If it Sounds too Good to be True
Yet, putting aside such challenges, it is fair to say that because Obama's victory in 2008 was so unique (and not just because he was the first African-American commander in chief), it was perhaps inevitable some folks might wish to apply a wholly new calculus by which his presidential tenure should be measured.
Be that as it may, our broad terms of reference herein will be to focus on sundry sins of omission and commission; in Obama's case it will be those "sins" loosely corresponding to the expectations he elicited with his hope-fuelled, promise-filled campaign.
As we approach the final year of the Obama era, the following reality should be more obvious to Americans and non-Americans alike than ever: Which is, the office of the President of the United States represents, embodies -- and acts in the interests, and on behalf of -- forces that are much more powerful and influential, less transparent and accountable, and much more immutable than the institution itself and the person who holds the office at any given time.
For those looking hard enough, this may be the most significant conclusion we might draw from--and by extension, one of the principal things by which we remember--the Obama presidency!
Moreover, these "forces" hold at bay any real reform of the system via the dysfunctional, if not by now irredeemably corrupt, democratic process. They remain implacably -- if imperceptibly so for ordinary Americans -- opposed to the exercise of any form of proactive people power.
Aspiring politicians in full knowledge of this reality are though always prepped to pretend otherwise, with election campaigns rarely bereft of populist rhetoric or earnest promise. In this we only need listen to a few of the campaign debates or the various pronouncements by the current motley crop of presidential candidates--Bernie Sanders notwithstanding--and compare the content and substance with the track record and/or personalities of those voicing them.
Now with the country squarely into the business end of arguably its most surreal and divisive political campaigns--the presidential election representing the flagship event of the democratic process--we might contend such an exercise assumes greater urgency going forward.
This sense of "urgency" takes on greater import as the political 'debate' itself, such as it is, becomes increasingly trivialised as the campaign 'progresses', at a time when the issues facing America and the world it purports to lead and provide an example to, are far from being so.
Indeed when it comes to considering the state of the broad political economy of the U.S. itself, and the state of the even wider geopolitical landscape, both of these have deteriorated markedly under Obama's watch. The only point of contention might be to what extent the president has contributed to that state of affairs, via those "sins of omission and commission".
As for Obama and his legacy then, for those millions of hope-filled Americans for whom he represented not just a renewed faith in the American dream, but potentially a rejuvenated respect for the institution of the presidency itself, it is tempting to speculate on what must be going through their minds as we enter the 'home stretch'. And this is without necessarily taking into account the views of those non-Americans who might have anticipated a reinvention of U.S. global leadership under Obama.
At this stage of his presidency though, it seems safe to say said "hope" has been considerably misplaced, with the expectations accompanying it remaining for the most part as unrequited now as they were possibly unrealistic to begin with.
It is with these deliberations in mind we now attempt a deeper analysis of aspects of the incumbent's performance, and from there [to] how the narrative of his legacy might unfold.
Be Careful What You Hope For
It seems that worthwhile assessments of any presidential legacy must be undertaken hand-in-glove with concerns of integrity and credibility. This seems especially so with Obama, if only because he entered the White House with so much promise, the operative word in his case.
Certainly in this respect his defenders might now argue he was over-burdened with the weight of expectation imbued in that "promise". Yet more objective observers would respond it is because millions of hopeful Americans accorded the candidate-cum-president enormous, possibly unprecedented, reserves of "integrity and credibility" to begin with.
"Political capital" I think is what the pundits call it!
But as indicated, by 'investing' his political ambition squarely in the palpable disenfranchisement, disillusionment, and discontent that existed at the end of the George Bush era, Obama solicited that response, we might say promiscuously so. For candidate Obama, that prevailing sentiment proved fertile ground, and the return on the 'investment' was, by any measure, astonishing. Even those Obama sceptics and naysayers would be hard-pressed to refute this.
His particular achievement was giving Americans a sense of hope that renewed their optimism in the system, and that under his leadership such expectations would actualise themselves. This is the singular premise by which his tenure, and therefore his legacy, should be measured.
Yet "promise" aside, to get some preliminary clues of Obama's integrity and credibility (and by extension, the equally substantive matter of character, political and personal), we need only consider his wanton post-election embrace of neoliberal values and policies in his response to the financial crisis in particular, [to] the structural problems in the financial system in general, and more broadly, [to] the parlous state of the economy and the broader socio-economic milieu.
Then there is his no-less-licentious alignment with the imperially inclined neoconservatives with their refried PNAC agenda in foreign and national security policy. In both cases there are ample "sins" of both varieties.
In respect of the former, we might factor in Obama's lack of opposition to the passage of the democracy-defying Citizens United Act on his watch; his failure/refusal to call the key Wall Street players to account for their criminal conduct in the lead-up to the Global Financial Crisis, signalling business as usual by effectively sanctioning their actions; his half-baked, wholly inadequate reforms of the financial system via Dodd-Frank and his own subservience to the Wall Street lobby; and his tenacious backing of the highly secretive, much reviled various trade agreements.
