The decisive victory of Senator Barack Obama over veteran Republican Senator John McCain in the fiercely fought 2008 US Presidential election proved to the world that America is truly exceptional. 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 zenith was a 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 that stormed his way in to the all-white men exclusive club of US presidents. With his two terms now coming to an end, his legacy is evident in the actions he took and paths that he chose. Three features illustrate his tenure: a personable style of leadership on the domestic front imbued with eternal optimism, a liberal campaigner that effortlessly transformed in to a beacon of neo-liberalism scoring some scant achievements in the bargain and a world leader that the third world countries looked up to with a ton of expectations that he never came close to fulfillment but rather continued the sway of military-industrial complex on US foreign policy again with some formidable achievements in exchange.
Personable Domestic Leader:
Right from the moment he ascended the veritable throne of US presidency, a significant section of the population including Republican lawmakers, radio & TV talk-show hosts judged him by the color of his skin and not the content of his character. While the now president-elect Donald Trump raised a huge stink about the authenticity of his birthplace forcing Obama to release his birth certificate, Republican Congressman Joe Wilson from South Carolina called him a liar on the floor of the Congress and a Republican Governor of Arizona 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 probably faced, Obama kept his cool and always surpassed expectations when it came to bridging the omnipresent racial divide in the country. When a distinguished black Harvard Professor Louis Gates was arrested by a white police officer in Cambridge, Massachusetts at the front door of his own home following a call made by a white neighbor, the President took it upon himself to invite both the men to the white house and cooled off tensions over some cold beer. He cried his heart out on National television empathizing with millions of heart-broken Americans when a berserk psychopath ruthlessly gunned down 20 elementary school kids in Newtown, Connecticut. He compared the unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin killed by a self-styled vigilante to his son that he never had and echoed the sentiments of scores of black males across the nation by talking about his own experiences of being black in America. When racial tensions simmered and 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 as sun and blinded the bigots that lurk among ourselves when he sang ‘Amazing grace’ during his eulogy for slain black pastor Clementa Pinckney in Charleston who was shot to death along with 8 others in a racially motivated attack. He mastered the art of sharing stories of working class men and women that he met during his travels as the US president and making the nation empathize with their suffering and in the process successfully driving home his political agenda. 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 among other eastern states. His leadership style during natural calamities was in stark contrast to that of his predecessor during hurricane Katrina. On numerous occasions, he surprised small restaurant owners by dropping in for a casual lunch and showing his ‘average citizen’ side to the nation. His last State of the Union speech earlier this year where he firmly brushed aside rightwing fear-mongering about dooms day scenarios and terrorist threats and revealed how America is superlatively overmatched to any other military in the world showed that he, unlike many other leaders from his party or the Republican party, is thoroughly grounded in reality while fully being aware of the threats from terrorism. By many such acts and deeds, Obama showed where his heart was and kept the hope ignited in millions of his fellow country men and women that the presidency is no ivory tower and they can one day aspire to be another Obama.
Though Obama never espoused communist ideologies or goals during his campaign as the rightwing media machine claimed, he certainly understood the genuine plight of the working classes of the country. His ‘change’ slogan rallied the economically disadvantaged sections and rattled the corporate class. However, as soon as he took the mantle, he chose to maintain status quo that was clearly reflective in his picks for Treasury secretary, in his decision to bailout the erring auto industry without any repercussions and in his lackadaisical attitude toward prosecuting any of the big bank CEOs that oversaw the financial crisis of 2008. 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 in the absence of any revolutionary changes by Obama, wealth gap and income inequalities in America continued to grow to bizarre proportions. Even with his signature healthcare legislation i.e. Obama Care, 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. Again, his approach was to let the status quo of ‘too big to fail’ insurance companies prevail. He 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 thanks to the initiatives of his predecessors such as ‘war on crime’. His picks such as Eric Holder, the first African-American Attorney general and Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice showed 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 the often ignored aspect of American society. All these moves have ignited hope in the millions of young minorities about their futures in America but again Obama falls 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. He introduced reforms in student loan repayment by capping monthly payments at 10% of the income, extending repayment windows to 25 years and forgiving any outstanding loans beyond 25 years. However, the root cause i.e. burgeoning costs of education was not addressed at all 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 that never dared to upheaval existing power structures but settled for small victories that perhaps satisfied his guilt. He carefully crafted his policy measures to serve his political career in to the second term while not disturbing the wealthy special interests that would fill his campaign coffers and that of the democratic party. He remained a loyal establishment democrat by thoroughly backing his once-foe Hillary Clinton even when his own voter base that ensured his victory twice stood behind Bernie Sanders, the lonely voice that roared against neo-liberalism in an intensity that was never before seen in American mainstream politics.
