President Barack Obama’s legacy is enviable – so why can’t the American people see that?
Everything that you think Barack Obama got wrong on foreign and domestic policy, he actually got right – his biggest ‘failures’ were in the fact his biggest triumphs
Mary Dejevsky | Independent UK
Barack Obama will leave office on 20 January with his approval ratings rising to approach those of Bill Clinton when he bowed out 16 years ago. Despite this, his presidency is already being dismissed by many as – if not actually a failure – then a bitter disappointment. He will now be condemned to stand by as his successor – the very opposite of him in so many ways – sets about shredding his legacy.
Of course, this is all part of the cut and thrust of American politics, more visceral and crueller in so many ways than ours. Nor is Obama’s failure to safeguard his legacy unique. Clinton, for all his perceived success, also failed to secure the election of another Democrat and had to watch as much of the international goodwill he had built up was destroyed by the reckless decisions of George W. Bush.
Where many of the immediate judgements about the Clinton and Bush presidencies have stood the test of time, however, I wonder whether the early verdicts on Obama will endure so well. It is not just that the current script is being dictated disproportionately by his critics, but that they seem to be looking backward rather than forward. I would venture to bet that at least some of the very policies for which Obama is facing the fiercest attack could turn out to be historic achievements which will constitute a formidable memorial.
And the cornerstone of that memorial could be the supposed foreign policy passivity for which Obama has been most vilified. It is true that his record abroad is mixed, and his great overture to the Arab world which he had planned as his opening gambit came to little, largely due to forces – the Arab Spring – beyond his, and anyone’s, control. But the real failures – an early “surge” that delayed the promised withdrawal from Afghanistan and the chaos produced by the – arm’s length – US intervention in Libya were where he was persuaded to act against his better judgement, by General David Petraeus in the first instance, and by the UK and France in the second.
They are also vastly outweighed by the successes, though they would not be classed as such in the conventional way success might be measured by many Americans. Top of the list would be Obama’s much-maligned decision not to act on his “red line” on the Assad government’s use of chemical weapons in Syria. That, according to his critics, sent the message that the USA would not honour its commitments and left a regional vacuum that Russia was able to fill. Another way of looking at it would be – as Obama explained in his interviews forAtlantic monthly – that he feared being tricked into an unwise intervention that would suck the USA into yet another unwinnable war.
He was right here. He was also right to step back from direct intervention in Ukraine, and in particular to resist requests from the Kiev government for weapons. In so doing, he treated Ukraine as at most a regional – rather than proxy superpower – conflict, and helped to keep it geographically confined.
The thinking behind these non-actions, as Obama himself has explained, is that the USA has to pick its fights according to its national interest, and there are some fights – as Clinton partly said – where the USA simply does not have a dog; indeed, where intervention may actually damage USA security.
On other issues, Obama has shown a more collegiate approach than has habitually been USA policy. These would include the USA part in the Iran nuclear agreement, Washington’s support for the Paris climate change accord, and – one of Obama’s parting shots – the abstention in the recent UN Security Council vote condemning Israeli settlements. Far from demonstrating USA weakness, however – or, as some of his opponents chide, the abandonment of USA “exceptionalism” – Obama’s willingness to join international coalitions shows a realistic appreciation of the new world in which the USA now finds itself. While still dominant militarily and economically, it faces more different challenges from more directions than before.
The question is not just how, but whether, to respond. And it is worth asking here whether Donald Trump’s foreign policy will veer significantly away from the course Obama has set. A general reluctance to play the world’s policeman; “smart” interventions, if there are interventions, with special forces and drones; a reliance on deterrence – these are the US foreign policy changes made by Obama, and they look unlikely to be reversed.
The same continuity is unlikely to be observed in domestic policy, where Trump has been withering about Obama’s economic priorities and has vowed to repeal “Obamacare”. It could even be argued that an unintended effect of Obama’s tendency to stress the macro-economy at the expense of the “left behind” helped open the door to Trump.
Without Obama’s success in steadying the economy, however, Trump might not have the luxury he now has to promise new infrastructure development and repatriating jobs. As for Obamacare, extending health insurance to so many more Americans was an enormous feat, and, for all the vested interests ranged against it, such progress will not be so simple to turn back. With Trump already diluting his campaign pitch, it is not impossible that any repeal could, paradoxically, mask the introduction of a system that works better for more people and has fewer flaws.
The bigger conundrum, though, remains. If Obama has achieved so much more than his many detractors proclaim, why is there this disconnect? And why does the social advance that his election represented seem so summarily to have stalled?
Among the reasons must surely be the sky-high expectations of the man who was inaugurated as the country’s first black president eight years ago. He proved unable to realise the hopes his campaign had raised, whether for prosperity and racial harmony at home or for peace abroad. He was also cursed with a recalcitrant Congress that he never really learned to tame.
Yet the rising esteem in which Obama is held as he leaves office suggests two tentative conclusions. First, that he will be judged rather more kindly in the future than he is now. And second, that the election of his polar opposite, with his pledges to reverse track, marks the last gasp of an old era, rather than the start of something new.