When I was in fifth year, our History teacher asked us to write an essay on the importance of Obama’s election. This was puzzling to me as this was not history. This was the present. Still, I managed to churn out some vague ramblings on the hope he inspired with the rhetoric of his speeches. You have to remember that back in 2008, Obama was like a celestial being sent from the heavens to save us from eight years of horror. Even if you knew nothing about the man, his days as a Community Organiser on the Southside of Chicago, or his political accomplishments in the Senate, you still held the innate sense that this was a good man who really was capable of enacting change and ushering in a new period of American prosperity. Eight years later, he has done just that, though perhaps not in the ways many of us would have imagined. His ascension to the highest office in the land, despite any beliefs you may hold of what came after, remains an historic moment. So, without further ado, let’s foolhardily tackle a legacy that will take years (if not decades) to fully understand, and appreciate.
The Audacity of Hope
“Yes, we can” was always a banal and slightly cringe-inducing soundbite but its utterance at the Democratic National Convention last year and during Obama’s farewell address nevertheless made our hearts leap. I used to think that Obama’s great speeches weren’t that important- that what mattered were his actions. Looking back in history however, how can one simply dismiss the power of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the comfort FDR brought with his radio addresses, or the tone Kennedy set for the Space Race as mere populist fluff? The truth of the matter is that a president leads not only with bills and the military, but with their words. From the get-go, Obama was a breath of fresh air because he spoke and acted with optimism, ebullience, caution, and consideration, not with bravado, brashness, and all guns blazing. As Stephen Walt put it in an early New York Times’ assessment two years ago; “[Even} when one disagreed with his choices, one knew that his acts were never impulsive or cavalier.” This helped restore not only peoples’ faith in America across the world; it helped restore general morale in an era dominated by economic hardship and political division. Particularly in light of what is to come, this will matter.
New World Terrors
The US was engaged in two wars when Obama took office. Many would argue that his decision to withdraw the US from Iraq was premature and facilitated the rise of ISIS. His policy on Afghanistan was somewhat wistful, quixotic, and naïve, which resulted in the stark realisation that nation building was not a feasible option. Many would contend that his condonation of drone warfare was abject and distant. Many would also assert that Obama’s foreign policy was, for the better part, a mere extension of the Bush administration’s. It’s a difficult area to assess because any of the repercussions from his actions will take years to manifest. However, it is pudent to remember the context in which his decisions were made:
There was the Arab Spring in his first term; which sparked the fervent outcry for democracy violently across the Middle East, resulting in a cascade of falling governments along with the end of the Gaddafi reign. There was the capture and assassination of Osama Bin Laden, which closed the chapter on an event that was a cathartic moment for all Americans. There was Benghazi, which undermined the credibility of his Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, and set a stage for scathing Republican backlash. There was the Iran Nuclear Deal, which to most reasonable people, was a step forward but which nevertheless further divided the nation writ large. There was Syria – an avenue Obama wanted to pursue but was discouraged from doing so by Congress (his seeking authority to enter may yet be seen as an aberration in the attitude of previous presidential administrations). There was Cuba, a country shunned for 50 years, a status that Obama felt deserved to be reevaluated. There was Putin; a man emboldened by the supposed appearance of weakness on Obama’s part, who entered Crimea, alighting fears of a Second Cold War. Then there has been the proliferation of terrorist threats across the world from Paris, Berlin, and Istanbul, which have consolidated the last decade and a half as the “Age of Terror.”
Republicans consistently go too far with their half-formed criticisms of the President. What they have failed to grasp time and time again is that “diplomacy” is not a dirty word. Obama understood that. He tread these waters, possibly a little too carefully, but next to Bush and Trump, are we not glad that there was a president who was willing to consider compromise before warfare? Just what will happen when Trump, the capricious braggadocio, gets his tiny hands on the most powerful military in the world? Obama’s heuristic leadership will surely seem a distant and sought after memory.
A Nation Divided
Abraham Lincoln was a model of hope in an era of bitter division, preceded and succeeded by terrible leaders. Obama’s time draws similar parallels.
