President Barack Obama will give his farewell address to the nation on Tuesday at North America’s biggest convention center: McCormick Place, Chicago. Symbolically, it will echo the famous victory speech he gave a few miles away, at Grant Park, eight years ago, after his November 4, 2008 election. Obama said this week that he intends to thank the American people for their support, but his address will also serve as a plea for public opinion to oppose President-elect Donald Trump’s and the Republican Congress’ intention to dismantle and erase his legacy.
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Even though Obama has enjoyed a late burst of popularity in recent months, one can’t ignore the gap between the great and even messianic expectations that accompanied his election and the general sense of disappointment and dread that has gripped many of his supporters with his departure. In his Grant Park speech, Obama extolled his own election by citing Sam Cooke’s civil rights anthem “A Change is Gonna Come” and the line “It’s been a long time coming.”
In his farewell speech, Obama could encapsulate the current moment with David Crosby’s quote of the same Cooke line in his much more ominous song, written for Crosby, Stills & Nash after the 1968 assassination of Robert Kennedy: “It’s been a long time comin’, It’s goin’ to be a long time gone, and it appears to be a long, long time before the dawn.”
Everything would have been different, of course, if 40,000 voters in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan – a third of a thousandth of the voters – had voted for Hillary Clinton instead of Trump on November 8, and thus given her an Electoral College victory that would have matched her win in the popular vote. With Clinton as his successor and heir, Obama could have left the arena flashing a “V” for victory. With Trump on his way to the White House, Obama’s exit is an exodus, in the original sense of the word: the sad departure of the protagonist in a Greek tragedy.
Obama has been keeping a straight face since Trump’s victory, but insiders say privately that the president is crushed. Obama devoted more time and energy to defeating the rival of his party’s anointed successor than any other sitting president. Like many others, Obama was not only convinced of Trump’s certain defeat, he publicly guaranteed it. Since his projection was proven wrong, he has taken to subtly and not so subtly blaming Clinton for her loss, claiming that Democrats did not cultivate the coalition that gave him his two presidential triumphs. I would have beaten Trump, Obama says, and most experts tend to agree.
It’s hard to gauge, though, how much responsibility Obama actually bears for Trump’s win. Trump’s policies aren’t exactly the opposite of Obama’s – the words “Trump” and “policy” are a bit of an oxymoron, anyway – but in terms of temperament and personality, the incoming president is the very antithesis of the outgoing one. Obama is rational, reserved and calculated while Trump is impulsive, cantankerous and instinctive. Obama fosters minorities; Trump feeds off their isolation and defamation. Obama wanted to open America to the world; Trump wants to close it up again. Obama is known for his long and sweeping oratory; Trump for his blunt and coarse 140-character tweets. Obama believed Americans are better than they think; Trump viewed their prejudices and malice as traits to be nurtured and exploited. Obama remains aloof, condescending and sometimes seems arrogant: he can’t suffer fools and tends to turn his back on those who reject his brilliance. Trump, on the other hand, embraces his own inanities: he proved that the White House could be conquered not only by sublime rhetoric but also by coarsely staking out the broadest and meanest common denominator.
Obama’s personality, the cool charisma he exuded, guaranteed his fans’ continued admiration, even when his performance seemed to be faltering and his popularity was low. The very fact that he continued to be America’s first black president ensured a base level of liberal support, through thick and thin. The opposite was true of many of his detractors and haters, including Israelis and right-wing Jews. Many of them assumed the worst of Obama because his color blinded them, and his middle name shut their ears to any rational distinction between his achievements and failures.
In an effort to resolve the cognitive dissonance, Obama’s critics increasingly resorted to an alternative reality of lies, inventions and what has come to be known as “fake news.” On the eve of Trump’s election most of his voters refused to accept Obama’s U.S. citizenship or believe that he is indeed a Christian, as he proclaims: Under these circumstances, it wasn’t hard to persuade them that Obama’s eight years in office were a complete and utter catastrophe.
