In November 2008, it seemed for people across the globe that a new age of peace and hope had been ushered in. Barack Obama, elected in a wave of exuberance, was suddenly the answer to all of America’s – and the world’s – ills. Of course, thanks in part to the enormity of his task, but more so as a result of eight years of obstructionism from a profoundly petty and vindictive Republican-controlled Congress, Obama’s two terms will be viewed by history as something of a failure. Donald Trump’s commitment to undoing all his good work will, tragically, have him remembered as nothing more than ‘the first African American president.’
It’s not difficult to see why Obama has generally had higher favourability ratings in the rest of the Western world than he has in his home country. Deep rifts in American politics have widened over the course of his presidency, due in no small part to entrenched racism, but chiefly as a reaction to one of his flagship policies, Obamacare. With it, Obama has sought to do something unthinkable: provide affordable healthcare to tens of millions of people. This was anathema to the strong libertarian element in American society, and Republican lawmakers have fought it all the way. With Obama out of the way, the process of defunding it has already begun.
His greatest failure has been in the field of foreign policy. Over-reliance on drone strikes and an unwillingness to properly confront Russian aggression are among many notable black marks on his copy book. The death of Osama Bin Laden was a triumph, and Al Qaeda have faded into relatively obscurity since then, but his failure to preempt and inability contain the Islamic State has left swathes of the Middle East in tatters. His greatest success, the nuclear deal with Iran, is set to be yet another victim of Trumpian hubris over the coming years.
Whatever his legacy, Obama can convincingly claim to be the finest orator of the 21st century. His moment of rhetorical triumph came in his eulogy for the victims of the Charleston church shooting, in which a white supremacist murdered nine black churchgoers. His powerful and moving speech carried with it the weight of generations of racism and segregation: it was a reminder that, even though there was an African American in the White House, racial divisions were as real as they had ever been.
Despite six long years of Republican obstructionism, Obama has remained a model of professionalism, sincerity, warmth and composure, in stark contrast to his successor. His self-deprecating sense of humour became his definitive character trait. At the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2011, Obama delivered a savage rebuke to the birther movement (including a certain orange goblin who sat stony-faced among the audience), before releasing his ‘official birth video,’ to dispel the doubts. It was the opening scene from The Lion King. One wonders whether this good-natured ribbing will be survive for future events.