On the night of November 4, 2008 tens of millions of people across the world watched Barack Hussein Obama create a singular historic milestone by being elected the first African-American president of the United States of America. I was one of many who were either in tears or close to them when he made his victory speech to a euphoric Chicago crowd:
“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”
It felt as though a one-man revolution had occurred. It seemed the shadow of four unhallowed centuries of racism would finally begin to lift, fulfilling America’s destiny to be the beacon lighting the way to a world without prejudice; a world of equals and equal opportunity. Here was someone whose sincerity was impossible to doubt, an infection to whose optimism was inescapable. A true progressive had been elected; the stench of lobbyism and corporate influence would be exiting the White House and the promise of a government of, by, and for the people would be realized at last.
The charisma and masterful oratory of Barack Obama were a sharp contrast to the bumbling articulations of George W. Bush. He had an effortless charm and a keen sense of humor which he used to great effect in his regular appearances on television. Perhaps it is this likeability along with liberal media treating him with kid gloves that has ensured high approval ratings throughout his presidency. While Democrats have been routed from Congress, Senate and Governorships all over the country over his eight years, Obama’s approval rating hit a four-year high of 56% earlier this month. Obama’s air of benignity has also ensured that he has largely been spared the sort of criticism his predecessor received for acts of war and actions that pushed the limits of constitutionality.
While Obama did not engage in a blunder that approximated the colossal proportion of the 2003 Iraq invasion, he was an undeniably resolute aggressor. Without provocation and with no justification linked to American security, the Obama administration along with several NATO members engaged in a bombing campaign against the Gaddafi regime. Hundreds of civilian deaths later Gaddafi was dead and Libya had descended into a bloody civil war that continues to this day.
Where there had been no presence of extremist groups before, Libya now attracted and became a haven for Al Qaeda and Daesh. There is not a shade of doubt that Libya was better off under Gaddafi―not just for Libyans but for the safety of the rest of the world. Yet nary a whisper could be heard accusing Obama of destabilizing a nation and making the world less safe in the aftermath of the Libyan campaign.
The matter of fact way in which this criminal aggression against a sovereign country was accepted by the majority of people and media commentators was a testament to the Obama administration’s ability to mask murder as benevolence. It was also a damning indictment of the prodigious capacity for hypocrisy the media―and the public―are capable of.
And Libya was not Obama’s only war crime. Over his eight years he expanded drone warfare to five countries―Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya and Yemen. Despite repeated instances of civilian deaths the Obama administration insisted on the pinpoint accuracy of these attacks and refused to admit significant civilian casualties.
In Syria the $500 million effort to arm rebels gravitated into a shameful fiasco. Arms ended up in the wrong hands, terrorism flourished and the Assad regime sedately dismissed every warning from the White House and kept slaughtering Syrians.
Russia seized the moment to expand its influence in the region and shrink that of the United States. Few foreign policy endeavors in modern American history have been as incompetently planned and as amateurish in execution as the Obama administration’s Syria policy. Along with the atrocities of the Assad regime and its Iranian and Russian enablers, this policy has further destabilized and fractured the Middle East.
Last month, the Government quietly expanded the 2001 authorization for war against Al Qaeda to Somalia, ostensibly in order to fight Al Shabab. This means that the hawkish Trump administration will inherit more than just the ability to launch drone attacks on Somalia; it will have the authority to go to war there in any manner it chooses. At no point in the last three decades has America been militarily engaged in as many simultaneous arenas as it is under commander-in-Chief Barack Obama.
One of the central themes of Obama’s 2008 campaign was closing the “revolving door” to lobbyists―the phenomenon of former federal employees becoming lobbyists and former lobbyists entering the corridors of Government. Instead of closing this revolving door, he swung it wide open over his two terms.
As many as 65 former lobbyists found their way into the Obama administration by 2014. Most horrendous was the hiring of former Raytheon (one of the largest Defense contractors and maker of the Tomahawk and Patriot Missile systems) lobbyist William Lynn as Under-Secretary of Defense. In his 2012 campaign Obama raised over a billion dollars, $78 million of which was Super PAC money and over 200 million from the corporate sector. By the time he was elected to his second term he was an establishment candidate through and through; tainted by big money and cozy with lobbyists.
By all appearances Barack Hussein Obama is a man who wants to leave an exalted and indelible legacy. The flurry of public appearances in the past month and the emphasis on defending his decisions is clearly geared to fashion a favorable narrative as the transition of January 20 approaches. The one thing that no one can take away from Obama are his two presidential electoral victories; these triumphs over centuries of prejudice and a belligerent conservative media onslaught were in themselves an astounding achievement.
The mere fact of being America’s first African-American President has assured him a place in the headlines of history. Beyond this however, the only true legacy Obama is leaving behind is the man who is replacing him. No further evidence is needed for the disunited and disillusioned state of the union than the cringe-worthy campaigns of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and their foul reverberations on mainstream and social media as well as in the form of hate crimes. Trump built his entire campaign on the premise that Obama’s presidency was a monumental failure. In fact Trump’s first major foray into politics itself came in the form of his spear-heading the misbegotten and racially-tinged quest for Obama’s birth certificate.
The Obama presidency’s coda is as disheartening as it’s opening was uplifting. The peacemaker and unifier that so many had embraced is nowhere to be seen. Bipartisan politics are dead and buried; the two parties seek only to inflict humiliation and defeat on each other. The Guantanamo prison still stains the national conscience. Military operations extend to at least eight foreign countries. The nuclear arsenal has been infused with a trillion dollars setting up another nuclear arms race.
Democrats have been dealt defeat after electoral defeat, losing both legislative branches and the Presidency in the process. The Supreme court may soon have a heavy conservative lean, setting the stage for a complete executive-judicial filibuster of progressive politics and legislation. Even reversals of existing legislature are possible if one is to believe the President-elect. The EPA and the fight against climate change is at the mercy of a Trump appointee who is a climate change skeptic and has sued the EPA in the past.
Obama leaves behind a nation more fragmented, more beholden to vested interest and with less goodwill in the global community than what he inherited. His inheriting an intractable mess from his predecessor and that the Republicans stonewalled his every step are excuses that have long worn thin. It is not what he was prevented from doing that is the issue―it is what he actually did as President and what he failed to even try to do.
Perhaps it is time we stop swooning and pining for heroes and tried to take our country back from the 1 percent by actively engaging in politics and creating new leadership. What passes for leadership now, barring a handful, is the source of our problems; it cannot be the solution. By getting behind these rusted rails we will only further our misery.