Political, economic, and social division have evidently dogged these past eight years however. To take the former case of division; we have seen from day one, the GOP’s effort to dismantle the President’s domestic efforts and undermine his legitimacy on a scale of determination even more reprehensible than during the Clinton years. The Affordable Health Care Act (arguably Obama’s magnum opus), may be a source of contention for many Americans, some see it as hyper-liberalism aiding a modern welfare state. The Republicans’ alternative however (still outstanding), simply cannot be taken seriously in this discussion; their opposition is based on nothing more than political gratification. Of course, the bill is not perfect but with 50 years’ efforts of trying to get some sort of coverage passed and 20 million more people insured, there’s something undeniably historic about this act.
In terms of economic division then, the wealth gap has only continued to grow. Dodd-Frank was an amiable step towards reform but Wall Street was never properly disciplined and for this, Obama should be criticised. The Occupy movement was propelled by such injustice in this climate and so was Bernie Sanders, whose message, resonated with the youth, far more than Obama’s or Clinton’s. This problem, which Obama has on some level recognised, will no doubt continue to fester over the course of the next four years (if Trump’s tax plans are to be taken seriously) and it will dominate the 2020 election. To his credit, as an aside, he has made a substantive effort to promote the minimum wage and saved the country from another Great Depression (this particularly shouldn’t be forgotten).
The rise of Social Media has meanwhile projected unto millions more the reality of racial, sexual, and gendered inequality. Despite having their first Black president, many members of the Black community felt disheartened by his seeming disinterest in tackling police brutality and discriminatory laws. Events like Ferguson have been a brutal reminder of the privilege afforded to White people over Blacks. With sexual equality then, Obama was not initially a champion of Gay Marriage but its passage into law in 2015 became a victory for his administration, as the culture wars took a massive swing to the left. Women’s rights, were seemingly thrown aside with the election of Trump, but Obama’s been a proponent of greater equity, particularly in the workforce.
The fight over the Second Amendment cannot solely be hallmarked as an issue of the Obama years but it has been spread increasingly across social media lately. In a recent interview, Obama said his meeting with the families of the Sandy Hook victims in 2012 was the most difficult moment he endured in all his eight years and he meant that genuinely. Who could forget last year’s emotional speech when through tears, he told us, “every time I think about [them] it gets me mad”? Although nothing significant has been accomplished in all this time, Obama’s empathy will be remembered poignantly.
Obama’s own popularity rose throughout 2015 and 2016 despite an all-time low at the start of those years. He has since acknowledged however that this popularity did not transfer over to the Democratic base. Was the party, in some ways, damaged during his Presidency? November’s results would attest to just that but the election was of course anything but logical. Still, it may be argued in years to come that Obama’s greatest failure as President was to mobilise his party effectively and prevent the election of the Donald. Bill Clinton hasn’t exactly borne the grudge of Bush’s election. Carter’s leadership, on the other hand, certainly caused friction with the more liberal sides of his party and helped propel Reagan to power.
A Frustrated Presidency?
There are many areas this article hasn’t covered, including Climate Change, Obama’s generational image, the Auto-Industry, Immigration, and Citizens United. The overriding image these issues convey however is that of a “frustrated” presidency. The promises were many and the hopes were high; too high to ever formally be realized. Set against the schism of a society at odds culturally and politically, there were in many respects, very few avenues for this President to pursue without controversy. At first, he seemed a tad hesitant, especially given the Democrats’ initial majority. He was building the blocks of his legacy however, as a man of the people, not the politicians. Obamacare, I would argue, needed to be sold to the public. Politically, it would always be burdened. Indeed, many of his programs needed popular support. (Perhaps this is why he made so many chat show appearances!) And while his approval ratings have ended on a relative high, in many ways, this man and his team must be heartbroken; for just as so many greater heights could have been reached, so too could the measures he’s taken be torn apart in years to come.
In the final reflection, one has to wonder if Obama had ceded to Clinton in 2008 and ran, in perhaps 2020, would he had been better positioned to enact his powerful rhetoric of real change and unbridled hope for America? We’ll never know. When the dust has settled on his presidency, and equipped with the glorious retrospective vehicle of historical analysis, I think the 44th President of the United States will stand out as a coruscating example of a man, who in the face of constant adversity, lead the nation with progressive, principled, resolve.