Reality is more complex, of course, especially if one remembers the special circumstances that enabled Obama’s election in the first place. It’s hard to tell if Obama would have won the 2008 election had he not faced John McCain – already seen as a vestige of a fading GOP establishment – and if the prospect that Sarah Palin would be one heartbeat away from the presidency hadn’t terrified Americans in the days before it emerged that she was just a tame preview for Trump. And even with the two of them lining up against him, it’s not clear that Obama would have been elected if not for the near universal disgust directed in those days toward the incumbent, George W. Bush, who was viewed as having fraudulently pushed America into a bloody war in Iraq, creating a crushing national debt in the process that ultimately led to the 2007-2008 economic meltdown. It was only this perfect storm that enabled the U.S. to elect its first black president. But as soon as the storm began to lift, the built-in rejection of Obama resurfaced with a vengeance.
By most objective measures, Obama did indeed save the U.S. economy – at the macro level at least. The fact that this is not obvious to one and all is the result of malicious propaganda, on the one hand, and the objective truth that many middle and lower class Americans did not partake of the fruits of recovery. But Obama did put economic growth back on track, brought unemployment down to 4.6 percent, created 15 million new jobs, resuscitated the housing market, saved the auto industry, revitalized the energy sector, implemented a partial reform of the banking system and consistently pumped up the stock market. He did so in the midst of changing economic realities, including rapid globalization and the empowerment of China – factors that Trump claims can be overcome as well.
Unlike Trump’s isolationist and protectionist tendencies, Obama is a multilateralist at heart and a staunch defender of free trade. He signed the biggest-ever free trade deal with Pacific Ocean countries, which is now in danger, and could have signed a similar deal with Europe, which is probably off the table for good. Obama participated in the historic signing of the Paris agreement on climate change and introduced new regulations on carbon emissions, both of which feature prominently now on the Congressional GOP’s hit list.
Most of Obama’s efforts are devoted to salvaging what he can of his crowning achievement: the Affordable Care Act (aka ObamaCare). It was the jewel in his crown, the legislation on which he spent all of the political capital he had been given in his 2008 triumph. Trump’s enthusiasm for revoking ObamaCare come what may seems to be waning. But for the conservative leadership of the Republican Party, it is nothing less than a crusade. One way or another, the Trump White House may find itself consumed by efforts to amend if not repeal ObamaCare just like Obama was in the first place.
Some of Obama’s other signature achievements in the social and cultural arena – at least those that were registered on his watch – may also be at risk, though they are in less imminent danger. These include equal pay and employment for women; the popular uprising for decriminalization of marijuana; the focus on transgender rights; the removal of barriers for gay people in the military; and the Supreme Court decision to recognize gay marriage. The latter is also seen, though, as having spurred a massive conservative protest vote that may have pushed Trump over the finish line.
But the culture wars also handed Obama his most stinging defeat: his almost absolute failure to tighten gun control laws. His eight years in office were stained by periodic gun massacres – from the Pulse nightclub in Orlando to the church in Charleston, to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, and many others in between. But other than making genuinely moving speeches, Obama failed to push public opinion to lean on Congress to make access to guns more difficult.
Some of Obama’s critics claim he similarly failed to improve the lives of minorities, including his own African-American community. Black Americans, on the other hand, may have been disappointed that Obama did not place more emphasis on improving their plight and possibly expected bigger reforms in their troubled relationship with the criminal justice system, but most continued to support Obama and to view him as a role model for themselves and their children. The same sentiment was shared by many other Americans, including some who oppose Obama’s beliefs and policies: that he was one of the most dedicated, honest, well-meaning and hard-working presidents of all time; a devoted family man who emerged from eight years in the White House without any stain of personal scandal or corruption.
The most difficult discussion, especially from the vantage point of the Middle East, is over Obama’s foreign and defense policies. His critics, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many other Israelis, see Obama as hopelessly naive and needlessly cowardly in the face of America’s enemies. They hold him responsible for the rise of Islamic State, the empowerment of Iran and for not preventing the carnage in Syria.
Obama has admitted that he should have been more forceful in the aftermath of the 2011 deposal of Muammar Gadhafi in Libya. Most observers – though not Obama himself – maintain that he should have done more to strengthen moderates in the early parts of the Syrian civil war, and that he definitely erred by not following through on his threat to punish Damascus after it crossed his “red line” and used chemical weapons against its own civilians.
