Audacity of hope: Impact of Barack Obama’s legacy

Russia Direct, 20.01.2017
Victoria I. Zhuravleva, profesora de Historia Americana y RRII (U. Estatal Rusa para las Humanidades-Moscú)
  • Despite the criticism of his opponents, President Barack Obama leaves his mark on history as the president of hope

President Barack Obama makes Thanksgiving Day phone calls from the Oval Office to U.S. troops stationed around the world, November 24, 2016. White House/Pete Souza

After the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, the presidency of Barack Obama will become part of history — not only of America, but also the world. At the very least, he will be remembered as the leader of the only global superpower.

Most importantly, Obama will leave his post with a relatively high approval rating — 58 percent of Americans assess his presidency favorably. However, on average, his rating has been about 53 percent throughout his second presidential tenure. That marks a significant drop from a level of 78 percent in 2009.

Does this really mean that the 44th president of the United States failed, as his opponents claim? Moreover, does Trump’s victory, the failure of the Democrats in the elections and the crisis of the American political system mean that Obama didn’t perform well?

Like any president and political leader, Obama left a complicated, if controversial, legacy, with his successes often accompanying failures. It also depends on how one frames his policy: his success might be seen as a failure by some, but not by others.

Furthermore, one should keep in mind that Obama had to shoulder the hard legacy of his Republican predecessor George W. Bush, that America and the world pinned a great deal of hope on Obama, that the world itself changed significantly after he came to the Oval Office and these changes have persisted throughout his entire presidency. No one knows how other presidents would have responded to the challenges if they were in his place and whether they would have succeeded.


Obama’s legacy in domestic policy

Obama came to power in the wake of an economic crisis, one of the greatest challenges after the World War II, which was about to turn into another Great Depression. Obama succeeded in steering the country out of the deep recession and created 17 million new jobs in the American economy. GDP has been growing since 2010; the American economy and the financial system have been reinvigorated. But the economic growth between 2009 and 2016 was comparably modest — only 2 percent amidst the increasing tax burden of $1 trillion.

More than one-third of this sum fell on those from the middle class, despite Obama’s promises to improve their living standards. In addition, the implementation of his administration’s anti-crisis strategy required a lot of money from the budget and resulted in the increase of the national debt to $19 trillion. Americans are hardly likely to forget this.

Obama met the leaders of key European countries to discuss an array of security and economic challenges facing the trans-Atlantic partners as the U.S. prepares for President-elect Donald Trump to take office in January. AP

The Obama administration started its tenure amidst increasing social and economic inequality. Besides the creation of new jobs, Obama felt compelled to give healthcare guarantees to 20 million Americans despite harsh opposition from the Republican Party, the country’s largest insurance companies and the middle class. Nevertheless, the healthcare reform will leave its mark rather as a success, given its audacity and large-scale scope.

Despite the fact that Obama promoted cultural and national diversity in the form of multiculturalism, his presidency saw racial tensions within the country, as indicated by numerous incidents with African-American people, killed by police officers. These tensions led to social unrest in Ferguson, Baltimore and other cities and highlighted the dormant problem of American racism. It was aggravated by anti-immigration sentiment in the U.S., exploited by Trump in the context of his right-wing populist campaign.

Obama himself pinned a lot of hopes on large-scale national reconciliation in American society, which was faced with perennial social, religious and ethnic conflicts as well as new social challenges. At the same time, his presidency didn’t meet the expectations of those who saw him as a progressive and innovative president.

Obama promised to show the advantages of liberalism. While he inspired people, he also encouraged unjustified optimism and almost messianic enthusiasm among voters. This, in turn, led to disappointment and increasing indignation, which Trump ultimately used during his presidential campaign. This also accounts for the popularity of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont).

However, the liberal doctrine has not lost its allure, merits and perceived advantages. It just didn’t meet the demands of a significant part of the American electorate. And it is not uncommon for the history of the U.S., which has been accompanied by the modification of the party credo. It remains to be seen if the Democratic party, which weakened its positions by the end of Obama’s presidency, will be able to return American people’s trust and offer them a realistic and coherent political program, which will combine healthy idealism and realism.

At the same time, Obama is leaving his mark as a charismatic intellectual with an excellent sense of humor. Most importantly, he wasn’t marred by any scandal and proved to be an honest and fair leader with a great deal of integrity and moral responsibility.


Obama’s foreign policy legacy

Audacity of hope also symbolizes Obama’s foreign policy legacy, because he came to power in the wake of increasing anti-Americanism, the result of President George W. Bush’s policy. Obama sincerely sought to bring peace and stability in the fragile and war-torn world. He wanted to reconcile the West with the Islamic world, alleviate the nuclear threat, reset relations with Russia and Latin American countries, and contain the rise of China.

His approach was based on the transformation of the character of the U.S. leadership through smart power and its advantages in innovation and technology. Rejecting the unilateralist paradigm, he wanted to be a responsible global stakeholder and make the world better in cooperation with American partners.

Yet Obama was not decisive, persistent and consistent enough during some moments that required these traits. He drew red lines and then backtracked. He stepped up his efforts to regulate the perennial conflict between Israel and Palestine instead of responding in a timely manner to the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). He described Russia as an economically weak country, a regional power with low GDP. Yet at the same time he admitted that Russia might be powerful enough to interfere in the U.S. electoral system. To an observer, all this seems inconsistent.

