David Axelrod: Obama’s legacy can’t be erased

Story highlights

As the Obamas moved out of White House, David Axelrod returned to recall big challenges of Obama's first days there

Axelrod: Whatever happens next, he has done some good work that cannot be erased and will not be forgotten

Editor’s Note: David Axelrod is CNN’s senior political commentator and host of the podcast “The Axe Files.” He was senior adviser to President Barack Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

CNN  — 

The walls, just days earlier bedecked with portraits of President Obama at work, were covered with empty frames, awaiting a new leading man.

The hallways that had been buzzing with energy were strangely still, as all but the most senior staff had already turned in their badges and moved on. In the mostly emptied West Wing, those who remained packed up a few last items between hugs, handshakes, laughs and memories.

The White House on Thursday was winding down, the day before the wheel of democracy turns out one cast and ushers in another.

As the hours ticked down on the Obama era, I returned to see old colleagues and friends, some of whom had walked into that citadel of American government with me eight years ago.

On that day, the vibe was entirely different. The place filled with the frenetic energy of something new and momentous.

Even as we located our offices and familiarized ourselves with our rarified surroundings, we plunged into the work of saving the country from an epic economic crisis – the worst since the Great Depression. There were two wars raging and 180,000 troops in harm’s way and Osama bin Laden was alive and still plotting against America.

What we would quickly learn is that as we labored through these challenges, others would arrive unexpectedly. Pirates, pandemics and massive oil leaks on the sea floor do not fit neatly into your planning calendar. That’s the nature of the presidency. Events have a way of hijacking your days and the story.

I smiled the other day when the president, at his final news conference, shared the advice he had given his children in times of stress. “The only thing that’s the end of the world…is the end of the world,” he said.

His wisdom and equanimity had helped the country and buoyed his staff through times that felt as if they could be the end of the world. And those qualities were on display again these past two months when a stunning election result left so many unsettled.

Those who lingered at the White House on Thursday wondered which pieces of Obama’s legacy would survive the stark change of leadership that Friday will bring. But there are so many things that simply cannot be erased.

History will record that at a time of maximum crisis, this president made a series of courageous and difficult decisions to save our economy and the American auto industry. I was there. I saw it. He never flinched.

He had the foresight, through the Recovery Act, to plant the seeds of a renewable energy industry that has blossomed and is the future. It will not be turned back.

He fought for equal rights for all Americans and helped lead to a sea change in how gay Americans are treated. On this issue, our country is not going back.

And while the incoming administration and Congress have made the repeal of Obamacare their rallying cry, no longer is it considered acceptable for people with pre-existing conditions to be refused insurance, or women to be charged exponentially more than men.

Americans now expect to be able to cover their adult children up to the age of 26, and they won’t accept any plan that dumps 20 million Americans from the insurance rolls.

The reforms that have cut costs and improved care and helped curb runaway inflation in health care spending have changed the industry in lasting ways.

Perhaps spurred by fears of repeal without an adequate replacement, the health care law derisively named for the president by its opponents has never polled as well or been as popular as it is today.

Obama has shifted the starting point for the debate on health care. Wherever it lands, we are never going back to where we were eight years ago.

Beyond his many durable achievements, nothing will erase the memory of a president who brought dignity, honor and integrity to the Oval Office. He set high standards of conduct for those around him. He and his family were wonderful role models, so welcome in these times of coarsening culture.

We’ll remember those moments of amazing grace, when he lifted our spirits, and the evenness with which he faced an implacable and sometimes bitter opposition.

Through eight challenging years, he never succumbed to cynicism. He came as a believer in the fundamental ideals of our democracy, he pushed for them and he leaves as their champion.

I stopped in to see my old friend on his final day in the Oval Office. I told him how proud I was of him and grateful to have been along for some of this amazing journey.

“We did some good work here,” he said.

As administrations change, it might feel like the end of the world to those who worked for this president and to some of the many Americans who, by the latest counts, like and support him. It is not.

Whatever happens next, he has done some good work that cannot be erased and will not be forgotten.