Donald Trump’s ascension to office was as boisterous as Barack Obama’s exit was graceful. Obama legacy is one of dignity and incremental changes against the trenchantly oppositional Republican Party and the Congress.
In the two terms that Obama was in office he chalked up a mixed legacy. When he was elected to the office, it was a watershed event in the US history. Son of a Kenyan black father and a white mother, he embodied American dream in politics where everyone with ability could make it to the highest office irrespective of caste, colour or creed. His advent augured well for the world which was deeply disfigured by George W. Bush’s divisive war on terrorism.
Obama’s promised healing touch was frustrated at every step of the way by the right wing punditry in the media and the Republican Party. His Muslim heritage and his American nationality were initially raised as disabling and constraining reasons by the right wing media (including Donald Trump), thus taking some shine off the broad-minded drift of the popular vote.
Obama’s victory also represented a great advance for Afro-Americans who rejoiced exceedingly in his victory as the symbolic act of black reassertion in the US politics. Yet beyond this symbolism, Obama strove hard not to present himself as a black president. In fact, the US did not register much advance on the black question under his two terms.
On his watch, police shootings of blacks grew apace as if the dormant institutional racism was suddenly awakened by the rise of a black president. Obama could not do much about the killing spree except flying to the funerals and orating on principles of tolerance, justice and humanity. The dashed hopes of Afro-Americans led to the renewal of black rights movement in the form of ‘Black Lives Matter’. The fact that this message needed to be repeated under Obama’s presidency speaks volumes about his record on race and civil rights issue.
On the legislative front, however, Obama was successful in getting Obamacare through the hoops of the legislative process. This represented a great achievement when viewed against the context of a bloody-minded hostile Republican Party and the Congress. By this law, Obama brought in an additional uninsured 20 million people into the net of healthcare provision. Though it did not cover all uninsured poor Americans, it remains a massive leap forward in the provision of universal healthcare.
Obama inherited a faltering economy. He acted quickly to put in place fiscal stimulus, not large enough according to some economists, which improved economy and stimulated employment. By virtue of this, the US fared better than other European countries in facing off the worst effects of the economic crisis.
In the second term of office, Obama was determined to be bolder than in the previous term. To bypass the ever-obstructive Republican Party, he often used executive authority to get his landmark deals through. He pushed though immigration reform allowing long-resident immigrant children to find way to citizenship after having earned the title of deportation president. In his two terms, the US deported a record number of illegal immigrants.
Obama also promised to close down Guantanamo Bay detention camp. Yet the camp remains open in an open affront to the civilised world and the idea of rule of law. In the last week of his presidency, Obama did try to release as many inmates as he could though scores still remain imprisoned. Similarly, though he pardoned Chelsea Manning, the whistleblower associated with WikiLeaks affairs, he deferred action on Edward Snowden case who faces a similar set of charges.
Alone among the US presidents, Obama restored full diplomatic relationship with Cuba. This put him at odds with powerful and influential lobby of Miami-based Cuban exiles. Having normalised relations with Cuba, Obama also made sure in the last month of presidency to end automatic right of asylum to Cubans, and stop special treatment of Cuban doctors seeking to defect to the US.
These long-range efforts made Cuba as a friendly neighbour, at par with other neighbours. This long overdue step was much-lauded across the world, and its effects will be far-reaching too.
On the Middle East, Obama spurred resolution of nuclear deal with Iran. The US administration, led by secretary John Kerry, gave a decisive push to the Iranian nuclear talks that brought Iran in from the cold. This he achieved in the face of vociferous opposition from the Republicans and Israeli government and Israel-allied lobbies in the US.
On the US foreign entanglements, Obama’s record is very mixed too. Though troops were recalled from Iraq and Afghanistan (in substantial numbers), Obama continued with the policy of drone strikes.
Obama, though uneasy with intervention in Libya, gave the go-ahead to British and French governments to intervene militarily. The mess Libya is in today owes it to this fateful decision. Obama extricated the US from Iraq, though Iraq remains a divided and shattered country. Obama voted against the Iraq war as a young senator.
In Syria, for which he received a lot of flak, he stayed away from active ground troops involvement, though the US kept funnelling aid to different warring factions. This did not aid the process of reconciliation and peace. Now a regional group of countries, including Iran and Turkey, under the aegis of Russia, are struggling to cobble together some sort of peace compromise in Uzbekistan.
In mitigation, Obama’s balance sheet of achievements and failures has to be weighed against obstructive Republican Party and the Congress which determinedly frustrated Obama’s progressive agenda every inch of the way. It is open to speculation whether the Republican Party would have treated a white president in the way it did President Obama.
The political and ideological extremism of the Republican Party on fiscal and political matters contributed to the rise of Donald Trump, a phenomenon described by some commentators as whitelash. In the larger scheme of things, Obama’s failure is the failure of tolerant, liberal Americans which has been eclipsed by Donald Trump’s racist, insular and nationalist government.
In one important sense, Donald Trump is the extremist Republican Party’s gift to the American people.