Eight years ago the banners said ‘Behold the new Kennedy!’ Tears flowed and expectations were sky-high as Obama spoke on election night surrounded by his young family. Here was America’s saviour, the man who could overcome the legacy of slavery, heal a divided nation, even reclaim its moral leadership.
In fact, Obama’s record has been one of failure. Once the world’s policeman, today America is seen as weak. Tyrants know that Obama rarely exercises power and they have taken full advantage of that fact. Putin has rolled the tanks into part of Ukraine while China flexes its muscles in the South China Sea. Islamic State rose to ugly prominence on his watch, and Obama did little to stop it. He also let Assad get away with gassing his people even though he had warned such action would be crossing his ‘red line’. Traditional Middle East allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia are rightly dismayed. At home, the president has been just as limp. Some critics go so far as to say that he prepared the ground for Donald Trump, by failing to reassure Republican voters who feel vulnerable to terrorist attacks and not doing enough about uncontrolled immigration. Equally he has disappointed Democrats by his failure to counter the gun crime epidemic, and African Americans have gained little stature or pride from his time in the White House. Who would have imagined #BlackLivesMatter taking off under the first black president of the United States? Far from being an inspiring leader, Obama has turned out to be a sensitive loner, temperamentally unsuited to the hustle and bustle of power.
To Obama’s supporters, such charges are ludicrous. Despite the many crises that have afflicted his time in office, he has pulled off a significant number of his promises. Through Obamacare, he has enabled 20 million uninsured adults to have health insurance – something seven previous presidents were unable to achieve. He agreed a climate change accord unthinkable under his predecessors. He negotiated a groundbreaking deal with Iran, stopping its dash to nuclear weapons. Far from being weak and passive in his foreign policy, he has been tough when needed. Bin Laden was killed and so were other terrorist leaders. Yet he has refused to continue hopeless wars that cost lives, tarnish America’s reputation and squander money. Instead, he has concentrated on reviving the economy. Millions of new jobs have been created in the past eight years. Obama’s stewardship has been calm and assured, generating no personal scandals. His real crime, in the eyes of his opponents, was his rejection of ideology. Partisans on all sides despise his willingness to compromise.
So how should we assess Obama’s legacy, given that Guantanamo Bay is still open while American minds grow ever more closed?