12 January 2017

The lost promise of the Obama presidency


He always had style. Even his sternest critics might concede that. Barack Obama’s final speech as president of the United States of America was a microcosm of his presidency: elegant and intelligent but still leaving you wanting just a little more.

Presidencies are a question of context, however. The Obama years might easily – perhaps too easily – now be seen as an eight year interregnum between disaster and folly. George W Bush, a decent but incurious man too secure in his own certainty, was over-matched by the presidency; Donald J Trump has not yet given any indication he’s remotely ready for the job with which he is, god help us all, entrusted. If you measure Obama against his predecessor and successor, he begins to look like Gulliver in Lilliput.

Context matters too. Bush’s presidency was lost in the sands of Mesopotamia and, then, in a final flourish bequeathed the gravest economic crisis in half a century to his successor. America was in a deep funk and an even deeper hole when Obama assumed office. Digging out would take time and prove an expensive business, burning through Obama’s political capital before he had a chance to spend it on his own ambitions.

And yet, there were achievements too. Obama was elected on a promise to end America’s participation in the war in Iraq. He did that. He was elected on a promise to fix, or at least stabilise, a crippled economy. He did that too, even if the Obama years have never been as fat-filled as either he or the American people desired.

Median wages have stagnated and the American middle-class, perhaps for the first time, peered into the future and saw a less prosperous future for their children’s generation. Still, a deep and painful recession did not become a depression on Obama’s watch and that should count for something.

Even so, the lost promise of Obama’s presidency may be measured by the fact that, despite orchestrating a bail-out that “saved” America’s automobile industry, Hillary Clinton failed to win Michigan last November. Gratitude has a shorter than ever half-life these days.

But the sense the people of Michigan should be grateful to their president was, in its way, also part of the Obama problem. Obama, always aloof, never bothered to hide his conviction that, on any subject in any room, he was likely to be the smartest man present.

His presidency was perfumed by the idea the American people were lucky to be led by Barack Hussain Obama. He was the special one. They should be grateful for the service of this chosen man.

Obama could reasonably point to the fact he was consistently opposed by a Republican congress that had no intention of compromising with their president. Indeed, trench warfare began in Congress as soon as Obama swore his oath of office. Nevertheless, he often seemed puzzled, even affronted, by the fact some people dared to take a different view from him.

For all his talk of being a unifying president – a bridge between red and blue America – he never quite appeared to appreciate that not all opposition to his proposals was self-serving or illegitimate. His White House often operated on the presumption that if only his unreasonable critics ceased being so damn unreasonable then matters would be easily and better arranged.

The wages of expectation are paid in disappointment. That, too, is one lesson to be drawn from Obama’s presidency. The world – or at least most of it – celebrated his victory, seeing the election of America’s first black president as a magnificently symbolic repudiation of the Bush years.

No president in living memory, not even Kennedy, arrived with so much hype. Some of this, it must be said, had been encouraged by the candidate himself. His election, he once suggested, would be recalled as the moment the world’s oceans ceased rising. Even allowing for the conventions of outlandish campaign exaggeration this was strong, but also risible, stuff.

Reality is a stubborn mistress, however, and the excitement which accompanied Obama on his journey to the White House became a burden. One made heavier still by the ludicrous and premature award of a Nobel peace prize before he had barely begun his work. If you are led to expect $100 you will be disappointed to receive just $50. Obama never quite managed to balance results with expectations.

Even so, there were results. Obamacare, his flagship domestic legislation, was a startling political achievement. Every president since Richard Nixon had tried to expand the United States’ healthcare system so it might cover every citizen. All of them failed. But Obama did it.

The permanence of this achievement, however, remains in doubt as the new Republican administration promises to repeal and replace Obamacare. By doing so, they will wipe Obama from history. It will almost be as though the new Republican administration will declare Obama a “non-president”.

Given the manner in which conservatives sought to strip away Obama’s legitimacy from the outset, this would be a grimly appropriate conclusion to his time in office. Trump, who rose to political prominence on the back of wholly unfounded assertions that Obama was not a natural born American citizen, is the anti-Obama in every imaginable way. Obama’s eight years in office were remarkably scandal-free; it is not obvious anyone will be able to say the same about his successor’s tenure.

There were other achievements, too. Only time will tell if the opening to Cuba and the nuclear deal brokered with Iran will hold; but if it does Obama’s often-maligned foreign policy may yet be reconsidered. Elsewhere in the Middle East, Obama’s approach was cold-blooded to the point it began to freeze. Accepting that the American people had no desire for fresh foreign entanglements, he adopted a hands-off approach to Syria’s civil wars.

If Saudi Arabia and Iran wished to conduct a proxy war in Syria then so be it; let them exhaust themselves there, so long as the killing was contained and did not spread across the region. The audacity of hope was tempered by a chilly realism.

That was Obama’s style, however. He was a president unusually aware of trade-offs. You never get everything you want, hard choices cannot be avoided, but every choice you make spawns a reaction you cannot necessarily control. No wonder policy wonks and the guardians of civic virtue loved him.

If Obama was just another white guy, just a regular president of the usual sort, his record in office would be more easily measured. A president who did some good things and some less good things. But the point of Obama, of course, was that he was not just a regular president of the usual sort. That was why, and how, he was able to defeat Hillary Clinton in 2008. Being black trumped being a woman in the race to make history.

His election was supposed to be a watershed; a closing of one chapter and the opening of another. Symbols matter but they’re not enough. Obama knew – and often said – that electing a black president was something large but not enough to draw a final line under America’s long and painful racial history. Indeed, it unavoidably drew attention to that history. At least part of Trump’s victory last November can be understood as a white backlash against the horror of a black president.

But if you only appreciate what you had when it’s gone then Barack Obama’s eight years in office are already looking better than ever. He signed off by asking Americans to remember they are the agents and creators of their present circumstances – and their future. The buck stops at the White House but citizens have duties too. Not the least of which, right now, is to remember Benjamin Franklin’s warning: “A republic, if you can keep it”.

Alex Massie is a political commentator