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This week, on Friday, 20 January, Barack Hussein Obama will hand over to Donald John Trump as president of the United States. For Obama, that will mark the end of an era. Just ten years ago, hardly anyone would have predicted that a black man would be president of the US. But then Obama has lived a life of destiny, with a number of “firsts”. As a student, he was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. Several years later, in January 2005, he became the first black US senator.
But it was not until 2004 when he was the Keynote Speaker at the Democratic National Convention in Boston that he first gained national and international attention. The Washington Post described the keynote speech as “the 17 minutes that launched a political star”. Four years earlier, in 2000, the same Obama couldn’t secure a floor pass to enter the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. Yet, as he put it himself, he moved from “a convention gate-crasher to conventional keynoter” in just four years. A few months after the speech, Obama, then an Illinois State senator, was elected into the US Senate, in November 2004. And four years later, in 2008, he was electedas the 44th US President!
My fascination with Barack Obama began when I read his two superbly written and insightful books, “Dream from my Father” and “The Audacity of Hope”. The first tells the gripping story of his life, the second sets out his political vision. In Dream from my Father, Obama describes himself as “the tragic mulatto trapped between two worlds”, born to, again his words, a “black as pitch” father, Barack Hussein Obama Sr. from Kenya, and a “white as milk” mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, from Hawaii. Obama’s parents divorced when he was two years old, and his father was almost entirely absent from his childhood.
Indeed, it was not until he was ten years old, in 1971, that he first really knew his father when he visited Hawaii. But it was a memorable visit. At the invitation of Obama’s teacher, his father gave a speech at his school. He said that prior to the speech he was full of trepidation that his classmates would mock him about his father’s African origin, about mud huts, cannibalism, monkeys and all the Western myths about Africa. But his father’s speech was so brilliant that his class teacher was “absolutely beaming with pride”, while his classmates “applauded heartily”. After the speech, a teacher went to Obama and told him: “You’ve got a pretty impressive father”, while one student said, “Your dad is pretty cool”.
But the euphoria was fleeting, as Obama’s father left after the brief visit, and he never saw his father again before he died in a car crash in 1982. Obama’s search for his father, even in his death, led to his first visit to Kenya in 1987, during which he met the entire Obama clan, and visited his father’s grave. At the grave, Obama sat for a long time and wept. ”When my tears were finally spent”, he wrote, “I felt a calmness wash over me. I felt the circle finally close”. But his life would never be the same again. His visit to Kenya, and what he discovered about his father and his origin,changed the trajectory of his life.
Obama put his drive to succeed in life down to his father. As he put it, “My fierce ambitions have been fuelled by my father – by my knowledge of his achievements and failures, by my unspoken desire to somehow earn his love, and by my resentments and anger towards him”. And, indeed, Obama’s life has been defined by ambitions, determination and courage. Surely, it takes fierce ambition and courage for a 47 year-old black man, who had never held any major political office or served in the military, and had only been in the Senate for four years, to vie for the presidency of the United States. Yet, that was what Obama did in 2008, taking on and defeating a former first lady and senator, Hillary Clinton, in the Democratic primaries, and then a Vietnam War veteran and long-standing senator, John McCain, in the presidential election!
That election, in November 2008, will go down in the annals of world history as a significant event. During the campaign, Obama’s catchy and optimistic slogan “Yes, we can!” captured the imagination of all demographics in America, and captivated the entire world. Obama won the election comfortably, securing 365 Electoral College votes, against John McCain’s 173. Thus, he became the first black US President. In his acceptance speech, Obama declared that “Change has come to America”! But eight years later (he won re-election in 2012), what change has his presidency brought to America and, indeed, the world?
Well, any fair assessment will conclude that Obama’s administration secured significant achievements both domestically and internationally. The most significant domestic achievement is certainly on the economy. Obama inherited a collapsing economy from George W Bush in January 2009, but turned it around. Indeed, as the Financial Times pointed out recently, when Donald Trump enters the White House this week, he will have “one of the stronger US economies any president has inherited in recent history”, with an annualised growth rate of 3.5%, unemployment at a nine-year low of 4.6% and inflation at just 2%. The Affordable Care Act, Obama’s flagship healthcare programme, has allowed additional 20 million Americans to have insurance coverage. Internationally, Obama, who was prematurely awarded the Nobel Peace Prize just within one year of his presidency, tried to live up to the image of a peace-maker. To his credit, he secured a deal with Iran to constrain its nuclear programme, and restored relations with Cuba.
Yet, many critics will argue, and with some justification, that Obama’s eight-year presidency has not been a smashing success. For instance, while he saved the economy from collapse, with an $800 billion stimulus package, the US national debt rose by 80% under his presidency, reaching the highest ever level, at more than $19 trillion. Furthermore, according to the FT, under Obama’s administration, “US inequality surged to its highest point since the 1920s”. Internationally, Western critics blamed Obama’s non-intervention policy for the escalation of the crisis in Syria and the rise of ISIS. Under his presidency, the US may be more liked abroad, but it was certainly not feared by its adversaries.
Many Africans had thought that, being of an African origin, Obama would be more favourably disposed towards the continent than its predecessors. But, as one African analyst put it recently, Obama’s African policy was based on “empty symbolism”. Although he launched a few African initiatives, such as Power Africa, none of them went beyond mere symbolic gestures. And, while Obama visited some African countries, he shunned Nigeria throughout his presidency. But this isn’t surprising, because, although he liked individual Nigerians and promoted democracy in the country, he didn’t warm to Nigeria itself, believing it’s badly governed. As he wrote in The Audacity of Hope, Nigeria has two sets of rules “one for elites and one for ordinary people”. He certainly didn’t want to reward bad governance in Nigeria with a presidential visit.
So, what about his legacy? Last week, in his farewell speech in Chicago, Obama repeated his 2008 election slogan “Yes, we can”, and then added, “Yes, we did”. But two-thirds of Americans said he couldn’t keep his election promises. Obama said recently that if he had been allowed to run for a third term, he would have defeated Donald Trump. Probably true, because of his popularity, with 57% favourability rating. Yet he contributed to his party’s loss in the election. For instance, although Hillary Clinton lost partly because of her unpopularity, the inequality which led most of the white working-class to vote for Trump grew massively under Obama, as noted above. His government and party were more concerned about cultural issues, such as gay rights, than social and economic inequalities. Secondly, the Russian cyberattacks that both the CIA and the FBI recently confirmed were designed to harm Clinton’s chances of winning the presidential election, which probably worked because of the damaging effects of the WikiLeaks revelations, happened under Obama’s watch. It’s certainly a failure of his presidency that Russia could launch cyberattacks on the US and influence its election, while the intelligence agencies couldn’t prevent the attacks or actively alert Americans to them during the election. Obama’s actions against Russia after the event were certainly too late, if not too little!
The British politician Enoch Powell once said that “all political life ends in failure”. Of course, no one can rightly describe Obama’s political life as a failure. But it’s a great blow to his legacy that he will be succeeded this week by a man who spent the past eight years questioning his birthplace and citizenship, and has vowed to reverse virtually all his achievements. Obama once joked that Trump would never be president. Well, he will be now, and may dismantle his legacy with vengeance!
Yet, nothing can take away Obama’s place in history. The first black President of America. Nor, indeed, the place of his brilliant wife, Michelle: the first black First Lady. America and the world will not forget them. They are still both young, and the world is their oyster. Farewell Barack and Michelle Obama!