EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of The Nation’s special issue on Barack Obama’s presidency, available in full here.
Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president, formerly a civil-rights activist and constitutional lawyer, approaches the end of his second term with relatively high approval ratings, low unemployment, and 10.9 million more jobs and 20 million more Americans enjoying access to health care than when he took office. These developments, while benefiting the poor across the board, especially help African Americans, who have long been a larger proportion of the unemployed and uninsured. Donald Trump’s fearmongering to the contrary, crime—whose victims are also disproportionately black and Hispanic—is at historic lows. After 40 years of unrelenting expansion, the nation’s prison population has begun to shrink. And racial disparities in criminal-justice enforcement have also diminished.
Yet even before Trump’s surprise election, polls reported that Americans were more pessimistic about racial division than they had been in nearly a generation. A June Pew poll found that 43 percent of African Americans believe that the country will not make the changes necessary to assure them equal rights. There has been a steady stream of incidents, many captured on video, in which police officers have shot unarmed black men. Seemingly in response, two disturbed black men ambushed and killed multiple police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge in separate incidents in July. Campuses across the country have been roiled by racial protests. And Trump premised his presidential campaign on racial division, lashing out against Muslims, Mexicans, and Black Lives Matter.
Similar contradictions mark President Obama’s specific record on civil rights and respect for the rule of law in the fight against terrorism. He has made considerable strides in these areas, and he will be sorely missed by all who care about these values. He rejected George W. Bush’s theories of unchecked executive war-making powers and insisted that the fight against Al Qaeda must be conducted in accordance with domestic and international legal constraints. He forbade torture and rescinded and released the once-secret Justice Department memos that authorized the CIA’s interrogation program. He promised to close Guantánamo and, despite consistent opposition from Congress and his own Defense Department, has succeeded in shrinking the prison population there to 60. Yet civil-liberties and human-rights groups have been harshly critical, accusing him of not doing more to close Guantánamo; of vastly expanding targeted killing though the use of unmanned drones; of stifling dissent by prosecuting a record number of whistle-blowers; and of relying on excessive claims of secrecy that have obstructed accountability.
How, in light of these contradictions, should we judge his legacy on civil and human rights? Few presidents have been more committed to civil rights and civil liberties. And, in a perverse way, the turmoil that marked race relations even before the election and the criticism from human-rights advocates that Obama has borne may well be both a cause of and a testament to the progress he has made. As Frederick Douglass famously noted, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” And sometimes it’s precisely when what was previously unattainable appears within our grasp that our dissatisfactions are most strongly felt.