Obama’s legacy: History will judge him kindly

Obama’s legacy: History will judge him kindly

With the Obama presidency soon to enter the history books, J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a sympathetic look back at what Obama accomplished – and what it all meant.

Back at in the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency, which now seems like a lifetime ago, this author wrote: “The Bush administration came to an end when Illinois Democratic senator Barack Obama was elected America’s 44th president on November 4, 2008. The son of a Kenyan exchange student and an American student who were both studying at the University of Hawaii, Obama’s parentage, his Hawaiian and Indonesian upbringing, his bi-racial personal circumstances, an inspirational life history and his rhetorical power all generated a belief he would be able to fix the ills of American foreign policy – and many of the globe’s problems at the same time. More so than people in many places, by virtue of his personal heritage, many Africans truly expected extraordinary things from Barack Hussein Obama…

Readers of his first book, his very personal memoir, ‘Dreams From My Father,’ could be forgiven for thinking Barack Obama had a major interest in Africa’s problems – and in America’s relationship with that continent. Readers of his next book, ‘The Audacity of Hope’, however, could note that in a several hundred-page book, Africa figures hardly at all – whereas so much of the book focuses on American domestic political, social and economic issues. In ‘Audacity’, Obama’s prescriptions relevant to Africa focused most clearly on evening up the international economic and trade playing field.” (Both of those books came before the great financial crisis of 2008-9, of course, which struck as his presidency began.)

With less than a year left in office, it’s time to assess Obama’s record – and his impact on America, Africa and the world. Has the simple fact of his presidency changed America in intangible or very real ways? And where can his legacy be placed in comparison to other presidents?

Like the lawyers say, let’s stipulate that by the sheer fact of his existence, Barack Hussein Obama made an extraordinary change in the idea of who qualifies to sit in the Oval Office. Straight through, from George Washington to George W. Bush, a president was inevitably a white male with a bloodline that tracked back through centuries of Anglo-Saxon (or at least German) Protestant heritage, with only those very rare diversions into an Irish Catholic background, or a touch of seventieth century Dutch ancestry. And virtually all of those elected had been lawyers or career politicians, with just a scattering of generals and, very occasionally, a businessman or gentleman farmer.

In Obama’s case, as almost everyone now knows, his family background is bi-racial, what with his father being from Kenya. Then there is the fact that his single mother (and his grandparents) raised him in Hawaii and Indonesia; and the fact that he was largely unfamiliar with mainland America until he went to university, first in Los Angeles, and then on to New York and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

His career background, until he entered politics, was equally non-traditional. He served as a neighbourhood social worker/community organiser before teaching law, only afterwards entering politics. There was some time in the Illinois state legislature, and a single term as a senator, as he exploded onto the national scene as an orator in 2004, and then gained the presidential nomination four years later (defeating Hillary Clinton for the nomination and Senator John McCain for the election).

Obama had initially claimed that ending the giant strategic mistakes of Bush’s massive invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were key to what he would do as president, although by the time the campaign was at its climax, the state of the economy had become more crucial than anything else. As this writer also also wrote, back at the beginning of the Obama administration: “Before Barack Obama had taken office, but by the time Obama’s campaign ignited, the international financial/banking crisis had overwhelmed almost every other issue. Despite Obama’s international popularity, his crucial challenge was to convince American voters that he was the right man to deal with financial and economic crises.”

By the time he was elected, the increasingly bitter joke was that, naturally, given the parlous economic state of the country, he, a black man, had just been given the worst job in America: to clean up this gigantic mess. The stock markets had nosedived (consuming much of the value of pensions and other investments), unemployment had crested at over 10% of the population (a post-war high water mark), massive financial institutions were teetering on the verge of collapse, millions were facing the possibility of losing their homes, and the auto industry was in precipitously deep trouble.

Serious analysts wondered if the country’s financial system – and thus a fundamental pillar of its economy – would, or even, could – hold on until a recovery arrived. While the predecessor Bush administration had initially pushed through the Troubled Asset Relief Program to begin bailing out the failing financial system, Obama’s administration stayed the course and pushed an auto industry bailout to prevent the collapse of that major sector of the national economy.

