Reflecting on President Obama’s legacy for his 62nd birthday

President Barack Obama, who many anticipate will play a key role in the 2024 elections, set the blueprint for the Biden-Harris administration.

It’s been more than six years since former President Barack Obama left office, leaving behind a historic administration that changed the trajectory of American politics and the way government works for the middle class and minority communities.

The legacy of Obama, who turned 62 on Friday, can be seen and felt within the administration of the current occupant of the White House, President Joe Biden, who notably served as Obama’s vice president. 

U.S. President Barack Obama, right, speaks as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden stands in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016. (Photo by Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

“If it wasn’t for President Obama’s administration, we wouldn’t have a Joe Biden administration,” said Svante Myrick, president and CEO of People For the American Way, a decades-old progressive advocacy group.

“Not only did serving President Obama make [then-Vice President] Biden more popular, but President Obama was an extremely effective surrogate in 2020 on the campaign trail and again in 2022 in the midterms,” Myrick told theGrio. 

Michael Blake, who served as associate director for the Obama White House Offices of Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement and served as national director for the president’s 2012 reelection campaign’s Operation Vote, said Obama “set the foundation” for Biden’s 2020 victory – which included the most votes by any presidential candidate in U.S. history.

Blake recalled Obama saying after his reelection that his “vision and legacy has been made complete because another generation of organizers had emerged.” He added, “Because of what happened in those two elections, we now have this incredible foundation of leadership that exists now.”

The diverse ‘House’ that Obama built

(left to right) U.S. President Barack Obama is joined by Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Homeland Security Adviser Lisa Monaco as he gives a statement in the Roosevelt Room at the White House Nov. 25, 2015 ,in Washington, D.C. Obama said the American people should continue with their Thanksgiving holiday plans and “We are taking every possible step to keep our homeland safe.” (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Biden-Harris administration has been touted for being historically diverse, which is something former Obama White House staffers tell theGrio is credited to the equity groundwork laid by President Obama. 

Alaina Beverly, who served as associate director of the Obama White House Office of Urban Affairs, noted that many diverse members of President Biden’s administration served in the Obama administration at senior or cabinet levels. 

“President Obama had the most diverse cabinet of any of his predecessors,” said Beverly. “Building that bench helped to make it easier for Biden to make the commitment and keep his commitment that he would have the most diverse cabinet in history.”

“Part of the way [Biden] was able to do that was by appointing individuals who had been allies or who had served in the Obama administration,” she added. “Folks who have been crisis tested, who had government experience and had the ability to lead.”

Biden’s achievement of nominating the most Black female judges to the federal bench is also a “blueprint” set by President Obama, said Beverly. 

She explained, “[Obama] had the most diverse number of lawyers nominated to the bench [and] at the time, the greatest number of African American women nominated to the bench.”

In addition to charting the path to building a federal government that better reflects the diversity of America, the Obama administration also “set up the structure of having diversity initiatives,” noted Heather Foster, a former Obama adviser in the White House Office of Public Engagement. 

Foster said programs like the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, which was first established by President Obama, helped to “set the framework” for President Biden’s historic achievements on racial equity, including creating the first-ever White House Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

U.S. President Joe Biden, with Vice President Kamala Harris (2nd left) and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (left), announces his nomination of Air Force General Charles Brown, Jr. (right), to serve as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 25, 2023, in Washington, D.C. Brown would become the second Black officer to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — after Colin Powell from 1989 to 1993. (Photo by Mandel NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

“People came back into that administration understanding the importance of equity, understanding some of the impacts of discrimination and systematic racism,” added Foster. 

Biden serving as vice president to America’s first Black president “helped him think through ways in which to do government better to improve the effectiveness of government,” said Beverly. 

She continued, “Part of improving the efficacy of government is ensuring that no community is left behind [and] that racial equity is embedded in the governance process.”

Obama’s economic policies also served as a framework for the Biden administration, which a few months ago touted a record-low unemployment rate for Black Americans. 

Economic researcher and Brookings Institution senior fellow Andre Perry noted that President Obama’s signature health care law, famously known as Obamacare, established the economic philosophy that President Biden has now advanced as his own signature economic policy known as “Bidenomics.”

“It’s certainly a rebranding of the middle-out economics that really started under Obama with the Affordable Care Act,” Perry told theGrio.

At a time when Black employment was experiencing an uptick, Foster recalled President Obama working diligently with the National Economic Council to lower the Black unemployment rate. 

