Barack Obama legacy: An incredibly decent man, a great orator and a failed president

In the warm afterglow of yet another rousing speech delivered from the farewell podium in that rich baritone, with lines like "You have made me proud, and you have made me proud, and you have made the country proud," thrown at the missus while wiping an errant tear, it is so easy to fall in love with Barack Obama all over again.

And yet while discussing the legacy of the outgoing Potus we must put a stone on our hearts, firm up our trembling lips and judge Obama for his work. And if we do that, one truth will leap at us. In his life, in the values that he represented and stood for, in the way he conducted himself in the world's highest public office while being subjected to the greatest scrutiny, Obama remains an incredibly decent man. He's almost a freak of nature. The mutual respect and the premium that he placed on relationships, including the one with wife Michelle, the sunny smile of the first African-American US president will always remind us that power can go hand in hand with modesty, integrity and politeness.

But in his work and the policies that he adopted, Obama leaves behind a rancorous US — divided bitterly among the fault lines of faith, race and identity. He also leaves behind a world that is unsure of America's role in it.

He has largely failed in his missions, overseen the rise of the world's most fearful Islamic-terror franchise, antagonised old friends like Israel while trying to build bridges, spawned a stillborn healthcare policy and has generally been unwilling to take hard decisions — always settling for political correctness over what is just. A true leader is never afraid of courting unpopularity. While that has created a halo around him, it has altered the ground realities in a post-truth America.

In my opinion, towards the end of his regime, coinciding with the rise of Donald Trump, Obama has turned increasingly bitter and confrontational to the point that he has tried to place as many obstacles as possible in the path of the president-elect instead of ensuring a smooth transition. In short, he has been a bad loser. His conduct since Hillary Clinton's defeat is not becoming of the grace that he has displayed during his time at the White House.

 Barack Obama legacy: An incredibly decent man, a great orator and a failed president

File image of Barack Obama. AP

Looking at the coverage of Obama's formal farewell address that he delivered from his adopted hometown of Chicago, one point seems clear. The global liberal media still cannot have enough of him. The fulsome praise, the prose tinged with unbearable sadness and the highlighting of the warnings that Obama had for a Trump-led US create an impression that Potus still reigns American minds. The media would have us believe that Obama, who 'stands for light and all that is right' could have easily defeated Trump, 'who stands for darkness and all that is wrong', had he been the Democrat candidate instead of Clinton.

And yet such an impression is blatantly wrong, indicative of the fault lines that Obama's regime had created and the disconnect that exists between the media and the plebeians.

Make no mistake, Trump benefitted hugely from the fact that the former US secretary of state was perceived as an extension of Obama.

Clinton represented the cozy Washington consensus not unlike the Lutyen's power corridors and, to borrow Ashok Malik's phrase, the Khan market consensus of India. She was perceived as an embodiment of all that was wrong with the president's policies and the American voters rejected Obama as much as they did Clinton. Perverse as it may seem, Trump, the quintessential member of the Establishment somehow was able to convince the voters that he was running against the Establishment, the coastal power centre of the liberal elites.

Therefore, we must be careful while interpreting Obama's tall claims.

He told the world on Wednesday that: "Today, the economy is growing again; wages, incomes, home values, and retirement accounts are rising again; poverty is falling again. The wealthy are paying a fairer share of taxes even as the stock market shatters records. The unemployment rate is near a ten-year low. The uninsured rate has never, ever been lower. Health care costs are rising at the slowest rate in fifty years. And if anyone can put together a plan that is demonstrably better than the improvements we've made to our health care system — that covers as many people at less cost — I will publicly support it." 

But is that really the case? Had the American economy been in such a pink of health, why would the electorate in six states that voted for Obama in 2012 would incredibly switch their allegiance to Trump? These were not the power centres of coastal America but the raw, angry middle America who were fed up with the president's policies, the joblessness the extent of illegal immigration and what they perceived as the growing income inequality. While they lost their jobs and their lives, the coastal, cosmopolitan America grew richer.

As The Washington Post pointed out following Clinton's defeat, "Of the nearly 700 counties that twice sent Obama to the White House, a stunning one-third flipped to support Trump. The president-elect also won 194 of the 207 counties that voted for Obama either in 2008 or 2012. By contrast, of those 2,200 counties that never supported Obama, Clinton was only able to win six. That’s just 0.3 percent crossover to the Democratic side."

We must therefore judge Obama by his work, not his words. He failed to tackle income inequality and as Wall Street Journal says, his "progressive agenda failed most acutely on its core promise of economic 'fairness.' The president made income redistribution to address inequality his top policy priority, above economic growth. The result has been the slowest expansion since World War II and even more inequality. Higher taxes and wave after wave of new regulation dampened investment, while expanded entitlements and transfer payments lured more Americans out of the workforce."

In his speech, Obama issued a clarion call against discrimination. He said: "Going forward, we must uphold laws against discrimination — in hiring, in housing, in education and the criminal justice system... we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are. That's why I reject discrimination against Muslim Americans."

And yet his regime is guilty of not initiating true and meaningful reform of the criminal justice system that gave rise to movements like Black Lives Matter. He will be remembered as a president who was suspended in the middle, a harbinger of inaction satisfying neither the system that perceived him as being too soft on offenders, or the black movement that was banking on him to pass legislation such as the dream act.

In sum, as The Guardian puts it: "the mainstream media and academia failed to highlight these painful truths linked to Obama. Instead, most well-paid pundits on TV and radio celebrated the Obama brand. And most black spokespeople shamelessly defended Obama’s silences and crimes in the name of racial symbolism and their own careerism. How hypocritical to see them now speak truth to white power when most went mute in the face of black power. Their moral authority is weak and their newfound militancy is shallow."

In foreign policy, Obama created more problems than he had inherited. The post-Cold War equilibrium is over. America is no longer the sole superpower with Chinese hegemony slowly replacing it in Asia and Eurasia. Under him, the US-Russian relationship is at its lowest ebb and a defiant Vladimir Putin is altering global geopolitical order by aligning with China. Obama is also largely responsible for creating the monster called ISIS through his premature extraction of American forces before installing a stable Iraqi government and his shoddy handling of Syrian affairs. The Iran nuclear deal could have been his sole legacy but even here, mistrust runs deep over his actual achievement.

For all of his oratory, Obama unfortunately created so much animosity with the Congress that he had to rule by fiat towards the end of his second term which may mean that nearly all of his policies would be overturned. The Americans and even the world must mourn a terrible waste of potential.

Updated Date: Jan 11, 2017 17:48:49 IST