Barack Obama may be the most affable world leader in recent history and some may even call him the best US president in history. But he came nowhere close to being a revolutionary leader on the domestic and international fronts, as was hoped.
US President Barack Obama’s decisive victory in the fiercely fought 2008 presidential election proved to the world that in a country built on the foundation of slavery and shrouded in segregation until the 1960s, the spectacular rise of an African-American to the highest office was testament to the power of hope and change – the two words Obama’s presidential campaign personified. Millions of minorities and equally large numbers of progressive whites basked in the glory of the first black man to storm his way into the white men’s club of US presidents. His legacy is evident in the actions he took and paths he chose in his eight years in office. But three features best illustrate his tenure.
From the moment he ascended the veritable throne, a significant section of the population, including Republican lawmakers, radio and TV talk-show hosts judged him by the colour of his skin and not the content of his character. While US president-elect Donald Trump raised a stink about the authenticity of his birthplace forcing Obama to release his birth certificate, Republican Congressman Joe Wilson called him a liar on the floor of the Congress and Republican Governor Jan Brewer angrily pointed a finger at him on an airport tarmac. In spite of these and other personal affronts that no other US president has had to face, Obama kept his cool and always surpassed expectations in bridging the omnipresent racial divide. When a black Harvard professor, Louis Gates, was arrested by a white police officer in Cambridge (Massachusetts) at the front door of his home following a call made by a white neighbour, the president took it upon himself to invite both men to the White House to cool off tensions over a cold beer. He cried his heart out on national television in empathy with millions of heart-broken Americans when a psychopath gunned down 20 elementary school kids in Newtown (Connecticut). He compared the unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin who was killed by a self-styled vigilante to the son he never had and echoed the sentiments of black males by talking about his own experiences of being black in the US. When racial tensions threatened to engulf major cities after police shootings and retaliatory attacks on cops, he showed impeccable clarity of thought in assuaging the feelings of both innocent civilians and honest cops in the same speech often. His role as the healer-in-chief shone bright when he sang ‘Amazing Grace’ during his eulogy for black pastor Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, who was shot to death along with eight others in a hate crime.
He shared countless stories of working class folks that he met during his famous tours, making the nation empathise with their suffering. Putting partisan bickering aside, he led the relief efforts from the forefront by joining hands with Republican governor Chris Christie after hurricane Sandy ravaged New Jersey, in stark contrast to his predecessor’s handling of hurricane Katrina.
On numerous occasions, he dropped in for lunch at small hubs, showing his ‘average citizen’ side to the nation. In his last State of the Union speech, he brushed aside rightwing fear-mongering about doomsday scenarios and revealed how the US is superlatively overmatched to any other military in the world. Unlike many other leaders, he is thoroughly grounded in reality while fully being aware of the threats from terrorism. Through such acts and deeds, Obama showed where his heart was and kept the hope ignited in millions of people that the presidency is no ivory tower and they can one day aspire to be another Obama.
Liberal campaigner to beacon of neo-liberalism
Although Obama never espoused communist ideologies during his campaign, as the rightwing media machine claimed, he certainly understood the genuine plight of the working classes. His ‘change’ slogan rallied the economically disadvantaged sections and rattled the corporate class. However, as soon as he assumed the mantle, he chose to maintain status quo, which was clearly reflective in his picks for treasury secretary, in bailing out the erring auto industry without any repercussions and in his lackadaisical attitude toward prosecuting big bank CEOs who oversaw the 2008 financial crisis. Not a single ‘too big to fail’ head honcho was held accountable, leave alone putting them behind the bars. As these entrenched Wall Street forces continued their sway over financial policy, wealth gap and income inequalities in the US continued to grow to bizarre proportions.
Even with his signature healthcare legislation (Obamacare), he chose a path that was least disruptive to the bottom-line of health insurance and managed care giants. While getting the insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions and young adults on their parents’ plans is laudable, in reality, this has turned out to be nominal coverage with skyrocketing premiums.
Obama also earned the epithet of ‘deporter-in-chief’ as at least 2.5 million undocumented immigrants were deported to their home countries under his watch, more than any other president in history.
Criminal justice reform was reportedly one of his priorities and rightly so given the overwhelmingly disproportionate numbers of blacks and other minorities locked up in prisons courtesy his predecessors’ ‘war on crime’. His picks of Eric Holder, the first African-American attorney general, and Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice instilled new confidence. He granted the most sentence commutations in US history. He is the only US president to visit a federal prison, a move that helped shine light on an often ignored aspect of American society. These moves generated hope in the millions of young minorities about their futures but Obama fell far short in addressing the underlying structural issues, such as inbuilt racial inequalities, that circle back to wealth gap, private prisons, unfair jury system and draconian police powers.
