PETER WICKHAM: Obama’s legacy week
ANYONE WITH AN EYE on US politics couldn’t help but notice that President Obama had a week that would likely impact positively on his legacy as the 44th president of the United States.
The types of actions and reactions he displayed provide substantial support for arguments in favour of term limits since he has demonstrated that a president in his lame duck term can still be motivated to work productively.
We are also reminded that positive change is often not immediately popular and it is therefore fortuitous that America has this second term where presidents can be motivated by their conscience and not poll numbers.
The week was a mixture of actions and reactions and the most notable reaction was to a most unfortunate event in Charleston, South Carolina. Obama already responded and condemned the actions in a way that identified with the victims and also communicated his outrage.
Last week he went further and delivered a eulogy at the funeral of Reverend Clementa Pinckney which few among us will forget quickly. His theme was unconventional and built on the equally unconventional response of the families of the slain persons who offered forgiveness, consistent with their interpretation of Christian principles.
The families offered grace and he also called for America to offer grace, but in so doing he suggested that the episode allowed America to see where it has been blind and made specific reference to “pain that the Confederate flag stirred in too many of our citizens”.
Obama’s next two victories this week were in the US Supreme Court. Public opinion polls in the US have consistently proven that Americans repose the greatest respect for the US Supreme Court and consider it the most independent of institutions. As such its validation of any president’s controversial initiative carries considerable weight and in simple parlance says “he is right”.
The Supreme Court spoke to two issues this week that enhanced Obama’s legacy in relatively short order. The first and less noticeable was the ruling on his “Obamacare” initiative, which was challenged on highly technical grounds; however, the justices ruled that “Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them . . . . We must interpret the act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter”.
As such Obamacare is now irrevocably part of American law and becomes Obama’s single most important domestic achievement, which is already being compared to the Social Security scheme, which defined Democratic governance in the post-war era.
The second matter the Supreme Court spoke to did not arise from a specific Obama initiative, but instead from a change in his attitude towards homosexual couples, or as he called it his “evolution”.
Prior to his re-election he, along with his former Secretary of State indicated that his administration intended to take an enlightened approach towards homosexuality and same-sex relationships which started with the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
Predictably this led to an open expression of support for same-sex marriage (before his re-election) and while the American president is in no position to instruct either the states or the courts on this matter, it is clear that supporters of the cause felt emboldened by his support.
The fact that some states were marrying same-sex couples and others were not meant that the US Supreme Court was called upon to make a final declaration on this matter, and it is noteworthy that this is only the second time in US history that the Supreme Court has spoken to the issue of who can marry.
On the first occasion, that court declared that interracial couples could marry. In both instances these decisions reflect an evolving and progressive interpretation of the US Declaration’s statement that “all men are created equal” and in this instance Obama is clearly being associated with a progressive historical development that does his legacy well.
The week culminated with an announcement by the Obama administration that there was an intention to re-open embassies in Havana and Washington. The timing of this initiative is no accident and will clearly be popular among the left-leaning Democrats, many of whom believe that the embargo has long since passed its sell-by date. If the remaining 16 months are anything like the past week Obama’s legacy will go well-beyond that of being the first black president.