12 November 2016

Everything Barack Obama worked for is about to be swept away


On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama became the first black President of the United States. His message was one of hope, unity and change: “Yes We Can.”

Donald Trump’s election was a staggering rejection of President Obama’s legacy. Trump’s was a message of fear, division and a return to what once was.

Regardless of Hillary Clinton’s unpopularity, the success of Trump’s movement shows just how disillusioned and disenfranchised vast swathes of American people feel – not to mention how much they despise Washington politics.

As a result, everything Obama represented, everything he worked to change, looks set to be swept away.

With the GOP retaining its majorities in Congress, and the Supreme Court set to tilt sharply to the right, Trump’s imminent presidency will have little to restrict it. Obama’s work could all be undone.

After slogging tirelessly to force legislation through a hyper-partisan Congress, after pouring his efforts into unrelenting international negotiations, after toiling over countless carefully crafted policy documents and speeches, it may all count for nothing. Just imagine how that must feel.

First to go will be his executive orders. That means gun control measures thrown away with the flick of a pen, along with temporary protections for millions of undocumented immigrants.

Obamacare, whose passage was the biggest struggle of the president’s reign, will almost certainly be repealed or replaced. Planned Parenthood is likely to be defunded. Even Roe vs Wade, which legalised abortion, could well be overturned. The Paris climate agreement and Obama’s efforts to secure free trade deals also look to be dead in the water.

The post-mortem for America’s progressive politics will no doubt continue in the weeks, months and years ahead. Many will focus on Hillary Clinton’s candidacy – but the bigger question is how a President with sky-high popularity ratings can have his achievements repudiated so rapidly?

Obama’s vision of an open, diverse nation which embraces globalisation has been defeated by an antithetical vision of closing doors, resenting diversity and withdrawing from the world.

A new nationalism has won against internationalism, with America turning against free trade, immigration and the “elite”. The recession brought on by the financial crisis of 2008 may be officially over, but its political fallout has only just begun.

Yet while Barack Obama must feel shell-shocked and hollow, he still faces an extremely significant task. Donald Trump will not enter the Oval Office until January – and his predecessor faces the same challenge as at the start of his presidency, namely steadying a ship which is severely rocking.

In the lame duck session, President Obama faces the task of bringing calm to a nation which is more deeply divided than ever before. There is a real danger of these divisions spilling over into disturbances and violence. Not to mention the wider economic and diplomatic consequences, for America and the world: stock markets are already dropping like a stone.

Characteristically, the President has already started his work in detoxifying the situation. As he said in a pre-recorded message last night: “No matter what happens, the sun will rise in the morning”.

In the long term, however, Obama is effectively powerless to protect his legacy. Half of the American electorate has rejected the hope and progress that he imagined.

In its place, it has chosen the vision of President-elect Donald Trump. What that means for America’s economic future, the unity of its people, and its standing in the world, is anyone’s guess.

Jack Graham is a political commentator who specialises in American politics.