The first time Rep. Tim Walz met Barack Obama, it was October 2006, at a campaign rally in Rochester with Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
None of them held their current offices: Obama was still a freshman senator from Illinois, a few months away from announcing his presidential bid. Walz was a high school teacher running for the 1st District congressional seat. Klobuchar was the Hennepin County Attorney, making her first run for U.S. Senate.
Obama was one of the few high-profile Democrats to come up to Minnesota to help him out, Walz recalls. “I just remember standing on that stage and we were coming off it, and there was someone there who was a supporter of mine who said, ‘stop, let me take a picture.’”
Walz still has that photo framed at his house. A caption reads, “A future congressman, a future senator, and a future president.”
That prediction turned out to be true. The eight years of the Obama administration yielded significant achievements for Democrats, some major setbacks, and an outcome few of them thought possible: the election of Donald Trump.
With just days until Trump succeeds Obama in the White House, Minnesota’s Democrats considered their president’s time in office, and how history might regard him in the years to come.
A list of ‘towering achievements’
MinnPost spoke with a handful of Minnesota’s Democratic members of Congress, and without fail, each praised Obama for the dignity he brought to the office, and the grace with which he carried himself as he weathered relentless opposition from the Republicans, which some described as unprecedented.
Rep. Rick Nolan likened Obama’s departure from the White House to a death in the family.
“I thought he served with great dignity, both he and his wife,” Nolan said. “His brilliance, his dignity, his poise, his posture, and his ethics, his morality, it just had to make you proud.”
Klobuchar said in a statement, “From beginning to end, President Obama has brought dignity and respect to the office.”
Rep. Keith Ellison, the delegation’s only person of color and also an early congressional supporter of Obama, said “I don’t think people really understand how hostile some other Americans are to the idea of people who aren’t white being able to be in leadership in our country.”
He cited the ugly epithets Obama and his family faced over the last eight years. “Yet he overcame all that and made what my mother would have assumed would be impossible, possible,” he said.
Sen. Al Franken, also elected in 2008, credited Obama for how he handled a failing U.S. economy upon taking office. “When I first got into office, when we were at the height of the Great Recession, and when he came into office, we were losing 800,000 jobs a month,” he said.
“Because of his steady leadership, with the stimulus package, the investments that were made, saving the auto industry, we averted, I think, going into a great depression.”
Democrats also had plenty of good things to say about Obama’s policy achievements — particularly the Affordable Care Act, which now faces dismemberment at the hands of Trump and the GOP-held Congress.
Nolan called the ACA a remarkable accomplishment. “You’ve got the first administration to flat-line increasing costs in health care, and expanding health insurance to 22 million people,” he said. “That’s pretty remarkable.”
Ellison praised Obama for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the federal consumer advocate and watchdog that was created by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform bill.
“I think it’s a towering achievement,” he said, mentioning consumer abuses that happened in the run-up to the 2009 financial crisis that the CFPB now aims to stop. “It’s done tremendous, great things for working people.”
Not always pretty
Though they broadly shared policy priorities, the relationship between congressional Democrats and Obama was often fraught.
As his tenure wore on, it became conventional wisdom in D.C. that Obama, the former senator, didn’t hold Congress in especially high regard. Hill Democrats frequently complained about what they perceived as the administration’s failure — or unwillingness — to establish close relationships with members of Congress.
To hear some Minnesota representatives tell it, that was a major weakness of his presidency, leading to missed opportunities to advance their shared agenda.
To them, the passage of the Affordable Care Act was a good example. In control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, many Democrats hoped to see Obama pass a comprehensive, progressive health care package that included a government-run public option.
Ultimately, the public option failed, and the result was a compromise bill that didn’t go as far as many Democrats wanted — and one that didn’t get any GOP support, anyway.
“I was open to what the best suggestion was, and many said that’s where we needed the public option to be, the backbone, and he took it out,” Walz explains. “And the reason he took it out was to try to accommodate Republicans… I think the president, he was negotiating from the Republican position against the Democrats in the House.”
Ellison has been at odds with the president’s Capitol Hill approach before. When Obama came to Congress in 2015 to push Democrats to approve so-called “fast-track” trade authority to usher in the Trans-Pacific Partnership — which Ellison vehemently opposes — he and other progressives were livid. (Obama got fast-track eventually, but with scant Democratic support.)
Ellison was an advocate of the public option and says Obamacare should have had it, but today, he doesn’t blame the president for its failure. “I think everybody did their best,” he said. “The votes were the votes, man. At the end of the day, it was not easy to get what we got.”
Franken, for his part, said Obama couldn’t have done anything more to pass the public option, and doesn’t buy the idea the president’s relations with Congress were suboptimal.
“I certainly didn’t need to have him come and slap me on the back in order to get things done working with him,” he said, adding that his top staff and cabinet members were plenty accessible.
Franken and Nolan specifically mentioned White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough’s December 2015 visit to the Iron Range to hear concerns on foreign steel dumping, which resulted in the administration placing higher tariffs on Chinese steel.
What will be his legacy?
As of November 8, many Democrats felt relatively confident that Obama’s legacy would be safe in the hands of Hillary Clinton.
Instead, days before he leaves office, his legacy — key achievements like the ACA, two big electoral victories for Democrats in 2008 and 2012 — is in question.
Some have suggested history will remember well that, despite his own triumphs, Obama presided over a hollowing out of the party at national and local levels. More than one Minnesota Democrat pointed out the party’s staggering electoral losses under Obama, losing 63 House seats, 11 Senate seats, and over 800 state legislative seats since he took office.
“I don’t hold him responsible for that, but I will say it happened while he was president,” Ellison said. “At some point you’ve gotta ask, what else could we have done?”
Walz said Obama could have done more, “that outreach of work with us, build the party, build messaging. They always told us they were going to provide air cover, like on the ACA, and those bombers never showed.”
Though Obama campaigned hard to elect Clinton, ultimately, it was not enough. Regardless of what Trump may do to dismantle Obama’s key achievements, Minnesota Democrats believe his place in history is assured.
“No matter what the Republicans do to Obama’s legacy, I don’t think it hurts Obama’s legacy because he showed that it could be done,” Ellison said. “The blame goes on [Republicans]. I don’t blame Lyndon Johnson because they attacked the Voting Rights Act.”
Walz, the former history teacher, said “having the book too close to your face, it’s hard to read.” After some years, he says, “I think we’ll see a very smart, compassionate, wonderful communicator who was in the midst of a lot of turbulence, social and economic change, not just in this country, but globally.”
Democrats are not necessarily looking forward to seeing Obama officially become a private citizen at noon on January 20. But Ellison saw some silver lining: “He’s going to be one of the youngest ex-presidents,” he said. (Obama is 55.)
“So I’m sure he’s got a whole lot more good to do in terms of healing, in terms of liberty and justice for all.”