Obama inherited one of the worst possible foreign policy legacies in modern US history. But therein lied a golden opportunity for him to shake up things and that hope was the reason he was bestowed with the Nobel peace prize even before he took up the presidency. The entire world but particularly the Muslim world and other embattled communities on earth longed for a shift in US foreign policy of aggression and deceit. Obama started off with a thundering speech in Cairo addressing Muslims of the world that seemed like the elusive bridge between the East and the West. He had a rousing reception just as he did in other countries elsewhere across continents. He generated a lot of goodwill and reignited a yearning for peace among common people. But all of this was soon squandered. The biggest mistake, as Obama himself admitted, happened in his first term itself. Invasion of Libya in 2011 as part of a NATO-led coalition and the brutal murder of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi on the streets of Sirte will remain a blot on his legacy forever. Today’s horrific scenario and the state of shambles in a country that once prospered both socially and economically is eerily similar to what Obama’s predecessor achieved in Iraq. The US, under Obama, is also part of a bombing coalition that ruthlessly targeted and killed civilians even in hospitals and funeral processions in Yemen as recently as October 2016 in blatant disregard for international norms set forth under the Geneva convention. 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. Killing 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 to the less fortunate in the world.
Obama did ‘end’ the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that he inherited as promised while thousands of troops remain in both countries in other roles to ensure strong presence of US capitalist interests in the region. But his other acts of aggression and both overt and tacit support to dictatorial and hawkish regimes in the Middle East smack of continued hackneyed US approach that roiled the region for decades.
Obama’s hands-off approach in Syria probably saved thousands of American troops that potentially 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 legitimize Russia’s role because that would have irked his European allies that were already unhappy with the Ukraine tiff. Obama thus chose the safer alternative of studied silence rather than pro-active diplomacy that could have potentially saved thousands of lives and staved off a refugee crisis that now plagues the world although the roots of this crisis are much deeper than just the Syrian quagmire.
On the other hand, Obama’s positive change in US foreign policy is reflective in two historic steps he took: thawing the relations with Cuba and Iran nuclear deal, both in his second term in office. In opening up diplomatic relations and restoring some business ties with the socialist dinosaur state Cuba, Obama showed his mature understanding of the world. He became the first US president since 1928 to visit Cuba. While the future will tell us if this was the first step in eventual capitalization of Cuba, it nevertheless was a great leap forward, almost an unthinkable event made possible only because of Obama’s worldview. Iran has historically been another country that saw the wrath of US in spite of being one of those few comparatively socially moderate Islamic nations. It crippled under the weight of sanctions over the years. Obama chose diplomacy over military aggression in striking a very important nuclear deal in spite of Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu’s open threats and Republican party’s pandering to unfounded Israeli reservations. He inked a historic deal that is a win-win for both the nations and the world as a whole by effectively thwarting the rise of another nuclear power that nobody in the world wishes for and unfreezing Iranian foreign reserves that will boost the ailing nation’s economy and stimulate millions of Iranian lives.
In summary, Barack Obama will remain the most affable world leader that we have seen in modern history. He will also arguably be the best US President in history mostly because of his company in that club. But he comes nowhere close to a revolutionary leader both on the domestic and international fronts. He had all the makings of an iconic figure but his tenure proves that the office of US President is perhaps not the most powerful at an individual level and it is in fact the entrenched forces and ‘too big to fail’ power lobbies and business interests be it the corporate class or 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.
Dr Nijam Gara is a gastroenterologist, hepatologist and rationalist thinker based in the US. His articles are devoted towards voicing the concerns of downtrodden and marginalized communities.