Obama’s legacy will be much greater than it now appears

It is in US foreign policy where President Obama will come to be recognised as a game-changer

Mary Dejevksy
Wednesday 13 January 2016 18:20 GMT
U.S. President Barack Obama gets a standing ovation from both sides of the aisle at the conclusion of his final State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in Washington
U.S. President Barack Obama gets a standing ovation from both sides of the aisle at the conclusion of his final State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in Washington (Reuters)

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 by a two-term president is always 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.

When he started his run for the White House, much was made of his chances of becoming the first black US president. He has made far less of his colour during his time in office, to the frustration of many campaigners. In so doing, however, he has largely avoided being dubbed the “black president”, and has prepared the way for colour-blind politics at a time when the US population will be more ethnically diverse than it already is. With the Obama family in the White House, what once seemed the impossibility of a black president is defied visually every day.

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.

On Tuesday, he warned against exaggerating the Isis threat: “over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands... they do not threaten our national existence.” He insisted that the chief threat now came less from “evil empires” than “failing states”, while cautioning that the US “can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis. That’s not leadership... It’s the lesson of Vietnam, of Iraq — and we should have learned it by now.”

Whoever follows Obama in the White House is likely to find this logic more, not less, compelling, the more interconnected the world becomes and memories of the Cold War fade.

Pure coincidence offers an instructive footnote. On the eve of Obama’s address, two US boats and their crews were detained by Tehran after straying into Iranian waters. Within 48 hours not only were the crews released, but Iran publicly accepted that the violation was unintentional. If Obama’s successor were tempted to reverse track, here is proof that his new diplomacy shows a better way.

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