A failed President is one who is no longer creditable during his term in office.
History will not be kind to Barrack Obama.
It is early, far too early, to pass final judgement on the Obama Presidency. As the old observation goes, the worst President in history is always the guy occupying the Oval Office at any given moment. And yet, with the world sliding remorselessly towards chaos, it is worth taking a look back at the past eight years and how they have affected the rest of the world.
Obama won, at least in part, because he wasn’t Hillary Clinton. He didn’t have the baggage Hillary had, even back in 2008. He was personable and genuinely charming – being black didn’t hurt either, as there was an understandable desire to prove that anyone could become President – and made one hell of an impression. And yet, one does not need to question his birth certificate or religious leanings to realise that Obama was very ill-prepared to be President. If nothing else, a rather less pleasant term for ‘community organiser’ is ‘rabble-rouser.’
Like Trump in 2016, Obama was the ‘change’ candidate. He promised hope and change. What he didn’t have was the experience necessary to translate his ill-formed goals into reality. That didn’t seem to matter, back in those heady days. The world swooned over Obama – he was given the Nobel Peace Prize for doing absolutely nothing; comic books put out special issues pairing him with Spider-man and Captain America – but, like Tony Blair, Obama never seemed to realise that adulation doesn’t necessary translate into political influence. In short, Obama was told he was wonderful so many times that I think he actually started to believe it.
The problem facing the American President – any American President – is that while he is the most powerful man on the planet, that power has limits. Often, those limits are set – accidentally or not – by his predecessors. Bill Clinton’s weaknesses – and his reluctance to commit himself to deadly force – hampered George W. Bush during the early years of his presidency. Other limits are shaped by geopolitics, by ground truths that are often hidden from policymakers in Washington. The intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, is defined by realities that are often ignored by outsiders. There are limits on just how much influence someone a few thousand miles away can have on such problems, even if he is the president.
Obama rapidly ran into a series of stone walls, one after the other. His attempts to ‘reset’ relations with Russia, for example, were futile because nothing he could do could change the situation on the ground. Putin, a far more capable personality, had far more understanding of the geopolitical realities. Obama was essentially caught between doubling down and reinforcing NATO or striking a deal with Russia, both of which would have proved extremely unpopular. Instead, he tried to steer a course between them, accidentally making the situation a great deal worse.
(One of the reasons why Putin is so admired – and this isn’t a good thing – is because he is an efficient head of state.)
As the honeymoon ended, Obama struggled to cope with a number of problems that would have cowed a far more capable man. On the domestic front, his attempts to push health-care reform were a major disaster; on the international front, he actually made the global population long for George W. Bush! In Iraq, for example, Obama pulled combat troops out, thus keeping one of his major promises. But this left Iraq’s reconstruction incomplete, allowing Islamic State to rise to power. And while there was a great deal of satisfaction to be had in aiding rebels in Libya, it created yet another power vacuum and spread chaos across the region.
Obama was not the first POTUS to have problems in the Middle East. It is a complex region at the best of times. Indeed, it is never easy to judge the best time to abandon one’s former allies and make peace with their replacements. But Obama made no attempt to admit, let alone correct, his mistakes. Even when he finally authorised action against Islamic State, it was laughable – so laughable that Russia managed to make a splash by sending combat troops and aircraft to support Assad.
As Obama entered his second term, his narcissism became more and more apparent. Instead of embracing the dignity of his office, he could not resist injecting himself into all kinds of situations, from the George Zimmerman case and the infamous ‘clock-boy’ provocation to BREXIT. In all such situations, he invariably made matters worse and ended up with egg on his face. (Indeed, Zimmerman would have had excellent grounds for appeal, if he’d been convicted, thanks to Obama.) And yet, he also spent vast amounts of time (and public money) on holidays.
At the same time, he amassed vast amounts of executive power that wouldn’t remain in his hands indefinitely – those worried about Donald Trump wielding such power should thank Obama for setting all the precedents Trump could possibly need – and oversaw a colossal growth in the federal bureaucracy. Michelle Obama’s involvement with school lunches – note that her own children didn’t have to eat them – was just another unnecessary intrusion into the lives of ordinary Americans, one that caused far more problems than it solved. And, at the same time, problems with the EPA went unpunished. He meddled freely in military affairs, weakening America’s military at a very dangerous period in world history; he hampered the military when it needed to destroy a lethal enemy. And he forced through a bargain with Iran that basically boiled down to giving a very dangerous regime everything it wanted – for nothing.
He also lashed out, more and more, at his enemies. Again, this proved disastrous. Playing the race card and supporting Black Lives Matter – and implicitly accepting the lies they use to justify their existence – only undermined race relations within the United States further, while turning the IRS, ATF and other federal services on his enemies undermined trust in the government itself. Internationally, he single-handedly crippled an alliance structure that the US had built up since 1945, convincing America’s oldest allies that America could not be trusted. Interfering in foreign elections – and the BREXIT vote – came back to bite him, hard, when Russia was accused of meddling in the US election. No one was particularly inclined to believe him.
And, in his last days of office, he spitefully set out to make Trump’s early days as difficult as possible. (And he is already hectoring his successor, defying the time-honoured tradition of not doing anything of the sort.)
The problems facing any POTUS – particularly today – are immense. Mistakes happen … and some of them can have quite serious consequences. No one, least of all me, would claim that being President is easy.
And yet Obama, who needed to learn on the job, failed to learn from his own mistakes. A strong man in his position could have accomplished much. Instead, he weakened America, both internally and externally. The consequences will haunt the Western World for a long time to come.
To be fair to Obama, he avoided personal scandals. But it was the political ones that destroyed any hope he had of a decent legacy. In the end, Obama will be remembered as the ‘divider-in-chief’ – and as a failure.
Maybe this is a harsh judgement. Maybe Obama will look better after two years of President Trump (just as Bush looked better after Obama). But I think it will pass the test of time.