How will Barack Obama be remembered? As America’s 44th president prepares to leave office today, his approval ratings are around 60 per cent, suggesting that here was a popular leader who achieved many or most of the objectives that he set for himself eight years ago. Yet this is evidently not the case. The very fact that he is being succeeded by Donald Trump, who tapped into a deep well of disaffection in America, indicates that Mr Obama failed in his one, overarching, ambition, which was to heal his country’s divisions, racial, economic and political.
As the first black occupant of the White House he was the personification of diversity; yet he leaves behind a country still riven with ethnic tensions and entrenched poverty. Realistically, such deep-seated problems could never be extirpated in eight years, but Mr Obama gave the impression, somewhat naively, that they could be.
He came to office on a wave of goodwill probably unmatched in recent American history. In his first inauguration speech, he warned of “gathering clouds and raging storms” and proclaimed an end to the “petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas” of Washington politics.
He was to find this easier to say than to deliver. Indeed, rarely in modern politics has there been such a gap between orotund rhetoric and prosaic attainment. He talked of healing, and of hope and change, but was too timid and too unfocused to live up to his own hype. To be fair, Mr Obama’s domestic policy was partly thwarted by Republicans in Congress and his health service reforms look certain to be dismantled by his successor. But he can always point to a successful economy as a legacy, albeit one that relied on a massive injection of central bank cash at the height of the financial crisis.
More depressing has been the upsurge in racial violence, with Chicago one of several US cities seeing a sharp rise in murders. In America’s inner cities, the promise that helped propel him to victory in 2008 seems a world away.
But it is Mr Obama’s foreign policy that has disappointed most. His desire to extricate America from the two wars in which it was still embroiled when he took office was understandable and, indeed, part of his appeal to voters. But Mr Obama also largely removed America from the world stage. He may not have wanted his country to be a global policeman any more but its role as a vital democratic counterweight to the ambitions of Russia and China was diminished on his watch and will be hard to rebuild.
The disaster in Syria may have been even worse had the West intervened; no one knows. However, we do know that Mr Obama threatened a response against Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons but did not follow up.
Partly this was the fault of David Cameron’s failure to win the vote in the House of Commons authorising action by UK forces. But the message sent out by America’s failure to enforce its “red line” was a bad one. It has emboldened Vladimir Putin to test the boundaries of his revanchist ambitions in Ukraine and elsewhere and to fill the void in the Middle East left by Washington’s retreat from the region.
Furthermore, while many British voters have maintained a high regard for Mr Obama he never reciprocated their warmth. He was conceivably the least Anglophile occupant of the White House since George Washington. One of his first acts on installing himself in the Oval Office was to move his predecessor’s bust of Winston Churchill into a corridor, though as this was to make way for a sculpture of his own hero, Martin Luther King, it is hard to cavil.
On the other hand, personal relationships were good. Mr Obama and his wife Michelle, a stylish and supportive First Lady, were on excellent terms with the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, with the president once calling Her Majesty “one of my favourite people”.
Politically, though, his time in office was characterised by a cooler view of Britain in Washington that was particularly noticeable at the time of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. While Mr Obama invoked the “special relationship”, in reality he saw the UK less as an independent country than as part of the EU, and used his final visit to these shores to campaign alongside Mr Cameron for a Remain vote in the referendum last year.
In his valedictory press conference this week, Mr Obama said he had, at least, made few big mistakes during his eight years. He will not be disparaged by history as George W Bush doubtless will be for the invasion of Iraq. He was always polite but arguably too laid-back – “no-drama Obama” indeed. None the less, even if he achieved far less than he promised, Mr Obama is guaranteed a place in America’s presidential pantheon by dint of being the first black holder of the office. That can never be taken from him.
The Horrible Truth About Barack Obama’s Presidency
On January 20, 2009, President Barack Obama took office on a platform of “hope” and “change” for the United States of America. As Obama has completed his final day as President of the United States, Stefan Molyneux reviews his accomplishments, failures and legacy in the annals of American history.