Saturday 26 May 2018

In time Obama will be seen as president who led US from old world into new

US President Barack Obama waves as he walks on the South Lawn of the White House upon return to Washington from Louisiana. Photo: Reuters
US President Barack Obama waves as he walks on the South Lawn of the White House upon return to Washington from Louisiana. Photo: Reuters

Mary Dejevsky in Washington

The annual State of the Union address is one of the great set-pieces of American politics, second only to the Inauguration in its dignity and sense of ceremony. And the eighth and last such address delivered this week by a two-term president was always going to be a landmark of a kind: part valedictory, part record of stewardship, part personal boast.

Bill Clinton's opening from 2000 still echoes in my ears: "My fellow Americans," he roared, "The State of the Union is the stro-o-ongest it's ever been". What came next, not least the botched election of his successor, re-cast pride as hubris.

Clinton nonetheless goes down as a successful president; George W Bush less so. With a year still to go, Barack Obama is already seen, even by many of his own constituency, as a disappointment, the eloquence and can-do enthusiasm of his campaign strangely muted during his years of executive power.

Was it in tacit recognition of this, that his last State of the Union address on Tuesday struck a rather different tone from those of his immediate predecessors? He counted out his achievements, as he saw them, from healthcare to job creation to free-trade deals and diplomacy. But he dwelt equally on what was still to be done, not just in his last months in the White House or by the next president, but over a generation or more.

He spoke of a society, and a world, in long-term flux. And even as he defended himself against charges - not just from Republicans - that he leaves the US weaker and less influential in the world than it was, his characteristic optimism was qualified by a certain restlessness, along with a recognition of profound change. But could Obama, I wonder, be the first US president both to underestimate and under-sell his achievements? Will history judge him as unkindly as many of his contemporaries at home, and even some of his allies abroad?

Obama may never enter the pantheon of great presidents, in the sense that he notched up any one historic achievement or changed his country in any single specific way. What he has done, however, is to prepare the way for vast changes in how the United States sees itself, and how it is regarded around the world. The significance of this will be evident only in hindsight. In time, though, Obama could be hailed as the president who led the US from the old world into the new.

The extension of health insurance to at least some of the millions who were uninsurable has established a trend that will be hard, if not impossible, to reverse. The US will probably always be a less social state than, say, Canada or the richer countries of Europe, one in which individuals are expected to be more self-reliant. But Obama has changed the tone: whether on immigration or the social safety net. "Fairness" is a concept that even a President Trump would find hard completely to overlook.

It is in US foreign policy, however, where Obama will come to be recognised as the game-changer he has been. Thanks to his early circumstances, he is one of the most cosmopolitan presidents the US has known, and that quality has shone through. It has not always been to the liking of allies, such as Israel or the countries of "old Europe", which have felt a loss both of status in the US hierarchy and of shared sentiment. But it sets the US up to defend its interests and its security in an uncertain age.

In his State of the Union address, Obama posed a question that has suffused his presidency, even though he has rarely spelt it out: "How do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?" In essence, it is a variation on a Clinton theme of preparing for a rules-based world in which the US is no longer "top dog". Obama's achievement is actually to have initiated the turn-around.

It is not only that he has - largely - extricated the US from unpopular wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nor that he has been bold enough to end the destructive isolation of Cuba and join cooperative efforts to bring Iran in from the cold - though these are signal feats. It is that these moves are part of a complete re-think of the way the US - still, as he rightly emphasised, by far the most powerful nation economically and militarily - interacts with the outside world.

It reflects an outlook more international, more collaborative and less confrontational, with no presumption that difference is always threatening. He has been helped, it is true, by the shale gas revolution, that has ended US energy dependence on the Middle East. But temperamentally and intellectually, he is a reluctant interventionist, and this is partly why he won in 2008.

(© Independent News Service)

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