Despite Barack Obama's mixed legacy, he must take some responsibility for the rise of Donald Trump

For his own party, this president has been a disaster. Over his two terms, it has surrendered control of the Senate and House in Washington, and more than a dozen governor’s mansions and state legislatures across the land, over 1,000 seats in all

Rupert Cornwell
Saturday 24 December 2016 11:38
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It may be some time before the true legacy of Obama becomes clear
It may be some time before the true legacy of Obama becomes clear

Barack Obama is enjoying his last Christmas holiday in Hawaii – his last warm weather as President (Washington around Inauguration Day is usually frigid), not to mention the last of 330-odd rounds of golf since he entered the Oval Office. And amid the slower pace, perhaps, a chance to ponder his place in history.

One thing may be safely said. That place won’t be the one some dreamed of during Obama’s magical emergence onto the national stage. Today, it’s hard to remember the impact of an unknown state senator from Illinois when he delivered an electrifying speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

Four years later he was elected the most powerful man in the world. Millions packed the National Mall in Washington when he was sworn in, and millions more shared a belief that the US had miraculously moved to a post-racial era, that the world was suddenly a far better place.

Nor was that wider world immune to the euphoria, as a group of normally sober-minded Scandinavians awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize after barely nine months on the job, on the basis of a couple of eloquent and idealistic speeches. But then again, cast your mind back when he took power, in January 2009.

The global economy was in tatters, battered by the worst recession and banking crisis since the 1930s. In that respect at least it’s been job well done. Thanks in part to the record $800bn stimulus package passed by Congress early in his administration, the US economy has staged the best recovery of any advanced industrial economy.

By past standards, growth has been nothing to write home about. But unemployment is low, stock prices have soared, and at last real earnings are starting to rise for less well-off Americans. On matters of Wall Street reform and banking overhaul, Obama may have had to accept half a loaf, but the US banking system is far stronger now than when he found it. On Obama and the economy, history will look kindly. So, probably, will it on his broader domestic legacy as well.

The 44th president’s misfortune has been to confront the most partisan dysfunctional climate in Washington in memory; Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, declared that his goal was to make sure Obama failed, and that approach continued until the end, with the Senate’s refusal to even consider Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, in defiance of every constitutional norm.

That’s why polls show that Obamacare, the largest expansion of US health care since Medicare yet passed through Congress without a single Republican vote, is seen by Americans as both his greatest success and his greatest failure. But history will not lightly dismiss an initiative that gave 30 million Americans coverage for the first time.

Nor may it be the instant victim of the Trump era that its Republican foes promise. Yes, they can repeal it quickly. But you don’t take away a prized welfare benefit without some form of replacement. The Republicans don’t have one, and it may be years before they do. Obamacare may have a long afterlife.

Michelle Obama tells Oprah: We need a grown-up in the White House

Nor will Obama’s conduct in office be quickly forgotten. He was a class act. Not a single scandal of note has besmirched his eight years in the White House. He has worn the presidency with unceasing grace and good manners. He never publicly lost his cool, and privately expressed displeasure less through volcanic displays of temper than icy disdain. With Obama everything was to be approached rationally – too rationally, his critics would say, but at least with thoughtfulness and a sense of proportion. That too will weigh in history’s judgement.

Where the rational approach may have let him down was foreign and national security policy. Though he has failed to shut down Guantanamo Bay, that enduring blot on America’s name, he has banished torture and kept a reasonable balance between the requirements of domestic security and a citizen’s right to privacy.

But on the international stage, many of his policies are big gambles that may not pay off. History, it is true, is unlikely to argue with the long overdue opening to Cuba, nor with his commitment of the US to fight climate change – although whether that strategy survives the expected Trump onslaught is another matter.

But the Iran nuclear deal, his biggest claim to foreign policy triumph, is a gamble. For the moment, it is halting Tehran’s progress towards nuclear weapons, but for how long? An even bigger gamble is keeping the US out of the Middle East’s eternal wars. That is what the public wants – but now at the price of Aleppo, a calamity that has laid bare America’s inability to stop a slaughter, and laid bare that Russia, not the US, is now the dominant external power in the Middle East. Syria will haunt Obama until he dies.

The counterweight has been the so-called pivot to Asia, a region most noteworthy right now for Beijing’s military build-up in the South China Sea. The twin strategies of withdrawal from the Middle East and increased focus on Asia may work. If not, they will only reinforce the impression of Obama as a soft touch, whose passivity helped enable Putin’s Russia, sapped the trust of allies and emboldened foes.

But have eight years validated something that can be called Obama-ism? Certainly not one that Democrats at home will kindly remember. For his own party this president has been a disaster. Over his two terms, it has surrendered control of the Senate and House in Washington, and more than a dozen governor’s mansions and state legislatures across the land, over 1,000 seats in all. Worst of all, as Trump’s victory proved, it has lost the support of working white people, its bulwark since the days of FDR and the New Deal. For this, Obama must bear part of the blame.

So where will he stand in the presidential pantheon? Rankings shift and history’s verdict tends to improve with time. Obama on balance was a medium to good president. The first black president was not the great racial healer some expected at the outset. But he was a wonderful advertisement for his country nonetheless. He was no kneejerk believer in American exceptionalism. Rather he believed in rationalism and common sense. His greatest mistake perhaps was to assume that others did as well. As failings go, there are many greater.

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