In many respects, the fact that many people believe Barack Hussein Obama’s presidency is ending in failure could have been foretold from the moment he was elected. The huge symbolic significance of the election of America’s first black president, one with Muslim ancestry, placed such high expectations on him that even 10 presidents couldn’t have achieved them. Anyone who didn’t understand this when Obama took office couldn’t have missed it when, just eight months after assuming power in 2009, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize based on the symbolic significance of his election, without his having done anything in practice to advance peace.
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The disparity between symbolism and reality is particularly striking in light of the black community’s situation in American society during his presidency. It is too soon to judge how the election of a black president will influence progress in the fight against racial discrimination in the United States, from a decades-long perspective. But from an immediate viewpoint, his presidency just skimmed the surface when it comes to the range of inequality that still exists in American society. This is reflected first and foremost in the treatment of young black men by the police.
Raising the issue may be the first step toward a solution. But in practice, other than the symbolism of his election, it’s hard to see how Obama contributed to curbing the inequality. What’s more, the backlash from his two terms in the White House led to the election of Donald Trump – a man who has made shameless use of racist references and enjoyed the open support of white supremacists.
Completing the tragedy of the Obama presidency is the fact that his awareness of the symbolism pushed him to attempt a reconciliation with the other side – those who viewed his election as undermining their culture and worldview. During his first two years as president, Obama made efforts to advance policy on a bipartisan basis – even though his Democratic Party controlled both the Senate and House of Representatives.
But the symbolic opposition to him got the better of his reconciliation efforts, and those two years during which he could have gotten far-reaching reform legislation passed were wasted. In 2010, the Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives and the Republicans, who had been dragged to the right by the tea party movement (which grew as a result of Obama’s election), took to the barricades and did whatever they could to stymie his policy plans.
Other than a few legislative successes – such as his health care reform, which was eventually so watered down that many critics saw it as doing more damage than good – what was left for Obama to do in office was to promote policies with more symbolic than practical significance. So, for example, the Obama presidency was a stellar period for the LGBT community, which saw substantial progress in its symbolic standing within American society – most importantly in the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage.
Although Obama can claim that Republican hatred prevented him from carrying out his promises on the domestic front, he alone is responsible for his successes and failures regarding foreign policy. And here, too, symbolic steps frequently outweighed practical achievements – and always in the guise of doing the best possible “in light of the constraints” (without trying to eliminate them).
The highlight of Obama’s foreign policy was the nuclear agreement with Iran, which pushed the Islamic republic’s acquisition of a nuclear bomb back by a decade or more. But to figure out what the practical significance of the agreement is, it’s worth getting back to the fundamental reasons why any country would be interested in obtaining a nuclear bomb (while ignoring the accepted Israeli rhetoric about destroying the Jewish state, etc.): ensuring the survival of the country’s regime; and gaining the standing of a world power.
From this perspective, the achievements of the nuclear agreement look less significant after the lifting of sanctions on Tehran stabilized the Iranian economy (and in turn strengthened the country’s regime). That’s also the case in light of developments in Syria and the rest of the Middle East, making it clear that Iran’s regional stature as a major power has grown even without a nuclear capacity. In addition, although the agreement can be considered an achievement in efforts to stop nuclear proliferation, in that context one should also recall that the Obama administration exceeded the record of every prior U.S. administration in the amount of American conventional weaponry sold.
The reconciliation with Cuba, which is another high point of Obama’s foreign policy, is also more symbolic than practical in its consequences. The lifting of the trade embargo against Havana requires cooperation from Congress. Without the lifting of the embargo – which is a possibility after Trump’s election – there is concern that this historic reconciliation will remain limited to its symbolic significance.
And when it comes to Burma – which Obama visited, and which has got rid of its military dictatorship – if democracy is measured by treatment of minorities (Muslim minorities in this case), there is still a long way to go before we can state that Obama’s policies have borne fruit there.
The global climate change agreement signed just over a year ago in Paris was a genuine breakthrough, in that countries around the world, notably China, committed to cutting greenhouse gases. In fact, the consent of the Chinese is to Obama’s credit. But after the celebrations have died down, it’s important to remember that there is not a single serious expert who would say the pact is enough to halt global warming. As a result, if a leadership is not found that will build on this first achievement to impose greater curbs (and such a leadership doesn’t appear to be in the offing), all that will be left of the Paris accord is yet more symbolism.
Finally, the area where Obama’s failures were most glaring was in his defense policies. The U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan and Iraq is a fraction of what it was when Obama took office in 2009, but the wars there are far from being won. In addition, the price being paid for the fact that fewer American soldiers are coming home in coffins (but are coming home) is that Obama – a Nobel peace laureate for the hope he engendered through his election – became the ultimate “hit man,” executing more people without trial (with the use of drones) than all of his predecessors in the Oval Office.
All of this is, in addition to the fact that Obama’s inability to put his rhetoric about democracy and human rights in the Middle East into practice, is turning the hundreds of thousands of dead in the Syrian civil war into the biggest stain on his legacy.