To a considerable degree, Obama’s approach drew fierce fire from the left as well as the right. Obama’s natural inclinations and personal philosophy must have drawn him to look left for inspiration, but his realist streak pushed him to the centre for solutions to the crisis. As a result, from the left, he has been derided for not insisting on a radical, root and branch deconstruction of the financial sector, and the carting off of bankers in tumbrils to their just rewards at a metaphoric guillotine; and for failing to bail out of all those individuals whose mortgages now far exceeded the actual values of their properties instead of the banks and other financial institutions. (This critique remained even after the passage of the Dodd-Frank banking reforms during his first term.)

Simultaneously the right accused him of trying to short circuit the mechanisms of the markets via some sort of secret, sub rosa, socialist central planning, by preventing large auto manufacturers from failing –with his administration’s effort to preserve a crucial industrial sector and all those related industries and jobs. But in the end, his approach saved an industry – and an economy.

Looking back to 2009 from the present, unemployment has retreated to around 5% and more than 9 million new jobs have been created in that period. While per-family incomes among working and middle class families have only recently begun to edge back towards improving on levels from before the great financial crisis, inflation is modest, interest rates remain at near-historic lows, and even petrol costs at the pump (a key determinant of the national mood) remain well below their levels of several years ago.

Economic discontents, however, cluster around the fact that the richest sector of society has preferentially benefited from the recovery as the incomes of the top 1% have done far better than anyone else. Economists struggle with the cause of this, but many attribute it to the changing structure of an economy that increasingly distributes its rewards to those with special skills or positions among the financial towers, rather than in more traditional manufacturing sectors. This, of course, has already had great political consequences for the 2016 presidential election and the rise and rise of Donald Trump, and even the stubborn refusal of socialist-democrat Bernie Sanders to throw in the towel in favour of a coronation for Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee.

Meanwhile, that same “look left but edge towards the centre” stance stood him in good stead in the passage of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. Its passage was a squeaker, although it has withstood multiple Supreme Court challenges. A national health care plan in America has been part of the left, progressive, and Democratic Party agendas for over a hundred years. While Medicare and Medicaid for seniors and the poor were eventually passed during the Johnson administration, a more general national health care plan had eluded presidents for decades. Obamacare is, to be sure, not totally universal, nor is it without flaws, but it has added some 18 million people to national government-supported or assisted health care plans (and promises of more as time goes on) and it has regularised and expanded all other private health insurance plans to cover children up to the age of 26 and prevent insurance companies from denying coverage to people over pre-existing conditions.

While any kind of final conclusion has continued to elude Barack Obama, and might well be beyond almost anybody, as president he has worked hard to move the question of America’s racial divide back into the limelight as a key missing piece in the achievement of the national promise of equality and opportunity for all. From his pre-election speech in Philadelphia on race, onward through to his heart-rending eulogy at a Charleston, South Carolina church after a racially motivated massacre in that very church, Obama has continued to challenge the rest of the nation to remember that solving the racial divide remains a great, unfinished part of the American experiment.

When it came to Africa, Obama focused primarily on how to build better ties with nations like Nigeria and South Africa to deal with trans-national terrorism. He wrote in a Foreign Affairs article: “We need effective collaboration on pressing global issues among all the major powers – including such newly emerging ones as Brazil, India, Nigeria, and South Africa”…

But, even before that, together with Witwatersrand University political scientist Gilbert Khadiagala, this author had argued: “the incoming Obama administration’s first responsibility was to address the global financial crisis so as to restore global demand for Africa’s primary export commodities. Moreover, the many other pressing international issues meant Africa’s concerns would not replace US relations with China, with Latin America, with Russia or the Middle East, or Afghanistan or Iraq as key issues. In this environment, Africa gained a policy presence – for the most part – only as a part of global, trans-border concerns like terrorism, global warming, international crime, and pandemics….”

Not everything has gone well in Obama foreign policy decisions. The winding down of the two inherited struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan became the most difficult part of the Obama foreign policy menu. Drawing down US forces there led to a progressive weakening of the new governments installed there, but building forces back up ran counter to the president’s own desires as candidate and president.

In Iraq, it was the government’s inability to withstand a multitude of domestic militarised challenges, most especially the rise of ISIS/Islamic State/Daesh as a radical military force that also expanded into neighbouring Syria amidst the growing chaos there, following a failed uprising that had been part of the Arab Spring. In Afghanistan, the government remained with only a precarious hold on much of the country’s territory and fundamentalist insurgents continue to hold sway. Americans forces continue to call in air attacks – including the use of problematic drone craft that have produced unfortunate “collateral damage” – in plain language, the deaths of civilians.

