Sunday 30 April 2017

Legacy issues: Obama the reformer bows out

The 44th President of the United States took to the internet this week to defend his record in a series of tweets. But while he has his critics on both the right and left, there can be little doubt his is one of the most consequential presidencies of modern times

Obama at a SelectUSA Investment Summit in March 2015
Obama at a SelectUSA Investment Summit in March 2015
Obama on the ‘kiss cam’ with wife Michelle at a Team USA basketball game in 2012
Barack Obama enjoying a pint of Guinness in Ollie Hayes Bar in Moneygall, Co Offaly during his 2011 visit
Obama at his press conference on gun control measures following the Sandy Hook school massacre
A man carries a young girl who was injured in a reported barrel-bomb attack by Syrian government forces in June 2014 in the northern city of Aleppo
Obama after the 2010 midterm election results
Donald Trump listens as Obama speaks during a meeting in the Oval Office following Trump's election in November

Niall Stanage

President Barack Obama will begin saying goodbye on Tuesday, from the place where his political career began.

He will deliver a farewell address in Chicago, the city where he first moved as a young community organiser; where he met the tall, striking lawyer named Michelle Robinson who would become his wife; and where he first won political office at the modest level of a state senator in the Illinois legislature.

Obama's presidency does not end for 10 days after that. He will attend the inauguration of his successor Donald Trump in Washington on January 20. Unusually for a departing president, he will remain a resident of the city. The Obamas have decided to rent a home in Washington rather than force their younger daughter Sasha, who is now 15, to change schools.

But Tuesday might be Obama's best chance to make the case for what he has achieved during his eight years in the White House.

Obama on the ‘kiss cam’ with wife Michelle at a Team USA basketball game in 2012
Obama on the ‘kiss cam’ with wife Michelle at a Team USA basketball game in 2012

He has already previewed his argument on Twitter - the preferred medium of his nemesis Trump. On the first day of 2017, Obama drew attention via seven tweets to his achievements on the economy, healthcare, energy and the environment, foreign policy and social issues such as same-sex marriage.

There are doubters, for sure, both domestically and internationally.

In the US, some point to the fact that his signature achievement - the 'ObamaCare' law that greatly expanded health-insurance coverage - is set to be repealed by the Republicans.

In the wider world, frustration can sometimes be heard from both left and right.

Civil libertarians on the left lament the fact that the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay remains open, though its incarcerated population is much decreased. From a vastly different perspective, supporters of the Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu are in a state of uproar over the American decision to abstain on the recent United Nations resolution that condemned settlement-building. Some of the criticisms of Obama have validity; others seek to pin blame on him for factors beyond his control. He made a genuine push to close Guantanamo, for example, but was thwarted by Congress.

But, by any fair reading, he is one of the most consequential presidents of modern times.

Barack Obama enjoying a pint of Guinness in Ollie Hayes Bar in Moneygall, Co Offaly during his 2011 visit
Barack Obama enjoying a pint of Guinness in Ollie Hayes Bar in Moneygall, Co Offaly during his 2011 visit

It is easy to forget now just how dark a situation Obama faced as he prepared to take office in January 2009. Amid the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression, the American economy was shedding jobs at a catastrophic rate. Serious doubts hung over the viability of the banking system. The US was also enmeshed in two long and dismal wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Soon after taking office, Obama pushed a $787bn stimulus programme through Congress. Unemployment peaked at 10pc in October of his first year in office, but it has fallen farther and farther ever since. It now stands at 4.6pc.

While there are continuing problems of income inequality and wage stagnation in the United States, few serious economists contest the idea that it has recovered from the Great Recession more robustly than any European nation.

Amid the atmosphere of crisis that permeated his first years in office, Obama also piloted through the biggest Wall Street reforms since the 1930s. Significant safeguards are in place against a future banking meltdown.

He also bailed out the American car industry with a capital injection of almost $60bn, in the face of considerable criticism at the time. Most of the money was subsequently recouped and, by some measures, the effort saved more than two million jobs.

In tandem will all of that, Obama pushed for the biggest expansion of healthcare coverage since the 1960s.

It took an enormous effort to get the law through Congress in the first place, and the Affordable Care Act - to give ObamaCare its official name - later withstood a legal challenge that went all the way to the Supreme Court, as well as numerous efforts by Republicans in Congress to repeal it.

It will, no doubt, be the bitterest of pills for Obama and his supporters if the law is soon erased from the statute books.

