The strategic and political role played by the US, and the dominant role played by its President in determining its foreign policy in particular, makes it important to assess Obama’s contribution after 8 years as leader as well as the possible implications for future policy. I spent some time yesterday reading the 6 page text of his farewell address to 18,000 supporters in Chicago who (on the TV presentations) cheered at almost everything he said and who asked him to stay another four years. Today’s Australian gives an excellent assessment in brief compass in its editorial below. I would be much more critical, though.
Obama centred his address on “the state of our democracy” and he claimed to have effected many desirable changes under it. These include “reversing a great recession, rebooting our auto industry, unleashing the longest stretch of job creation in our history”; “opening a new chapter with the Cuban people, shutting down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, and taking out the mastermind of 9/11”; “winning marriage equality and securing the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens”; “so that America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started”; “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 and 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”.
Yet, even leaving aside the serious questions about most of these claims (and that he started with the economy at a relatively “low” level), Obama himself told his audience that there is a need to “restore the sense of common purpose the we so badly need right now” and “we must forge a new social compact — to guarantee all our kids the education they need; to give workers the power to unionise for better wages; to update the social safety net to reflect the way we live now and make more reforms to the tax code so corporations and individuals who reap the most from the new economy don’t avoid their obligations to the country that’s made their success possible”. Why are there such needs after 8 years of Obama?
The reality is that his policies have increased the divisions in US society and led to the election won by Trump on the basis that many of those policies need to be abandoned or drastically changed. In a sense the win by Trump suggests that democracy has worked in the US – but not in the way that Obama is claiming. The need to restore the sense of common purpose arises because Obama departed too far from it. That seems to have been so in the case of race relations (which he described as “a second threat to our democracy”) which worsened during Obama’s presidency. His address also dodged the issue of immigration by arguing against any discrimination and “reminding ourselves that the stereotypes about immigrants today” are (supposedly) the same as those made in much earlier times.
He also avoided democratic processes to implement policies by the increased use of regulations implemented through the bureaucracy under his direction rather than through Congressional debate and legislation (as I have previously suggested, the US constitutional system is more deficient than ours in this regard). This is particularly the case with climate change policy. In his address he reiterates that “without bolder action our children won’t have time to debate the existence of climate change; they’ll be busy dealing with its effects: environmental disasters, economic disruptions, and waves of climate refugees seeking sanctuary”. But at the same time he claims to have “led the world to an agreement that has the promise to save this planet”! One would have thought he would at least modify his alarmism and acknowledge possible questions about the science.
Obama did acknowledge the challenge to democracy posed “first by violent fanatics who claim to speak for Islam” and he then made the addition that “more recently by autocrats in foreign capitals who see free markets, open democracies and civil society itself as a threat to their power”. He claimed that “no foreign terrorist organisation has successfully planned and executed an attack on our homeland these past eight years” (but did not acknowledge that foreign organisations caused terrorist action in the US); “we’ve taken out tens of thousands of terrorists –including Osama bin Laden”; and “we’re leading against ISIL”, which will be destroyed. Remarkably, he says “it has been the honour of my lifetime to be your Commander-in-Chief”. This despite his many refusals to directly engage the “violent fanatics” and autocrats in foreign capitals. Of course, “ISIL will try to kill innocent people … but they cannot defeat America unless we betray our Constitution and our principles in the fight”.
Regrettably, Obama made no attempt to pull back from his Cairo speech, made in 2009 shortly after becoming President, which sought to proclaim a new start based not on military might and intervention but rather on ‘dialogue’. His address did progress by including the reference to violent fanatics but it only characterises them as claiming to speak for Islam. It is tragic that he failed after eight years experience to recognise that there is a connection between Islam and the violence implemented by terrorists (really jihadists) and its advocacy by many imams. He has left his successor a truly enormous task to Make America Great again.