The Arab Spring more generally posed a challenge to the Obama administration. Fearful of still greater instability, it could not commit to embracing fully the rebels in various nations such as Syria, or even Egypt. In Libya, however, while support to the rebels from French and British air forces helped destroy the Gaddafi regime, the resulting chaos left a broken nation in its wake. And the confusing red lines from the Obama administration over Syrian ruler al-Assad’s chemical weapons use against the country’s own citizens did little to clarify what, exactly, the Obama presidency wanted to achieve vis-à-vis Syria.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s inability to find the right way to push Netanyahu’s Israel towards greater accommodation towards an increasingly restive Palestinian population in Gaza and the West Bank, given staunch support for Netanyahu on the part of a Republican Congress – especially in Obama’s second term – has meant negotiations there are virtually on life support, if not ready for a burial quite yet. But it has also generated a sobering realization that not everything is within the power of a US president to achieve by sheer force of personality or will on the international scene.

Other parts of the Obama foreign policy agenda have been much more successful, however. In particular, in restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba after over fifty years, one crucial part of the remaining Cold War agenda has been erased, especially given his triumphal presidential visit to Havana, accompanied by the gradual roll back of some of the trade restrictions in place since 1960.

And in Iran, the potential for yet another nuclear power in the world has been put to bed for at least a decade through the successful conclusion of the P5+1 talks with Iran. While many Republicans (and Israel’s leader, Binyamin Netanyahu) have been relentless in chastising this as part of a supposed Obama appeasement-style strategy, veteran Republican foreign policy experts as senior as Brent Scowcroft have applauded the eventual agreement. This accord, plus Obama’s continuing support for global non-proliferation summits, has also gone some way towards redeeming that too-early gift of a Nobel Peace Prize, back at the beginning of his administration.

The Obama administration has not, however, had the same success with regard to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, despite sanctions and continuing pressure on China to rein in its tiny ally. Still, Obama’s extraordinary speech at Hiroshima, as a part of the president’s East Asia visit for the G-7 meeting, made no bones about the need to alter the trajectory of nuclear weapons. As he told the crowd in Hiroshima, “Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us,” adding that such technology “requires a moral revolution as well.” This visit was the first by a sitting president to the city assailed by the world’s first atomic weapon, at the end of the Second World War.

If the Obama administration continued to have a world of trouble in deciding how, exactly, it would respond to the rising truculence of Putin’s Russia in its ambitions to restore, piecemeal, its dominance over “greater Russia”, the US eventually did cobbled together multinational economic and financial sanctions to at least drive home the lesson in Moscow that the annexation of Crimea, and continuing support for rebels in eastern Ukraine, was not cost-free. This did not, of course, dislodge Russian occupation of the peninsula.

But the Obama administration also made its much-publicized “pivot” towards East Asia a keystone of its long-term foreign policy objectives. Given the vast – and growing – volume of trade with Asia, and the opportunities for more, the Obama administration put much weight on two directions of East Asian relations: a better set of security relationships, and freer but more carefully managed trade relations. For the first, the rise and rise of China has pushed the Obama presidency to respond in kind with greater patrols in and over the many tiny but strategic islands in the South China Sea, where China is trying to establish a de facto territorial presence. The resulting security understandings with such nations as the Philippines and Singapore, and even Indonesia and India, have drawn together a tacit coalition of nations prepared to support a more solidly defined security architecture for the region.

A historic culmination of this effort now includes the results of the recent presidential visit to Vietnam, and the lifting of US military equipment sales restrictions on that nation. (Even before Vietnam, the Obama administration embraced the new, freely elected government in Myanmar, after years of isolation of the former military regime there.) Unfettered relations with Vietnam, given the searing war America waged there through the 1960s and early 70s, would have seemed inconceivable only a few years ago, but great numbers of American firms continue to invest in Vietnam, both for access to the Southeast Asian market generally, and to tap Vietnam’s young, talented workforce.

