17 Jan 2017 18:31 IST

Understanding Obama’s legacy

Pic credit: Reuters

The story of a brilliant individual who sought great change for a nation not yet ready for it

At noon Washington time on January 20, the US presidency will formally change hands from President Barack Obama to President-elect Donald Trump.

This peaceful transition of power is a hallmark of a democracy, no matter how acrimoniously an election is fought. And during this particular election cycle in the US, the divide between the two sides was particularly bitter.

Obama and his wife, Michelle, campaigned heavily for Hillary Clinton, dedicating most of October to the effort. It helped that the entire media establishment (with the exception of two small newspapers) was brazenly critical of Trump.

In fact, most leaders of the Republican Party in the House and Senate had either withdrawn their tepid endorsements of Trump or stayed neutral, not even mentioning his name at public events. The sense of vitriol among the pundit class against Trump was vicious — I have never seen such divisions among a nation’s citizenry.

And yet, Trump won. He won, flipping more than 200 districts and multiple states which had proudly voted for Obama in 2012. He won in states which had not voted for a Republican president in 30 years. When history books are written about Obama, this fact will surely make it to the very first sentence of his legacy.

The journey

This is what is fascinating about Obama’s eight years in office. No president in recent memory will be stepping down in such a divided nation. America’s first African-American president, Obama stormed into the political scene with a speech in 2004, thundering, “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.”

But Obama mysteriously campaigned in 2008 and 2012 with policies that were clearly aimed to appeal to all segments — but white men. Worse, he governed as a champion of the minorities in a wealthy nation where minorities weren’t necessarily doing badly, compared with the majorities in many countries. It was just that the US minorities weren’t doing as well as the privileged white men and Obama seemed to be in a hurry to use the powers of his office to bridge these gaps.

The diverse cabinets

His two cabinets were the most diverse and included Hispanics, Blacks, Asians and Asian Americans including Indians, as though following a racial formula for quotas. He appointed the first black male Attorney-General, the top law enforcement officer, and followed that by a black female AG. Both of his Supreme Court appointments were female, and one of them Hispanic. His national security advisor, his go-to person for all matters concerning national security and his closest aide on domestic policy were both black and female.

On immigration, race relations, civil rights and criminal justice, Obama’s doctrine appeared to directly contradict his 2004 speech. If he failed to get his agenda passed in Congress, he would simply sign an executive order to get to his goal (executive orders can be rescinded by the next President).

When illegal immigrants crossed the southern border in droves, he not only built sanctuary centres, he also chose not to offend the immigrants, preferring to call them “undocumented migrants”. He signed executive orders to allow children of illegal immigrants to stay and go to college — all on the public purse.

He signed another order to provide similar status to adult illegal immigrants if they had not committed any crimes in the country since their arrival. But this was roundly defeated in the courts. So emboldened are illegal immigrants today, and so entitled do they feel, that thousands of them marched in Washington on Jan 14 under the banner, “We Are Here to Stay”. Never mind that they all blatantly broke US law when they crossed the border illegally, overstayed their visas, and worked for cash in the underground economy.

Matter of civil rights

To Obama, everything became a matter of civil rights. Gay marriage, something that he first opposed when he ran in 2008, became a question of inequality when proponents marketed it as such and he switched positions, steadfastly supporting gay and lesbian rights.

When the transgender community raised the issue of public bathrooms, he used his enormous powers to force states to recognise not a person’s gender at birth but a person’s gender as he or she sees himself or herself to be. This meant that if a man, born as male, claimed to be female later, he/she could legally enter a woman’s bathroom. States objected and this issue is now being litigated in the courts.

Obama, who has been described as someone with extraordinary powers of deliberation, brought his cool thinking to foreign policy and changed the world as we know it. Elected to office as someone who opposed America’s wars — and therefore winning the Nobel Peace Prize — he slowly and steadily withdrew American troops from Iraq, leaving a power vacuum that deepened religious strife in that country.

He resisted involving America in Syria’s civil war, even going back on his threat to take action against the Syrian government for crossing a red line (when the Syrian military launched chemical weapons against its own people). This emboldened the Syrian government and, worse, the nascent Al-Qaeda in Iraq group simply moved north to formally create ISIS. When NATO powers aimed their fire at Libya’s government, he chose to “lead from behind”.

Obama’s legacy in foreign policy is one where he may have over-corrected President Bush’s rash approach of American engagement. The result has been a resurgence of Russia and China as superpowers.

Economic policies

On the economy, Obama believed in massive Keynesian injections of government spending with little regard to debt, which nearly doubled during his presidency. Some of this was necessary, without which the US economy would have teetered into an abyss following Bush’s disastrous handling of the mortgage crisis.

His spending and tax proposals helped create millions of private sector jobs and brought unemployment down from 12 per cent to near full employment. He moved the nation to develop alternative energy resources (wind and solar), and basked in the limelight when American ingenuity unlocked natural gas through fracking.

But the struggle for jobs sent millions of people into early retirement or forced them to stop looking for work altogether. Unemployment rates are calculated based on how many people actively seek work, and with fewer people participating in the labour force, these rates were bound to fall.

Champion of minorities

This, in a nutshell, has been Obama’s complex legacy. He sought change for a nation not ready for such rapid change. In Obama’s view, everyone who was not of white privilege was a victim and deserved full government support and protection. He campaigned vigorously for Clinton, saying his legacy was on the line. He essentially made the election a referendum on his performance and pushed hard for Clinton, promising that she would continue to run his “third” term.

This scared the white majority. They were shocked to see how the business, political and media establishments seemed to throw their unabashed support for four, perhaps eight more years of Obama through a Clinton presidency. Sidelined by Obama for the last eight years, the white majority, especially men without a college degree, formed a movement and voted Trump into power. Their goal was to arrest — and in most cases, turn back — many of the policies that Obama put into place.

The final chapter

Obama will certainly go down in history as one of the hardest-working, brilliant and composed presidents who understood the power of his office. His was a rags-to-riches story when a black boy, abandoned by his Kenyan father, could go to Columbia and Harvard Law School. A story where he rose to become the most powerful man on earth all because of his single-minded devotion to organising groups of people to effect change.

The final chapter of his legacy is his age. Leaving office at the young age of 55, and deciding to stay in Washington DC, Obama may yet affect US politics for decades to come. His is a fascinating story of an incredibly ambitious individual; a story which, in many ways, is still incomplete.

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