LUMBERTON — When President Barack Obama exits the White House on Friday, this nation’s first black president will take with him approval ratings not often seen for a departing president, on the northside of 50 percent.
But at the same time about a fourth of all Americans will remain convinced he was born in Kenya, is a Muslim, has socialist leanings, and hates America, sentiment that can be found in abundance every day on social media.
It will take decades before Obama’s legacy comes into sharp focus, but local political observers, when pressed, offered their views, which mostly fell along party lines.
“Obama came in with the promise to unify, but the goal of bringing us together failed,” said Bo Biggs, who is treasurer of the Robeson County Republican Party.
Rep. Garland Pierce, a Democrat and the senior member of the Robeson County legislative delegation, has a different take.
“He was a turning point in our history,” Pierce said. “History will say he made America a better place. He’s going out with class.”
Obama arrived at a turbulent time in the nation’s history, which was at the front end of the Great Recession. While critics say the recovery has been slow and point to GDP growth as evidence, the jobless rate has been cut almost in half, to about 5 percent, and the economy has added almost 10 million jobs since 2009.
Obama expanded health-care coverage through what is often called Obamacare, but Donald Trump won election with a promise of its repeal. Obama has also been criticized for his handling of the Middle East, especially alienating Israel, and “creating” ISIS by taking troops out of Iraq too soon. But he also made the call that ended up with the death of Osama bin Laden, the architect of 9/11.
His eight years were also scandal free.
“He leaves a legacy of hope,” said Tiffany Powers, a member of the Robeson County Board of Elections and delegate at the 2008 and 2012 Democratic National Conventions. “His election proved we can change the world.”
But during Obama’s presidency, the Democrats lost control of Congress, about a dozen governorships and almost 1,000 state legislative seats.
In Trump, Americans put a man in the White House who pledges to wipe away Obama’s work. During his exit, Obama has implored Democrats and Americans to fight the dismantling of what he built.
Phillip Stephens, chairman of the Robeson County Republican Party, is ready for deconstruction.
“Obama leaves the nation in much worse shape,” he said. “Race relations are worse, our military is weaker, and it’s fair to say that he left his party in its worst shape since 1927.
“Trump’s election is a repudiation of Obama’s legacy.”
Red Springs Mayor John McNeill, former chairman of the Robeson County Democratic Party, said Obama inherited a mess not of his making and made the best of it.
“He had to deal with the recession with the total opposition of the Republican Party,” McNeill said. “If he had not responded quickly and effectively, we’d still be in a recession like Europe. Republicans fought him the whole way with the only goal of helping him fail.”
Former state Sen. Jane Smith, a Democrat, said the recovery left communities like Robeson behind.
“Obama deserves credit for turning the economy around,” Smith said. “I am not sure that people living rural areas felt the recovery. Our party has ignored rural areas and has not related to many people.”
As Biggs put it: “He showed compassion, but did not seem to care for the people pulling that wagon as much as those who were riding on it. Robeson County is still a leader in too many of the wrong places.”
Smith calls the Affordable Care Act the signature issue of the presidency — and says that North Carolina missed a golden opportunity when Republicans failed to expand Medicaid as part of it. Gov. Roy Cooper is rebooting that effort even as the ACA is under attack.
“While it needs improving, Obamacare provides health care for a lot of people,” Smith said. “From an economic development perspective, North Carolina lost thousands of jobs by not expanding Medicaid coverage. It’s cheaper to provide preventive care than catastrophic care in the emergency room.”
McNeill said Robeson County residents signed up in droves for affordable health care.
Biggs is less certain of the local benefit.
“The ACA was the biggest issue (for Obama’s presidency),” he said. “I am not sure it transformed health care in Robeson County. It lacked innovation and competition.”
The election of a black president was unsettling for many Americans and welcomed by others. But Powers and Pierce, who are both black, say there has been progress on that front.
“Race relations overall have improved in leaps and bounds,” Powers said. “People are able to work together like never before. His election shows that.”
Biggs disagrees, saying “race relations are more divisive than ever, and the media is helping to drive it.”
Rep. Charles Graham, a Lumbee Indian, said Obama “never addressed Lumbee issues.”
Federal recognition for the tribe was not significantly advanced during his presidency.
“It was an opportunity,” he said. “He has to own some of the blame.”
Pierce never believed there would be a black president in his lifetime, noting that Obama was “not just the first black president, he was the first biracial president.
“He showed us we can come together, ‘yes, we can,’” he said. “To win two elections, he had to bring all races together.”
Trump got few black votes as the “law and order” candidate and comes to office with a swagger that concerns Smith.
“Whether we like to admit it or not, there was an undercurrent of racism. I’m concerned by the rhetoric I’m hearing,” Smith said. “It’s divisive. We need to come together.”
After the rough and tumble presidential election of 2016, Obama’s “grace and dignity” will be missed, McNeill said.
“Obama and his wife, Michelle, brought dignity and class to the office of the president,” McNeill said. “There were no scandals. His calm gave the nation confidence that logic and reason would prevail, not emotion.”
As Trump prepares to take the oath of office, it will be a different White House, but Stephens said those who fear the worst need not worry.
“The Trump presidency will not be the end of the world,” he said.
Editor Donnie Douglas contributed to this report. He can be reached at 910-416-5649.