There is no doubt that Obama failed to realize the impact and significance of ISIS when it first emerged, though he has three plausible excuses for his mistake. The first is that he was focused on fighting Al-Qaida, perpetrator of the 9/11 atrocities, and hunting down its leader, Osama bin Laden; the second is that he has waged a ruthless drone campaign of targeted assassinations of terrorist leaders, which was as effective as it was hidden from public view; and the third is that people tend to forget that Obama was not elected to keep America endlessly engaged in Middle East war against radical Islamist organizations but quite the contrary – to extricate it from the quicksand of Iraq and Afghanistan, hopefully never to return.
This was one of Obama’s main motivations for the nuclear deal with Iran, which soured his already tense relationship with Netanyahu: the assumption that, barring mutual agreement, the United States would have to intervene militarily to prevent Iran from going nuclear, potentially embroiling the U.S. military in a war that could prove bloodier and costlier than Iraq and Afghanistan together.
Obama’s critics tend to point to Russia’s reemergence as a world player and Obama’s repeated setbacks at the hands of Trump’s Russian idol, President Vladimir Putin. They tend to ignore Obama’s revival of U.S. standing in Europe after Bush’s years of devastation; his successful though uncompleted military and diplomatic pivot of U.S. focus from Europe to East Asia; and the complete rehabilitation of America’s leading position in Latin America, especially after Obama’s historic decision to end the 50-year boycott of Cuba.
Obama’s complex relations with Israel are worthy of separate examination, of course, preferably on a psychiatrist’s couch: they are ending now on a grating but nonetheless accurate note. Netanyahu has accused Obama of stabbing Israel in the back and his spokespersons in Israel and America have once again launched a vicious wave of hate and slander at the president. The immediate cause was the recent UN Security Council resolution on settlements and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s subsequent speech on the two-state solution. But these were just the latest versions of eight years of mutual suspicion, discord and distrust. The efforts to end the relationship as friends following the conclusion of a new 10-year military aid program was a sham: the harsh words and undisguised anticipation for Obama’s departure and Trump’s arrival was a more accurate mirror for the resentment of Obama’s critics.
Many factors combined to create the friction and tension between Obama and Netanyahu: Both leaders, it should be noted, aren’t known for making friends or gaining the trust of other world leaders, either. There is no denying that Obama’s color and middle name raised suspicions in the Jewish right in both Israel and America, but that doesn’t take away from real disagreements over the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the essence and image of Israel itself. Obama, in more general terms, represents a worldview that is anathema to the outlook and mood that have increasingly taken hold of Israel in recent years.
Obama is what is known in Israel as a “yefe-nefesh” which, translated literally and positively, means one with a beautiful soul, but in a more pejorative and more popular sense means a bleeding-heart liberal. It stands, in any case, on the opposite end of the spectrum to Israel’s increasingly self-victimized and aggressive point of view. Obama identifies with minorities, while Israel, despite the historical irony, has grown wary of minority rights, viewing them as harbingers of potential harm. The very word “rights” – whether they are human rights, civil rights, basic rights, the right to self-determination, the right of return, the right to demonstrate or to speak one’s mind freely – are all lumped together these days in Israeli minds as part of the malevolent leftist jargon aimed at undermining Jewish rights in the Greater Land of Israel. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was a representative of the “rights” school, but Obama was seen as its embodiment.
The scandalous accusation that Obama is anti-Semitic is a symptom of the dangerous verbal and ideological contamination that has infected much of the Jewish and Israeli right wing. Like many Israelis, Obama actually admires Israel but, alas, not the one that exists right now. He loves Jews, but not those who represent the antithesis of the liberal values that made Jews such champions of the civil rights movement and other liberal causes. Despite eight years of constant slights and insults from the right, most American Jews continued to support and admire Obama; at the same time, he served as a sort of partial consolation and comfort for Israel’s beleaguered and rapidly diminishing liberal left.
Even if he failed to keep many of his promises and couldn’t live up to the hopes he inspired, there is no doubt that after he leaves and the nightmare team of Netanyahu and Trump take to the field, liberals around the world will be left with a painful sense of abandonment and even orphanhood, along with copious amounts of admiration and respect that are sure to grow with the passage of time.