Al Tillery, a professor of political science at Northwestern University spoke at Hamilton about “The Legacy of Barack Obama” in a lecture on Feb. 6.
Tillery framed his talk with three unifying topics: how the Obama presidency will be remembered, what will survive of Obama-era programs in the current administration and how Obama will engage politics in the post-presidency.
He began by predicting that the former president’s approval rating would improve after he has been out of office for years—this has historically been the case for most presidents once they left office.
While Tillery identified Obamacare, the stimulus package, and the assassination of Osama bin Laden as three defining popularity boosters for Obama, he admitted in the question segment following his lecture that Trump could seriously hurt Obama’s legacy by repealing Obamacare. Trump’s win itself is partially due to white backlash against both Obama’s presidency and liberal agenda.
But Tillery, with his professional expertise on American political development and racial and ethnic politics, offered a more nuanced analysis of Obama’s performance in terms of race relations.
Tillery has researched this question extensively. In an investigation of the approval of modern presidents in black newspapers, he found that Obama ranked seventh out of 19; Lyndon B. Johnson came in first.
Some audience members found this surprising, assuming that he would rank higher, but Tillery pushed his point further. He remarked that seventh place was actually too high; blacks rated him more favorably than he deserved because they wanted to defend him in broader white society. This is because, according to Tillery, “There is a desire to protect black elites from critiques by whites.”
When Obama first took office, Tillery recalled, “People originally thought Obama would create a post-racial America. He never thought he could, and he was a racially polarizing figure.” As a result, Obama abstained from taking an active position on black issues.
Tillery provided the audience with a comprehensive synthesis of the former president’s role in race relations, both praising him for reducing sentences for people convicted of drug possession and pardoning many criminals while criticizing his insufficient support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Tillery’s lecture contextualized Obama’s presidential actions and lack thereof, concluding that he was too timid in advancing race relations and that the focus on Obamacare distracted him from that issue.
The lecture proved to be extremely educational for student attendees. Aleta Brown ’17 said, “The speaker unwrapped a complex topic in a balanced, informative way.” She continued, “With all the news coverage on the Trump administration, it was so valuable to reflect on the past while still looking forward into the future.”
The Levitt Center sponsored the lecture.