The millennials played a crucial role in Obama’s resounding victories both in 2008 and 2012. His student loan reform capped monthly payments at 10% of the income, extended repayment windows to 25 years and wrote off any outstanding loans beyond 20 years. However, the root cause – burgeoning costs of education – was not addressed, leaving the profit motive of private education untouched.
In all these actions and much more, the portrait that emerges is that of a cautious centrist politician who never dared to upset existing power structures but settled for small victories to perhaps assuage his guilt. Obama carefully crafted his policy to serve his political career in to the second term while not disturbing the wealthy special interests that would fill the campaign coffers of his party. He remained a loyal establishment Democrat by thoroughly backing his once-foe Hillary Clinton even when his own voter-base stood behind Bernie Sanders, the lonely voice that roared against neo-liberalism with an intensity never before seen in mainstream American politics.
Failing to live up to expectations
Obama inherited one of the worst foreign policy legacies in modern US history. But therein lay a golden opportunity for him to shake up things. This hope was the reason he was bestowed with the Nobel Peace Prize. The entire world longed for a shift in the US foreign policy of aggression and deceit. Obama started off with a thundering speech in Cairo addressing the Muslims of the world, which seemed like the elusive bridge between the East and the West. He received a rousing reception, just as he did in other countries, generated a lot of goodwill and reignited a yearning for peace among the common people. But all of this was soon squandered.
The biggest mistake, as Obama himself admitted, happened in his first term. The invasion of Libya in 2011 as part of a NATO-led coalition and the brutal murder of Muammar Gaddafi on the streets of Sirte will remain a blot on his legacy. The horrific state of Libya at present, a country that once prospered both socially and economically, is eerily similar to what George W. Bush achieved in Iraq.
The US, under Obama, is also part of a bombing coalition that ruthlessly targeted and killed civilians in Yemen, even in hospitals and funeral processions, as recently as October 2016 in blatant disregard for the Geneva Convention. The Obama administration also holds the distinction of killing hundreds of civilians in drone strikes in countries such as Pakistan and Somalia where the US is not engaged in an official war.
The killing of Osama Bin Laden is of course a significant event under his watch but that alone will not put an end to violent extremism as long as short-sighted expansionist interests take precedence over diplomacy and humane outreach.
Obama ‘ended’ the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as promised, but thousands of troops remain in both countries to ensure the strong presence of US capitalist interests in the region.
His hands-off approach in Syria probably the saved the lives of numerous US troops who would have died in a full-scale war, but his reluctance to engage with Russia in trying to find a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis needs some introspection. Obama chose not to legitimise Russia’s role because that would have irked his European allies who were already unhappy with the Ukraine tiff. Obama thus chose the safer alternative of studied silence rather than pro-active diplomacy, which could have potentially saved thousands of Syrian lives and staved off a refugee crisis that now plagues the world.
On the other hand, Obama’s positive change in US foreign policy is reflective in two historic steps, both of which cam in his second term. First, in opening up diplomatic relations and restoring some business ties with Cuba, Obama showed a mature understanding of the world. He became the first US president since 1928 to visit Cuba. While only the future can tell if this was the first step in the eventual capitalisation of Cuba, it nevertheless was a great leap forward.
Second, Iran has historically seen the wrath of US, crippling under the weight of sanctions over the years. Obama chose diplomacy over military aggression by striking a very important nuclear deal with Iran despite Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s open threats and the Republican Party’s pandering to unfounded Israeli reservations. He inked a historic deal that is a win-win for both nations, and the world, by effectively thwarting the rise of another nuclear power and unfreezing Iranian foreign reserves, which will boost the ailing nation’s economy and reinvigorate the lives of millions.
Obama may indeed be the most affable world leader in recent history. Some may even call him the best US president in history. But he came nowhere close to being a revolutionary leader on the domestic and international fronts, as was hoped.
Obama had all the makings of an iconic leader but his tenure proves that the US president is perhaps not the most powerful at an individual level, and it is the entrenched forces, the ‘too big to fail’ power lobbies and the military-industrial complex that dictate most policy decisions of the world’s superpower. Being an astute reader of history himself, Obama probably did not want to take a great personal risk like John F. Kennedy.
Nijam Gara is a US-based doctor.