As he stands down, Obama's whole legacy hangs in the balance

8 Jan 2017



 “It’s been a long time coming. But tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.”


Eight years, two months, two days, and, for him what must surely feel like a lifetime ago, then President-elect Barack Hussein Obama gave that particular speech in his hometown of Chicago after the most momentous election in US history, one that ended with the first African-American President of the United States.


But in just fourteen days, change will once again come to America, thanks to the twenty-second Amendment of the US Constitution placing a two-term limit on the presidency.


It’s surely an irony, one that the incumbent president probably won’t find funny, that after all that the election of the first black president was supposed to symbolise, he’s being succeeded by Donald Trump, the one who long campaigned for Obama to release his birth certificate, doubting of course whether the black man elected in 2008 could truly have been born in the United States. It’s nice to see that after having a black man hold the highest office in the land for eight years, race relations in the United States have really improved.


But before Donald J. Trump is sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, before Barack Obama truly exits stage left, he will have one last hurrah. Eight years, two months, and six days after his speech on November 4, 2008, the president will return to Chicago to give his farewell address.


And it will be sad to see him go, for has there been a more charismatic politician in recent memory?


But no doubt, in spite of what he has achieved, no doubt not as much as he wanted to, but certainly more than what was envisaged by Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell and House leader (and later Speaker) John Boehner, when they pledged to make Obama a “one-term president”, it will be bittersweet for the departing president.


One of the cruellest ironies about US domestic policymaking is that, while every single step forward is painstakingly slow, and Obama more than most has had to fight tooth and nail for every inch of what he was twice elected to do, every single one of his achievements can be unravelled quite straightforwardly.


On his first day in office, Donald Trump can undo every single executive order and presidential decree put forward by Obama in eight years. President Obama’s landmark achievement; actually implementing full-scale healthcare reform, which every president since Franklin Roosevelt back in 1932 has tried, and failed, to carry out, and which took over a year to pass and another three years to roll out, could be gone inside a month. The floor fight over the Affordable Care Act saw filibusters, anti-abortion amendments, kickbacks to Congressmen from the Democratic leadership, and even hinged on a special election in Massachusetts. And it will probably be repealed as soon as the GOP can think of a viable alternative. And this is before we mention the fact Obama took office while the worst financial crisis since 1929 raged around him, and the US economy came out of that pretty well.


In truth, Obama’s presidency has been a tragedy, not a triumph. It isn’t entirely his fault. The man who promised hope and change to the millions of voters who turned out for him was reduced to a shell of himself after eight harrowing years in the Oval Office. Eight years that featured unprecedented obstructionism by first a split, and then Republican-controlled Congress, so much so that Senate Democrats had to change the rules on the filibuster just so some of the president’s nominees could get a hearing.


That Congress also saw the second longest filibuster in history, a twenty-one-hour marathon by Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who was willing to shut down the US government in an effort to defund, you guessed it, Obamacare. Lost in all this was that the US was also only hours away from defaulting on its debt. The US president might well be the most powerful man on earth, but Obama wasn’t even the most powerful man in America in his second term.


Which brings us into 2016. It seemed the only thing that was in the news more than celebrity deaths last year, was the deaths of often unarmed African-Americans at the hands of US law enforcement. In the city where Obama is going to give his farewell speech, 762 people were shot dead in 2016, and 2017 started with a literal bang in Chicago; two men were shot dead in the early hours of 2017.


Obama faces the very real prospect of having everything he spent his entire time in the Oval Office, perhaps even his entire life, fighting for, whitewashed within weeks. He will be like any other departed president, absolutely irrelevant. But in the spot in which he confirmed his status as the most charismatic man on the planet, he has one last shot at leaving something in the nation’s consciousness. He has often been reluctant to embrace his status as the first black president, all the while the civil rights battle in the United States has been thrown into reverse. In 2013 the Supreme Court struck down a section of the Voting Rights Act, allowing several solidly red states to implement discriminatory voter ID laws, while ID laws in North Carolina were proved, and struck down by a federal court, to disenfranchise black voters.


But with Obama set to be replaced by someone who has courted white supremacists and openly questioned his own citizenship, following a tumultuous year in which those who protested police violence in the US, including San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Seattle Seahawks Defensive End Michael Bennett, found themselves shut down with vague platitudes like ‘All Lives Matter’ and criticism over protesting during the national anthem, I hope Obama uses his last shot in the limelight to cement that legacy of being the first black president. After all, in a few weeks he’s not going to have anything else left.


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