Updated: Jun 24, 2018
The first time I truly recognised the special oratory abilities possessed by Barack Obama was on the night of his election triumph in 2008. While most of the headlines covered the charismatic notes (‘Yes We Can!’), equally impressive for me was his masterful use of silence. Just over eight years later, the disillusionment was clear, the pauses no longer so electric. As he urged the American public to recall the mantra “We are Americans first” following the election of Donald Trump, I began to reflect on a presidency that may in fact be destined to be remembered most for its speeches.
President Obama spoke to many of us, including millions outside of the United States, in a way that few figures in history could hope to match. Through his eloquence, for many he became a living, breathing symbol of the hope and promise of the American dream. Yet there is still a lingering disappointment, that for a president so potent at stirring hearts and so skilled at conjuring empathy, his legislative triumphs are scarce, his foreign policy achievements set to be undone, and America’s place in the world slightly less assured.
Let us begin by recalling the state of the world as Obama ascended to the presidency in 2008. In the wake of the Lehman Brothers collapse and the biggest financial meltdown since the Great Depression, Obama was forced to lead an America facing domestic challenges not seen since the days of Franklin Roosevelt. Globally, he was to be tested by the rapid re-emergence of China as a true superpower, and an insistence from both the American people and the international community that the nation-building and all-round adventurism of George W. Bush could not continue.
It is on that great stage of foreign policy where, like most of his predecessors, Obama will be examined most closely. This is a president who followed up a Nobel peace prize obtained in the first year of his administration with a confident promise that the “decade of war is now ending” early in his second term. Yet America’s participation in conflicts around the world was a constant throughout the Obama presidency, with the drone strike in particular becoming a signature method of waging war. Having been a strong critic of the war in Iraq since day one, there is a tragic irony in the truth that President Obama oversaw further destabilisation of the Middle East and the genesis of the barbaric Islamic State.
Perhaps more so than any other foreign policy episode of his presidency, Obama is defined by his handling of Syria in 2013. This is also perhaps the issue which divides his supporters from his critics most fiercely. Having previously drawn a “red line” to deter the Assad regime from using chemical weapons, Obama ultimately chose not to enforce it. As former defence secretary Leon Panetta summarised, this decision “raised questions as to whether or not the United States would stand by its word.” There may be some truth to this argument, but it is impossible to agree with those who conclude from this that President Obama was generally inactive on the global stage. After all, this is the president who so swiftly eliminated Osama bin-Laden in 2011 and helped to overthrow Qaddafi in Libya. Instead, I consider Obama’s approach to Syria to be perfectly in line with what I would expect from a commander-in-chief who is said to have followed the simple mantra: “don’t do stupid stuff.” He made his assessment, i.e. that military escalation would have further destabilised an increasingly volatile region post Arab Spring, and he stood by it.
As much as the effectiveness of his handling of Syria is up for debate, in my view there are several other foreign policy triumphs of the Obama presidency which we can all applaud. He made a huge effort to improve frosty relations with Cuba, and the Castro family in particular. The deal to constrain (and perhaps even end) the Iranian nuclear weapons programme after years of painful sanctions negotiations looked set to prevent a confrontation that had once seemed almost certain. The Paris Climate Accords were a sign that the international community could finally rely on American leadership to combat climate change. Yet both of the latter two achievements have already been swept aside by President Donald Trump, Obama’s polarising successor. It is impossible to argue that this fact does not diminish the standing and historical significance of the Obama presidency.
This article has focussed primarily on the foreign policy of the Obama administration. There is of course much more to discuss, and I will touch briefly on some of his domestic achievements. Through the Affordable Care Act (another partial casualty of the early Trump presidency), many Americans who previously had to rely almost entirely on generosity or, worse still, the emergency services for medical treatment, were able to obtain health insurance. In economic terms, the policies of Barack Obama and Joe Biden helped to boost the post-tax income of the poorest quarter of Americans by around 20%, even more impressive in the context of the cocktail of economic danger they inherited.
However, a sadly enduring feature of the Obama presidency is the image of a government perhaps more bitterly divided than any time since before the civil war. In 2010, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell declared the top priority of his party to be enduring that Obama served only one term. In 2013, several Republicans including Senator Ted Cruz engineered a shutdown of the federal government in a bid to repeal the Affordable Care Act. To what extent Obama himself is to blame for this toxic situation could well be an article in its own right, but the truth is that it pushed the president to executive order much more frequently, and in doing so may have diminished the power of the presidency itself. A better question may be: to what extent is the presidency of Barack Obama responsible for the presidency of Donald Trump?