Barack Obama was sworn in as 44th President of United States on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009 at the U.S. Capitol Building. Photo: Internet
The 44th POTUS was redemptive, if not quite transformative.
On 20 January 2009, standing tall, slim and straight, Barack Obama took the oath of office as the first black president of the United States of America. The huge attendance set a record for any event held in Washington, DC. Besides his extraordinary oratorical skills Obama symbolised the youthful energy and strength needed to face a range of massive and urgent challenges: an acute financial crisis threatening world depression, the disastrous situations left by his predecessor’s misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, plus the wider implications of the “War on Terror” that followed 2001’s felling of the Twin Towers attack.
The expectations of his supporters were high, unrealistically high. But on that cold January day millions of people around the world were also impressed and eager to partake in ‘the Audacity of Hope.’
Obama’s presidential inheritance was made still more difficult by very partisan and negative Republican majorities in the Congress and later also in the Senate. In foreign affairs Obama focussed on successful US leadership in negotiating a deal with Iran to restrain its development of a nuclear weapon capacity. He fully agreed with the strong demand of the US public for military withdrawal from the mayhem in Afghanistan and Iraq but found achieving that more complex than the public and perhaps he himself, had expected – certainly immensely more difficult and complex than the purely military exercises of Bush’s expulsion of the Taliban and overthrow of Saddam Hussain.
If that were not enough, Obama soon faced further new challenges. The 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ turned into a quite cruel ‘Arab Winter’, with the Egyptian and Tunisian governments overthrown and peaceful protests in Syria turning into bitter and confused civil war. Obama reluctantly joined the French and UK overthrow of Gaddafi, but Libya then also descended into chaos. In 2014 Putin instigated revolt in east Ukraine and seized Crimea, followed later by Russian military intervention in Syria. Meanwhile China continued its rapid economic growth and developed an challengingly assertive policy in the South and East China Seas.
Despite Republican opposition in Congress, Obama did manage a substantial range of achievements in both domestic and foreign policy. In response to the risk of global financial chaos and a repeat of the 1929 financial depression he rescued two major automobile industries and backed the Federal Reserve’s huge financial stimulus. The 2010 Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act imposed new fiscal regulations. Student loans were reformed. ‘Obamacare’ at last gave an extra 20 million Americans affordable health insurance for the first time. Reform of the vast tax code, with its numerous exemptions favouring the very rich, has not been possible. And most of the growth, as part of the recovery since 2009 of the ravaged economy he inherited, is only now starting to reflect in average wages.
In foreign and security affairs an Arms Control Treaty with Russia reduced the number of long range weapons held by both countries before relations were soured by Putin over Ukraine. More recently Obama strengthened coordination with NATO and Pacific allies to constrain Putin and China. He encouraged reform in Myanmar and restored relations with Cuba. The US accepted Paris conference climate change commitments. Congress opposed them but Obama implemented them by use of executive orders.
Meeting the clear and strong demand of public and Congressional opinion for an end to the immensely costly US military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan proved very difficult. Obama is particularly criticised for having accepted the refusal of the Shia Iraqi government to allow a much reduced US force to remain after his successful ‘surge’ reinforcement had defeated Al Qaeda’s dominance of the Sunni tribes. The US departure, leaving only al-Maliki’s rotten and sectarian governance, led swiftly to the rise of ISIS and creation of its Sunni extremist ‘Caliphate’ across Iraq and Syria.
Even before that disaster, slow recovery from the financial crisis and the loss of manufacturing jobs had cost the Democrats six Senate seats and ten governorships in the 2010 US midterm elections. It is worth noting that of the 5 million US manufacturing jobs lost in the decade from 2000, some 85% were lost to technological changes, including robots taking over, rather than from disastrous trade deals as is now alleged. Many traditional supporters also criticised the failure to close Guantanamo as pledged and the lack of progress towards an Israel/Palestine ‘two state’ solution. Syria slid further into the savagery of a wider sectarian regional conflict headed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar on one side and Iran on the other. Despite US aid in rebuilding the Iraq army, Obama’s abandonment of the ‘red line’ (supposed to have been use of chemical weapons by Assad) followed by Putin’s military intervention turning the tide for the collapsing Assad regime seemed to indicate an abdication of US leadership in the region.
It is too early to know how historians will judge the complex balance of Obama’s presidency. It is remarkable that after two terms he still retained a personal approval rating of over 60%. He was surely right to accept that US military power could not by itself install liberal values and institutions in conservative states long ruled by dictators. Equally, his personal popularity as the first black president could not translate into progress in reducing racial prejudice and discrimination. ‘Black Lives Matter’ demonstrations against police shootings have to be balanced against much white racialism and opposition to immigration. The US is a polarised nation, with many strategic powers held at states level, and even a president can seek to influence only so much deeper economic and social trends. The state of the economy that Obama inherited was catastrophic, but he has left behind a healthy economy and employment opportunities for almost all people.
Now as a new, brash president seeks to reverse much of Obama’s legacy in so many fields –climate change, free trade agreements, health care and the stability of post World War II international institutions – we can acknowledge some of Obama’s failures, including an intellectual’s distaste for Congressional bargaining and inability to give fresh leadership to the grassroots Democratic party.
But we can be grateful that after the utterly rash triumphalism of G.W. Bush, and before the new challenge of President Trump’s ‘America First’, we have had eight years of many positive initiatives, graceful, morally serious, and intellectually distinguished leadership in the White House.
That is Obama’s legacy.
Prof. Selina Mohsin, Former Ambassador