On one hand, such an outcome seems all but certain - the Republicans have the votes to do it and there will be no veto from the White House to impede them once Trump is in power.

But the political realities are more complicated than the law's ardent foes would suggest.

More than 20 million people have acquired health insurance through ObamaCare. The law has many popular provisions - insurance companies can no longer refuse to take on people with pre-existing conditions, as they once could. The Republicans, emphatic about repealing the law, have been much vaguer as to how they will replace it.

Foreign policy has been more of a mixed bag for Obama. He brought the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to an official end, albeit later and more messily than some of his supporters would have liked. He struck a nuclear deal with Iran and ushered in a new era with Cuba. He gave the go-ahead for the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, an operation that would have doomed his presidency had it gone awry.

But civil libertarians were discomforted by more than just Guantanamo. The Obama administration's use of drone strikes against alleged enemies in foreign lands was morally problematic to many. His Justice Department has pursued those who have divulged secrets - the most notable example being Edward Snowden - with vigour.

The American president took criticism from the right, too. Conservatives alleged that his response to the 'Arab Spring' in general was uncertain, and that he has been too malleable on Syria in particular. His 2008 election opponent, Senator John McCain, would come to accuse him of having "no strategy" in Syria.

Obama's defenders hit back that Syria exemplifies a conflict in which there are no good options. They also ask whether the America public would have countenanced getting more deeply involved in yet another conflict in the Middle East, with no obvious endgame in sight.

Taken in sum, there is another measure of Obama's significance. So large are some of his accomplishments that other achievements - the kind that other presidents might brag about - can easily be overlooked in a review of his tenure.

Before ObamaCare ever came into existence, he expanded a health insurance programme for children, bringing another four million children under its protection.

He has sought to preserve the natural beauty of the environment by placing a far greater area of US territory under federal protection than any other president.

He got a law through Congress making it much easier for women to sue for wage discrimination.

He also put two liberal women, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, on the bench of the Supreme Court.

Alongside all of the substantive policy issues, there is also Obama's political success to consider. His familiarity has dulled our sense of just how extraordinary a figure he is in this respect.

The last Democrat to win two presidential elections with an overall majority of the popular vote, as Obama did, was Franklin Roosevelt, a lifetime ago. And, after all the ups and downs of eight years in power, polls show he is viewed much more favourably by the American public than either Trump or Hillary Clinton.

It wasn't conceit that made Obama suggest in a recent interview that he could have beaten Trump if he were not prohibited from running for a third term. All the available evidence strongly suggests it's true.

Later this month, Barack Obama will be succeeded by a man who is in almost every way his opposite.

But his legacy will not be easily unpicked. He has left his mark on his nation. In many ways, it will likely prove indelible.

Trump, tears and  failed compromises

Obama's low points - from the Syrian crisis to a failure to push through gun control reforms in the wake of the Sandy Hook school massacre

Massacre in Newtown


In December 2012, a gunman entered the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The shooter, Adam Lanza, killed 20 children, all aged 6 or 7. Lanza also killed six adults before committing suicide. Obama has called the day the worst moment of his presidency. A subsequent push for stricter gun controls failed.

Syria and the disappearing 'red line'


In 2012, Obama warned that any use of chemical weapons by Syrian president Bashar Assad would be considered as a crossing of a "red line" that would provoke a military response from Washington. The following year, Assad did just that. Obama pulled back.

No grand bargain


In 2011, Obama sought a so-called "grand bargain" to get America's fiscal affairs in order with the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner (above). In essence, Obama was willing to countenance a weakening of the social safety net if Boehner would agree to tax increases. But the deal fell apart, and Obama's apparent willingness to compromise angered his own base. His approval ratings fell to the lowest point of his presidency soon afterwards.

The 2010 midterms


Obama was famously elected on a wave of "hope and change" in 2008. But when his party colleagues went before the voters in the congressional elections held in the middle of his first term, the results were disastrous. Democrats lost 63 seats in the 435-member House of Representatives and six seats in the 100-member Senate. Obama would never be so powerful again.

It's Trump!


Obama campaigned hard for Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail in 2016, as did First Lady Michelle Obama. It wasn't enough. The reasons for Trump's victory will be debated for years, though Clinton herself has acknowledged she does not have Obama's skills as a campaigner. Obama must now turn the keys of the White House over to a man he clearly disdains.

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