I really do want to look back upon Barack Obama’s presidency in a fond light. He came promising hope, iconised in artist Shepard Fairey’s stencil portrait poster. He was the light after eight years of darkness. He was the first non-white President, and represented a wave of change for the better. So long to the days of Wall Street recklessness, hello to regulation.
And yet, I do feel like I’m looking back on Obama through rose-tinted glasses. Hope is important – the Star Wars saga has spent eight films drilling that concept into the zeitgeist – but after election and the assumption of public office, hope for change is, frankly, not good enough. For all of Obama’s greatest achievements, and please, don’t think that I do not recognise and welcome the progress he has made, there have been a calamitous number of failures.
Then again, he has had tremendous obstacles and forces fighting against him. He was elected at the height of the global financial crisis and helped to rescue the US economy. Republicans held majorities in both houses for most of his Presidency and blocked him at every turn on many of his initiatives. And while the Democrats did have a majority when he first took office, the argument that he had to spend that time fixing the flailing economy before he could move on to other policy areas is one I understand.
I remember watching an episode of Panorama in early 2012 (at the tender age of 13, when politics was still largely something I had no clue about) that looked at “Poor America”, and how Obama’s 2008 election vision for the United States was dead. From what I can recall – and bear in mind that this was five years ago – all of the interviewees agreed on one matter: that their President had failed them. In siding with the banks, and leaving the system largely unchanged from the one of reckless capitalism that lead to the financial crisis, Obama arguably alienated the poor, the C2DE, the “forgotten America”, whatever you want to dub them. In many ways, no wonder they voted Trump, even if he is inevitably going to shaft them even more.
A recent article in the Washington Times declared foreign policy to be the Obama administration’s biggest failure; Moscow is on the rise, relations with western Europe have been “called into question”; relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia are less than great. Even for those in the camp that agree with Obama and Secretary Kerry’s last minute intervention in the recent Israel-Palestine land building conflict can argue that after years of vetoing UN resolutions that it comes as too little, too late.
Obama is better that the alternatives; those who immediately preceded and will follow him and those he ran against. But simply being better than the alternative does not make one intrinsically good. Guantanamo is still open, the social gap has widened, deportations are at a high. The victory for equal marriage came from the Supreme Court and not the executive, Obamacare is already being dismantled, Obama’s victories on climate change through executive orders will surely be reversed.
To return to Star Wars, in Rogue One protagonist Jyn Erso proclaims that “rebellions are built on hope”’. Yet Obama discovered that once the rebellion is over, hope is simply not enough. He may have been the best of statesmen, who aimed to rise above party politics, and has remained untarnished by scandal unlike many of his predecessors, but although this is still an ode to Obama, it’s an ode to the Obama that could have been: not the one he actually was.