PETER WICKHAM: Well done, Obama!
LIKE MOST POLITICOS, I was transfixed by the Chicago farewell address of President Barack Obama delivered last Tuesday and immediately commenced a reflection on the extent to which his presidency will be distinguished from that of his successor and indeed his predecessors. The former consideration is quite easy especially as the new president provided a foretaste of his approach to business within 24 hours of Obama’s address. There will be four years for us to reflect comparatively on the differences between the 44th and 45th President of the United States, so it is now more important to consider the Obama legacy.
The quantity of American presidents is such that there are various criteria used for identifying the great and not so great ones and one significant factor is the historical juncture of the presidency. Ultimately, the analyst seeks to understand whether the presidents’ tenure impacted positively on America and perhaps the world to the extent that he would be remembered years after he left office and associated with defining moments of his governing epoch. In this context, a few recent presidents come to mind and Richard Nixon is one who is remembered more for the extent to which his actions were a blight on the office. Then there was Jimmy Carter who was a nice enough guy, but whose impact was greater since he left office.
Two of the recent office holders provide a useful comparative base, with Ronald Reagan emerging as the president who impacted most significantly on world affairs to the extent that he “brought the cold war to a close”. Similarly, Bill Clinton is now remembered as one of the most effective communicators of our time and the person who returned the US economy to good health. In his second term, Clinton appeared close to facilitating an end to the Israel-Palestine crisis and while this initiative ultimately failed, his Camp David accord is still considered the closest both sides have come to solving this crisis in more than 50 years.
In the case of Obama, the question is whether he would be remembered in the realm of Reagan and Clinton or would he be thought of as a Carter who would now need to set about working to cultivate a legacy. In fairness, Obama has an advantage since he created history and would naturally be remembered as the first black president. It is, however, clear from his speech that he does not simply see himself as a token representative of his race, but wants to be remembered for other reasons with his race being a footnote.
Obama’s farewell speech communicated his contention that has been most successful on the domestic front, which sets him apart from Reagan and places him in the company of Clinton who was an equally powerful communicator. It is interesting that neither Obama, nor Clinton necessarily set out to excel in the domestic sphere but like Reagan they were pushed in this direction by events. Obama went into office with America’s clear and present danger being defined in terms of its flagging economy, accelerated by a global recession and epitomised by record levels of unemployment. Within days of assuming office, he was called upon to save major automobile makers from bankruptcy and eight years later he is handing the economy to his successor in considerably better shape.
Obama called attention to other major domestic achievements such as the Affordable Care Act which is historic and stands in the realm of the creation of social security in 1935 and because of it, some 20 million more Americans are able to access health care. Although Republicans disagree, progressive people consider the fact that America is the sole developed country in the world that does not provide health care for its most vulnerable to be a blight and Obama’s legacy will be associated with the rectification of this situation.
Obama’s success in the domestic realm was also enhanced by initiatives to make America a more inclusive society and while his achievements regarding race relations were somewhat limited, there is no question that he has taken America some way along in that regard. In the meantime, he has expanded the agenda of inclusivity to include homosexuals who now enjoy the same rights as heterosexuals and the impact of this initiative, especially coming from a black man of African heritage cannot be understated.
Obama attempted to impact global relations by engaging with the Middle East issue, getting America out of global skirmishes and negotiating the controversial Trans Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Neither of these has worked out, while the fact he leaves office with the Syrian crisis unresolved means that Obama cannot lay claim to an international legacy comparable to that of Reagan. If, however, context is critical, we can easily argue that Obama can claim historic success in that regard which means he will enter the class of great presidents.
Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES). Email: [email protected]