The second half of the pivot has included the negotiations for the TransPacific Partnership trade pact that would bring together twelve nations around the Pacific littoral (but not yet China) in a more defined set of trade regulations. These, importantly, include significantly improved intellectual property protections and better coordination over the region’s financial services sectors. Gaining ratification of a final agreement may, however, increasingly prove problematic for any Obama legacy. The Republican Congress seems deeply uncertain about it, and presidential hopeful Donald Trump has been castigating it wildly since he began running for office. And even Obama’s heir presumptive, Hillary Clinton, has now taken to denigrating it, after being supportive of it while she was secretary of state. This is in response to a growing national revolt against trade liberalization – as many voters seem to see it as the cause of national job losses and a hollowing out of the Midwestern industrial heartland.

Still, with specific reference to Africa, the president was able to gain passage of a new iteration of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, this time for a ten-year period. This particular piece of US law gives many African states, including South Africa, duty free access to the vast American market for thousands of products. And it is, in effect, a major element in South Africa’s agricultural products export market, as well as its export-driven automobile industry. This AGOA access is worth close to $2 billion a year to the South African economy and many tens of thousands of jobs. A certain acrimony crept over South African inclusion in AGOA when the export of US poultry, beef and pork products to South Africa became a highly charged issue in both nations, until eventual agreement on such exports to South Africa, after years of difficulty, was finally achieved.

The reliance on investment and trade was seen as a key element in Africa’s growth and stability, as the Obama administration pushed hard for such efforts, rather than expanded foreign assistance. Most recently, the country committed itself to supporting the Power Africa initiative to improve electrical access across the continent. Many observers saw this as a late but crucial response to the growing Chinese engagement on the continent, especially given a Chinese policy of averting their eyes from traditional American concerns such as human rights, the rule of law and similar questions. In his early speech in Accra, Ghana, Obama had argued the “the true sign of success is not whether we are a source of perpetual aid that helps people scrape by – it’s whether we are partners in building the capacity for transformational change.” And Obama’s engagement with Africa has largely attempted to live up to that challenge.

Still, for some observers, the growing efforts to combat fundamentalist non-state insurgents in a wide swathe of nations from Mali to Somalia via military and quasi-military support has raised concerns about a slow but growing US military engagement in Africa. Nonetheless the actual boots on the ground remain small in numbers, and largely limited to training, drone surveillance, and advisory roles, rather than combat commitments. The problem, of course, has been the relative inability of many of these nations to successfully defeat their insurgents conclusively and the continuing terror attacks in a number of these nations that have undermined the stability of the region as whole.

And so, has Barack Obama left a successful legacy as a president? Clearly the domestic situation is far better than what he had inherited from his predecessor. Imagine for a moment if Senator McCain and his obvious lack of clarity on dealing with the country’s economic travails had succeeded the Bush administration.

And in foreign affairs, the country has far fewer troops committed to two astonishingly thoughtless wars, even if total withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq is still not a done deal. If the rest of the Middle East is less stable now than most anyone had wished back in 2011, so much of that is a function of the difficulties of translating the Arab Spring into lasting societal and political change there, rather than the fault of American policy.

What the Obama administration learned – awkwardly at first, perhaps – was the realization that there are limits to what the US could do in remolding the world to its own desired shape. That, in turn, led to a putting away of the unilateralism of the Bush administration, and the sense so much more might be accomplished through multilateral efforts, as with the case of the Iran accords. And, of course, for the future of the planet, the recent global climate accord – if it is fully followed by all –must also be seen as a capstone of the realization that so much depends on building on the cooperation of every nation.

For this writer at least, Barack Obama must be bracketed with a president like Harry Truman whose true success in both domestic and international affairs only became clear years afterwards. The rescue of a plummeting economy, the resolution of major international conundrums such as the non-relationship with Cuba and the Iran nuclear accord, as well as at least partial delivery of a key, albeit contested, social goal – national health care – will become increasingly obvious in years yet to come.

The cruel irony, of course, is that while a majority of Americans, per the polling data, still say that the country is headed the wrong way, by the same token, a majority also says they see President Obama in a favourable light. It will be fascinating, therefore, to see how he defends his legacy in the face of an all-out assault by the Republican presidential candidate over the next five months. Will a too-cerebral, “no drama Obama” be replaced by a tiger defending its legacy cubs to the American people in this year’s presidential campaign? This will be something special to watch for as the country heads into its upcoming general election. DM

Photo: US President Barack Obama boards Airforce One as he departs Stansted Airport in London, Britain, 24 April 2016. President Obama is on his way to Germany where he will meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel. EPA/ANDY RAIN.


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