“You’ve seen a lot of the Biden policies come out to ensure that those things are being kept in place, and that’s exactly something that President Biden saw when he was in the Obama administration,” she said. 

Lessons learned from the Obama years

U.S. President Barack Obama (right) and Vice President Joe Biden (left) stand with Judge Merrick B. Garland (right), while nominating him to the U.S. Supreme Court, in the Rose Garden at the White House, March 16, 2016, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

There were also lessons learned during the Obama years that likely helped the Biden-Harris administration better navigate the implementation of its landmark legislation that is investing billions of dollars in rebuilding infrastructure in Black communities, from establishing clean lead pipes to fixing roads and bridges and expanding high-speed broadband internet.

“Part of that lesson derived from the American Recovery Act,” said Beverly, who recalled that many “shovel-ready projects going out the door very frequently didn’t make it directly to communities that have been historically marginalized.” 

“I think Biden saw that clearly, and is now thinking through innovative and in very critical, important ways of making sure that the government works effectively for all communities,” she added.

Myrick said he believes the “Obama legacy has informed the Biden administration’s success in a lot of ways,” particularly as it relates to getting things done in the face of Republican opposition.

Despite striving to work across the aisle and even appointing Republicans in his cabinet, Obama was “stabbed repeatedly in the back” by the GOP, said Myrick, most notably when Senator Mitch McConnell blocked President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“The Biden administration has come in without any of that Pollyannish naivete and I think has been much sharper elbowed, more willing to just use power to get things done for the people,” he said.

Obama’s message of change and hope

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to supporters during his farewell speech at McCormick Place on Jan. 10, 2017, in Chicago. (Photo by Darren Hauck/Getty Images)

The political division between the Democratic and Republican parties has only magnified over the years, so much so that America appears more polarized than ever – a stark contrast from the politics of hope and change President Obama fashioned his campaign and presidency after.

“We as a country have gone through an incredibly devastating and dark period with the rise of Donald Trump,” said Beverly. The 45th president, who is currently facing three criminal cases, has “done nothing but foment division and distrust in our institutions and distrust in one another,” she added.  

Despite the heightened political division in the aftermath of the Trump White House, Beverly said she doesn’t believe the nation has truly moved away from Obama’s message of hope and change. She explained, “I think that we have been traumatized.”

Myrick described the Trump-lash to Obama’s eight years in the White House as an “authoritarian threat” driven by Trump and Republican extremists. 

“When one-half of the political system is captured by such an ideology, it’s hard to have hope,” he acknowledged. However, he still holds onto hope that “we can help build not only a better America but…a better, healthier, less toxic GOP.”

Obama’s role in the 2024 election

(left to right) Vice President Kamala Harris, former President Barack Obama, and U.S. President Joe Biden arrive for an event to mark the 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act in the East Room of the White House on April 5, 2022, in Washington, D.C. With then-Vice President Joe Biden by his side, Obama signed ‘Obamacare’ into law on March 23, 2010. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

As Obama has reportedly made clear he intends to do whatever possible to ensure President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are reelected in the 2024 election, the 44th commander-in-chief is still seen as the Democratic Party’s biggest star and the best surrogate to mobilize Black voters.

“He’s a trusted voice,” said Beverly, who said President Obama has the ability to speak to the concerns of the Black community, who, according to polls, are growing apathetic to the Biden administration and politics writ large.

She said Obama could be particularly effective with engaging Black men, who political operatives are concerned may sit out the election.

Beverly added, “He can help motivate participation by saying he understands the real pain that our communities are facing, but there are real investments that are coming that will help to turn our economic experience around.”

Blake, the former Obama campaign director, noted that Obama’s presence on the campaign trail will be especially needed as “the other side clearly is trying to make race a cornerstone for all the negative reasons.”

“The voice of the President [Obama] will be heard and respected and will inspire people to action,” he told theGrio. “We cannot allow one side to make this conversation about race for the wrong reasons.”

Though years have passed since President Obama left office, Foster said the “affinity is still there” for America’s first Black president. “It’s going to continue to motivate people to really be a part of the process,” she predicted.

“Something that he said all the time was that, as a citizen, you have the ability to change your community [and] you have the ability to change your circumstances,” Foster added.

“I think you’re going to continue to see that, and people recognize that, and we’ll see that in the 2024 election cycle.”

Gerren Keith Gaynor

Gerren Keith Gaynor is a White House Correspondent and the Managing Editor of Politics at theGrio. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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