Obama’s ‘best week’ likely to advance his legacy

In Congress, at the Supreme Court, and in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, President Obama had an extraordinary week, advancing his agenda on trade, health care, gay rights, and race in America.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Barack Obama speaks during services honoring the life of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Friday in Charleston, S.C. Pinckney was one of the nine people killed in the shooting at Emanuel AME Church last week in Charleston.

Years from now, as he thinks back over his presidency, Barack Obama is likely to remember this as one of his best weeks. Maybe the best week.

A trade bill passed in a Republican-led Congress. Massively important Supreme Court decisions on the Affordable Care Act and same-sex marriage. A healing eulogy for slain black church members, toward the end of which – astonishingly, to many of the thousands who listened at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the millions who watched on live TV or later on YouTube – the president led those assembled in the singing of “Amazing Grace.”

Much of Obama’s presidency has been a grind, during which he’s been criticized from both political directions.

The right never liked him in the first place, and as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell famously said during Obama’s first term, Republicans’ main priority was – not cooperating to fix a damaged economy the new president had inherited from a Republican administration – but working to see that Obama was not reelected. The left – enamored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren and other liberals – thought he hewed too much to the political center. The tea party (especially its racist element), the powerful National Rifle Association, “birthers,” and others mocked and reviled him.

But by Friday night, at least, the impression – or at least the imagery – had changed as the White House was bathed in rainbow lighting, a celebration of Obama’s recent political wins as well as the US Supreme Court’s legalizing same-sex marriage for all Americans no matter where they lived.

In his daily wrap-up Saturday morning, Politico’s Mike Allen called it “one of the most momentous news days and weeks you – or even your children – will ever see.”

“Obama aides and former aides, who have been with him from the beginning, tell us this is the biggest week of the eight years,” Allen wrote.

After noting the two big court cases (Obamacare and gay marriage) and Obama’s powerful eulogy in Charleston “where he spoke as freely, and as emotionally, as he ever has about race during his Presidency,” David Remnick, The New Yorker’s editor, wrote: “In recent months Obama has also, through executive action, made solid gains on immigration, wage discrimination, climate change, and foreign-policy issues, including an opening, after more than a half century of Cold War and embargo, to Cuba.”

“These accomplishments – and potential accomplishments, like a rigorous, well-regulated nuclear arrangement with Iran – will help shape the coming election,” Remnick wrote. “In no small measure, Obama, and what he has achieved, will determine the parameters of the debate.”

Presidential legacies must be left to historians, as they have been in recent years regarding Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. And the current reading of Obama’s accomplishments and political strength at this moment may be ephemeral.

But to journalists who write “the first rough draft of history,” it’s been a remarkable week for the nation’s first African-American president, who’s had some major political setbacks – including the last two congressional elections.

Washington Post political blogger Chris Cillizza wrote that Obama’s leading a congregation in Amazing Grace “served as the coda to Obama's single best week as president – a week filled with developments, both practical and symbolic, that will reverberate well beyond not only this week or month but his entire presidency.”

NPR’s Ron Elving said Obama’s “Amazing Grace” eulogy in South Carolina, where Gov. Nikki Haley joined other Republicans (including the state’s two US senators) in calling for removal of the Confederate battle flag from Capitol grounds, “concluded the most shining week of his second term.”

Ken Walsh at US News & World report said, “It was one of the best weeks of President Obama's second term, putting to rest, at least for now, serious talk that he is becoming a lame duck as his presidency enters its final phase.”

“Just eight months ago, people were hanging crepe on the White House, saying ‘The Obama era is over,’” former Obama senior advisor David Axelrod told The Wall Street Journal. The last several months have been one of the most productive periods at the White House, he said, as Obama has resolved to “make every day count.”

In his weekend radio address Saturday, Obama took a victory lap on what is seen as his signature legislative accomplishment, Obamacare.

“This week, after more than fifty votes in Congress to repeal or weaken this law; after a Presidential election based in part on preserving or repealing this law; after multiple challenges to this law before the Supreme Court, we can now say this for certain: the Affordable Care Act still stands, it is working, and it is here to stay,” Obama said.

No doubt there will be bumps and ruts in Obama’s political road toward retirement.

“One can just as easily point to issues that remain of tremendous concern – the consequences of painting (and revising) ‘red lines’ with Syria and the early underestimation of ISIS, among others,” The New Yorker’s Remnick writes. “But the idea that Obama would play out his Presidency, after the political defeat of the midterm elections, as a professorial lame duck turns out to be without basis.”

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