On January 20, 2009, standing tall, slim, and straight, Barak Obama took his inaugural oath as the first black president of the United States. The huge attendance set a record for any event held in Washington DC.
Besides his extraordinary oratorical skills, Obama symbolised the youthful energy and strength needed to face a range of massive and urgent challenges: An acute financial crisis threatening world depression, the disastrous situations left by his predecessor in Afghanistan and Iraq, plus the wider “War on Terror” since 9/11.
The state of the economy that Obama inherited was catastrophic, but he has left behind a healthy economy and employment opportunities for almost all people
The expectations of his supporters were high, unrealistically high. But on that cold January day, millions of people around the world were impressed and hopeful too.
Obama’s presidency was made still more difficult by negative Republican majorities in the Congress and later, also, in the Senate. In foreign affairs, Obama focussed on US leadership in negotiating a deal with Iran to restrain its development of a nuclear weapon capacity.
He fully agreed with the strong demand of the US public for military withdrawal from the mayhem in Afghanistan and Iraq, but realised that achieving so is more complex than what the public and, perhaps, he had expected -- it was certainly immensely more difficult and complex than the military exercises of Bush’s administration to counter Taliban and overthrow Saddam Hussein.
If that were not enough, Obama soon faced further new challenges. The 2011 Arab Spring turned into “Arab Winter,” with the Egyptian and Tunisian governments overthrown and peaceful protests in Syria turning into bitter and confused civil war. Obama reluctantly joined the French and UK’s efforts to overthrow Gaddafi, but Libya then also descended into chaos.
In 2014, Putin instigated revolt in east Ukraine and seized Crimea, followed later by Russian military intervention in Syria. Meanwhile, China continued its rapid economic growth and developed a challenging and assertive policy in the South and East China Seas.
Despite Republican opposition in Congress, Obama did manage a substantial range of achievements in both domestic and foreign policy. In response to the risk of global financial chaos and a repeat of the 1929 financial depression, he rescued two major automobile industries and backed the Federal Reserve’s huge financial stimulus. The 2010 Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act imposed new fiscal regulations, student loans were reformed, and Obamacare gave an extra 20 million Americans their first affordable health care insurance.
The list goes on -- but reform of the vast tax code, with its numerous exemptions favouring the very rich, has not been possible. Most of the economic re-growth since 2008 has only recently started to be reflected in average wages due to Obama’s efforts.
In foreign and security affairs, an Arms Control Treaty with Russia reduced the number of long range weapons held by both countries before relations were soured by Putin over Ukraine. More recently, Obama strengthened coordination with NATO and Pacific allies to constrain Putin and China.
He encouraged reform in Myanmar and restored relations with Cuba. The US accepted Paris conference climate change commitments -- although Congress opposed it -- but Obama did so by the use of executive orders.
Meeting the clear and strong demand of public and Congressional opinion regarding the end of the highly costly US military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan proved to be very difficult. Obama is particularly criticised for accepting the refusal of the Shia Iraqi government to allow a much-reduced US force to remain after his successful “surge” reinforcement had defeated al-Qaeda’s dominance over the Sunni tribes.
The US departure, leaving only al-Maliki’s rotten and sectarian governance, led swiftly to the rise of IS and creation of its Sunni extremist “Caliphate” across Iraq and Syria.
Even before that disaster, slow recovery from the financial crisis and the loss of manufacturing jobs had cost the Democrats six Senate seats and 10 governorships in the 2010 US mid-term elections. It is worth noting that of the five million US manufacturing jobs lost in the decade from 2000, some 85% was lost to technological changes, including robotisation, rather than from disastrous trade deals as is now alleged.
Many traditional supporters also criticised the failure to close Guantanamo as pledged and the lack of progress towards an Israel/Palestine “two state” solution. Syria slid further into the savagery of a wider sectarian regional conflict headed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar on one side and Iran on the other. Despite US aid in rebuilding the Iraq army, Obama’s abandonment of the “red line” use of chemical weapons, followed by Putin’s military intervention turning the tide for the collapsing Assad regime, seemed to indicate an abdication of US leadership in the region.
It is not too early to know how historians will judge the complex balance of Obama’s presidency. It is remarkable that after two terms he still retained a personal popularity of over 60%. He was surely right to accept that US military power could not, by itself, install liberal values and institutions in conservative states long ruled by dictators. Equally, his personal popularity as the first black president could not translate into progress in reducing racial prejudice and discrimination.
Black Lives Matter demonstrations against police shootings have to be balanced against much white racialism and opposition to immigration. The US is a polarised nation, with many strategic powers held at states level, and even a president can only seek to influence much deeper economic and social trends. The state of the economy that Obama inherited was catastrophic, but he has left behind a healthy economy and employment opportunities for almost all people.
Now as a new, brash president seeks to reverse much of Obama’s legacy in so many fields -- climate change, free trade agreements, health care, and the stability of post World War II international institutions -- we can acknowledge some of Obama’s failures, including the intellectuals’ distaste for Congressional bargaining and inability to give new leadership a chance at the grass roots of the Democratic Party.
But we can be grateful that after the utterly rash triumphalism of George W Bush, and before the new challenge of President Trump’s “America First,” we have had eight years of many positive initiatives and graceful, morally serious, and intellectually distinguished leadership in the White House -- and that will remain as Obama’s legacy.
Selina Mohsin is a former High Commissioner to the Maldives.