It was July 2004, and the Democratic Party was gathered in Boston to nominate John Kerry as their presidential nominee. However, the star of that Convention was not the lack luster Senator Kerry, nor was it his shallow and preening running mate John Edwards, but rather a virtually unknown Senate candidate from Illinois – Barack Obama. Having been chosen to deliver the keynote address, Obama stunned the audience with his charismatic delivery and unifying message, declaring that America is not an uneasy coalition of conservative red states and liberal blue states, but that ‘we are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.’
That speech propelled this young, African-American Senate candidate into the national spotlight, and four years later he was delivering a very different Convention address, accepting the Democratic nomination after just three years in Washington and having seen off the once-indestructible Hillary Clinton. No politician since John F Kennedy had built up the kind of wild enthusiasm and adoration that Obama enjoyed during the 2008 presidential race, and his victory signaled a new era for the United States. For the first time in years, Americans dared to believe that politics could transcend bitter partisanship and government gridlock, and who better to provide such unity than the nation’s first black President, a man who placed ‘hope and change’ at the forefront of his campaign?
This month, Barack Obama will leave the White House after eight tumultuous years as commander-in-chief, and it is easy to forget that this is the same man who many once believed would usher in a more tolerant, measured and liberal era. His approval ratings remain high, and apart from some grey hairs there are few signs of the strains of high office that have plagued and tormented many of his predecessors, but as he prepares to hand over the levers of power to Donald Trump, President Obama must wonder where he went so wrong. In 2008, the American electorate showed how far it has come since the days of Jim Crow by electing America’s first black President, but last year they decided that his replacement should be a xenophobic populist who spent years attempting to undermine Obama’s legitimacy by spreading false rumours that he was born in Africa rather than on US soil.
Trump’s victory exposes the falsehoods at the heart of Obama’s overriding narrative. Instead of bringing together red states and blue states, President Obama has presided over a period where America has become more fractured than ever before, a nation riven by distrust, fear and suspicion. Now more than ever, political labels are used pejoratively by both sides; to their opponents, Republicans are gun-toting rednecks intent on shouting down any form of scientific or cultural progress whilst upholding Christian fundamentalism and unfettered capitalism, whilst Democrats are effete, latte-sipping, kale salad-eating metropolitans who will stop at nothing in their quest to confiscate guns and erode the Constitution. President Obama is not directly responsible for this bitter bifurcation, but neither has he succeeded in his primary quest to unite America.
No political leader is ever a complete success or a complete failure, and Barack Obama is no exception. For the entirety of his presidency he has handled himself with grace and dignity, and apart from a few very minor gaffes his tenure has been completely free of scandal. Additionally, the presence of a black man in the Oval Office has sent an important message to young African-Americans whose parents and grandparents grew up in a country dominated by racism, segregation and white supremacy. To this new generation of Americans, the President has been a positive role model who has spoken honestly about race without using his historical significance as a substitute for a fully-developed and positive political message. As an individual, Barack Obama has proven that he is a fine man and a worthy occupant of the nation’s highest office.
Sadly, this President has also proved that a good man can be a bad commander-in-chief. The hype that swept him to office was not something he ever asked for, but it is undeniable that Obama has completely failed to live up to the excitement that reigned supreme in 2008. When he first entered the White House he was bolstered by Democratic control of both houses of Congress, but instead of using this strong position to implement important policies he squandered the immense political capital at his disposal, focusing his domestic energies almost entirely on introducing health reform. No doubt this is a crucial area that has needed overhauling for many years, but the President’s solution was inadequate and deeply flawed; indeed, during the recent presidential campaign, even senior Democrats called for some changes to Obamacare, with former President Bill Clinton describing it as ‘the craziest thing in the world.’ Obamacare may have helped to expand coverage, but it has also caused insurance premiums to skyrocket, whilst millions of Americans have seen the cancellation of their previous healthcare plans despite the President’s promise that ‘if you like your plan, you can keep it.’
The dominance of Obamacare also meant that little progress has been made in other crucial areas of domestic policy, most notably gun control where President Obama has failed to stand up to the increasingly radical and uncompromising NRA. Instead of pursing the kind of radical change that many expected when he came to power, Obama has hidden behind the gridlock of Washington in order to make excuses for his own inaction. As Karl Rove points out in a recent article for the Wall Street Journal, Obama is not the first President to face congressional opposition, whilst for the first two years of his presidency the Democrats had full control of the legislature, an opportunity that the White House squandered. Partisanship is an unfortunate characteristic of modern US politics, but it is not an exclusively Republican phenomenon and the Obama administration must take their share of the blame.
If the President has been disappointing domestically, his legacy on the world stage is even more shameful. Having campaigned as an anti-war candidate in contrast with the aggressive hawkishness of the Bush years, Obama successfully tapped into the war fatigue that was acutely felt following the bloody and seemingly endless conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, as he leaves office with Syria in flames and Russia on the rise it is clear that inaction and non-intervention also have dire consequences, emboldening despots and terrorists whilst allowing more sinister powers to step into the leadership vacuum on the world stage. If the Bush Doctrine involved hunting down America’s enemies and overthrowing tyrants, the Obama Doctrine has seen the United States give up this preemptive stance in favour of impotent passivity. Even President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people was not enough to trigger American intervention, despite the fact Obama had previously stated that this would be a ‘red line’ in the Syrian conflict.
The conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt is fond of claiming that the Obama presidency will be defined by six words; ‘leading from behind,’ ‘red line,’ and ‘jayvees,’ the latter being his incredibly naive dismissal of ISIS in January 2014. However, Hewitt’s six words fail to capture the successive disappointments, let-downs and mistakes of the last eight years, failures which go well beyond his abysmal record in the Middle East. On the issues that matter this President has almost doubled the national debt, fudged healthcare reform, alienated the Israeli government, provided concessions to America’s greatest enemies, and consistently refused to name radical Islamist terrorism for what it really is. The sad truth is that he has not just failed to live up to his own hype, but has been an utterly poor President who has accumulated excessive amounts of power, bypassed Congress wherever possible and blamed his own failings on Republican obstruction and the legacy of George W Bush. This good and decent man deserves a happy future and many thanks for his years of public service, but the United States also deserves radical change from an agenda which has weakened America’s standing on the world stage and fueled polarisation and disaffection at home.