-Urbana area and others had come from far away just to get a glimpse of the President.
I mean, yeah, I get it. But the irony of the moment was astounding. We had the leader of a dysfunctional government come down to a smaller, equally as dysfunctional government to tell them to stop being so dysfunctional. Like, what?
Despite all of the hoopla surrounding the 2016 election, it is still worth noting that Obama is President of the United States until January 20, 2017. Until then, he is the one making key decisions and pushing policies that will shape this nation’s history. But, like all the other presidents before him, Obama’s successes fall far short of the expectations he set back in 2008.
Take one key issue still in the news: the nomination of a new Supreme Court justice to replace Antonin Scalia. For one, it is amazing that some politicians are calling on Obama not to nominate a replacement and let the next president do so. He’s still the President. That’s his job. Secondly, in order to have any chance of getting a judge nominated with a Republican-controlled Senate, Obama cannot nominate someone many of his more progressive supporters would prefer.
This whole nominating process is emblematic of the problems that have plagued his administration from the start. He campaigned to be the progressive champion who would challenge and change a corrupt system that doesn’t work for the American people. But he also tried to be the mediator and the one to work across the aisle with Republicans to get things done. You cannot do both. At least not all the time.
Please don’t get me wrong, President Obama has done some good things and has made progress on a number of important issues. The country is in a better place than it was before he took office. But it would be downright impossible to make the argument that he’s anywhere close to the transformative figure he promised he would be. To be honest, anyone who thought he would be that guy is probably a little naïve, but a lot of people were buying into the “hope and change” narrative.
Obama’s political trajectory is what makes me cautiously optimistic about the rise of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Because if he were to get elected (which seems somewhat doubtful given Clinton’s lead in the polls) he could not realistically get all of his policies passed through Congress. It just won’t happen unless he’s able to act on the most important issue in all of politics today: campaign finance reform.
This might truly be the biggest failure of the Obama administration. He said he would change the system, but either he didn’t mean it or he got too caught up in the House of Cards-style politics of Washington to do anything. The game is rigged. He said he would fix it and he merely became a part of it.
He didn’t get big money out of politics. He didn’t do anything about gerrymandering. He didn’t provide the hope and change that he promised. He may be known for being the first African-American president we’ve had, but what else will he be known for?