Obama had to deal Bush’s troublesome foreign policy legacy — three wars: in Iraq, in Afghanistan and against international terrorism. The first two campaigns are over thanks to Obama’s efforts in 2011 and 2014. However, Americans troops are still present in these countries to withstand ISIS and terrorist organizations, including Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

The war against global terrorism is far from being over. Obama could not resolve this challenge despite the fact he annihilated the most wanted terrorist, Osama Bin Laden, who took responsibility for the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. At the same time, the issue of U.S. drones to bomb terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somali causes a lot of debates given the collateral damage, including casualties among peaceful citizens.

While Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East and his attempt to promote democracy in the region leave a mixed impression (as indicated by the Arab Spring), his nonproliferation efforts look less controversial. One of Obama’s foreign policy achievements is the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New Start), which was ratified together with then-President Dmitri Medvedev in 2010. The agreement intends to decrease nuclear missiles to 1,550 units, with the number of intercontinental ballistic, submarine and bomber warheads supposed to decline to 700. However, the agreement was suspended during the crisis in U.S.-Russia relations, which were largely severed as the result of the civil war in Ukraine.

Under this agreement, Tehran was obligated not to enrich uranium for military purposes, to upgrade the Arak heavy water reactor in central Iran to exclude production of military-grade plutonium and, most importantly, to reduce over the next decade the number of centrifuges at its disposal from nearly 19,000 to only 5,060 functioning in the Natanz nuclear facility. However, Iran was allowed to maintain a small uranium enrichment program with the option of later — and perhaps rapid — expansion.

At the same time, this agreement left an unpleasant aftertaste by hampering U.S. relations with its traditional ally in the Middle East, Israel.

Finally, Obama's latest contribution, if symbolical, to nonproliferation became his May 2016 visit to Hiroshima, one of the Japanese cities that felt the impact of the U.S. atomic bomb in 1945. This is a remarkable event within his tour to the Asia-Pacific region, because he became the first American leader in the country’s history who dared to make this move as the U.S. President after the atomic bombings of Japanese cities. He also paid a visit to Vietnam to contribute to the collective memory of the 1955-1975 Vietnam War, a tragic and traumatic experience in the U.S. history.

Within the politics of memory Obama established the Honouliuli National Monument in Hawaii, near Pearl Harbor, on the site of the internment camp that held about 4,000 Japanese prisoners of war, and cut a deal to return American military land on Okinawa (a legacy of the World War II) to the Japanese government, the move that was hailed as the biggest land transfer in more than four decades.

All these "historic gestures" of Obama indicate that he tried to restore historical justice and take responsibility for the policy of his predecessors.

Nevertheless, experts from both sides of the Atlantic are inclined to downplay Obama’s contribution. According to their narrative, Obama’s many foreign policy initiatives (including the Iranian nuclear deal, the restoration of the diplomatic relations with Cuba, regional trade agreements – Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) came as result of his personal political ambitions and attempts to justify the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded in advance after he won the 2008 election.

But, in fact, all these moves resulted from his consistent implementation of his foreign policy concept and attempt to fulfill his pre-election pledges. At least, Obama’s firm intentions to make the world safer and more stable do matter. In addition, his foreign policy initiatives, from global integration projects to his contribution to the Paris Climate Agreement, pursue long-term goals, not short-term ones. And it remains to be seen what results they will bring many years from now.

The civil war in Ukraine and the Kremlin’s policy in the post-Soviet space became a big challenge for Obama. During his tenure U.S.-Russia relations went through the full cycle — from the reset, intended to foster the collaboration between the two countries, to the full-fledged crisis. At the same time, Obama proved that he is ready to come up with a compromise with Russia, when he refused to impose the non-fly zone in Syria in 2013 after President Bashar Assad allegedly used chemical weapons in the conflict. Finally, Russia and the U.S. agreed to neutralize the Syrian chemical weapons.

Moreover, under Obama, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met regularly with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov to foster the negotiation process between Moscow and Washington. At times, this was successful because it contributed to alleviating the tensions in Ukraine and Syria.

However, despite this success, Obama was not able to establish personal chemistry with Putin himself. But it is not only a matter of personal antipathy (even though it also played a certain role). The post-Cold War history of U.S.-Russia relations demonstrates that the leaders of the two countries could get along with in the times of the political modernization and (or) the economic reforms in Russia. At the same time, the identity crises in Russia hampers the attempts to establish close ties between the presidents. The latest move of the Obama administration directly targeted Russia, and the recent anti-Kremlin campaign in response to the alleged hacking of the U.S. electoral system is controversial, like the reset.


Time will tell…

One of the key problems of Obama’s foreign policy is the absence of healthy balance between idealism and pragmatism. In addition, his domestic and foreign initiatives primarily focused on the long-term perspective. However, the U.S. historical experience indicates that American society is able to return to a state of balance that it might have temporarily lost. After all, the "audacity of hope" is the essential part of the American political traditions, and it will remain a vivid metaphor of Obama’s entire presidency.

At any rate, Obama has already left his mark on history and will always be seen as the first African-American president, who inspired hope and came up with a lot of noble initiatives that, unfortunately, could not catch up with the current political agenda. But, who knows, they might be implemented in the future, when the necessary momentum returns.

Probably, Trump would not have become so popular, had Obama presented his technocratic liberalism in a more understandable way for the average American. However, this is not the only reason why Trump won.

Will Trump be able to leave the same mark on history? Will he be able to push through his controversial initiatives, given his low approval rating, at a time when 51 percent of Americans disapprove of the presidential transition? It remains to be seen.

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