In respect of the latter, we might underscore his acquiescence to Washington's virulent anti-Putin/anti-Russian cabal; his continued policy support of U.S. intervention in the affairs of other countries and his championing of the deplorable regime-change strategy that all too frequently accompanies it; his drone-assassination program and failure to check the rise and rise of ISIS; and/or his disastrous Middle East/North Africa (MENA) policies in general, with Syria, Libya and Yemen being prime, but by no means only, examples.
In respect of the Middle East, it is anyone's guess as to how the recent flare-up in relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia over the latter's decision to execute Shia religious leader Nimr al-Nimr--an action we can safely say the Saudis might not have taken had the Obama administration prevailed upon them to resist doing so--will play out across the Middle East in general. It's hard to see much good coming from this in a region where sectarian violence was already spiraling out of control.
On this, it would be interesting to contemplate how the Obama administration might have responded had the Iranians summarily executed a Sunni religious leader for publicly criticising the Iranian ruling elites using similar justifications. The collective umbrage would have been so thick in and around the Beltway a three-foot long scimitar would have been required to cut through it.
And whilst some folks may be extolling Obama's active leadership role in the recent COP21 Paris climate conference in bringing about a global agreement on emissions management and related climate-change and environmental issues--not unlike the Affordable Care Act, and for some even extending to the Iranian nuclear deal--something being held up as a key factor underpinning a lasting, positive legacy for the president--plenty of others remain unconvinced the agreement is all it is cracked up to be.
As Australian based academic Binoy Kampmark has noted about the Paris agreement,
'Any arrangement worth its salt was going to have to go into the drawers of history to consider past wrongs, a sort of divvying up of resources that would require a dramatic shifting of wealth. That is simply not going to happen. The fund for $100 billion, which is in turn hundreds of billions short, is small fare for what has taken place, and what is to come.'
And insofar as the COP21 agreement might be considered a triumph for Obama, to what degree will the ability of nations to preserve their sovereign prerogatives in respect of managing their carbon emissions--to say little of other policy areas that might be affected--be compromised by their obligations under the aforementioned trade agreements he is championing once they are implemented? Insofar as we can see, this consideration is not getting a lot of attention.
Nor for example is the snowballing impact of the American military machine on the world's environment in general and its commensurate carbon-emissions footprint in particular. This is a "machine" that has only grown larger under Obama, and is one unlikely to be wound back anytime soon, irrespective of who wins the White House in 2016.
When we additionally factor in the Pentagon's increasing concern about how climate change will impact on national security, any attempt by the U.S. national-security establishment to respond to it will by necessity expand that footprint, creating a feedback loop of the one step forward, two steps back variety.
These are just two examples in respect of climate change we might trot out to underscore the above, and they may not even be the most substantive.
In these and many other issues foreign and domestic, Obama then has largely forfeited any benefit of the doubt as to his agenda and his intentions past and present. Of course it is that very agenda and how, by accident or by design, it has played out--along with the perceptions that folks have now developed after seven years in office--that will, or should, largely determine his legacy and therefore his place in presidential history.
Again with all this in mind, in order to provide additional context and perspective relative to the task at hand, it is perhaps appropriate to consider some of the more recent critiques of the president. Almost all of these--themselves by no means comprehensive nor necessarily the most significant--can and should be taken down and used as evidence as it were against the incumbent when the time comes. That is if said "time" is not already here!
In a recent piece aptly titled Obama: The Fairy-Tale President?, John Feffer declared that in order to achieve his presidential ambitions, Obama 'made many a difficult bargain'. In the process he adds (like Goethe's Faust), '[Obama] auctioned off parts of his soul to different vested interests and, as a result, [has] disappointed many.'
For those on the left, Feffer notes his tenure didn't conform to their Disney[esque] understanding of U.S. politics, 'in which the fairy leftist waves a wand and all Americans... become Swedish socialists'. As for those on the right, many have dismissed the Obama tenure because it didn't tally with their Reaganesque understanding of American society, 'in which "gummint" shrivels up like a raisin in the sun leaving Americans free to choose, starve, and fire their semi-automatics'.
Yet it is Feffer's observations about the middle-ground demographic and their views of Obama's administration--and by logical extension, the man himself--that for this writer resonate most:
'[But] there are plenty of people in the middle who've grown cynical... because seven years is a long time to sustain hope and pray for change. This broad slice of the electorate expected peace, and they've gotten a lot of war. They hoped in the wake of the financial crisis for an economy geared to the 99 percent, and they've seen the raucous return of the rich. They expected a transformation of the way Washington does business, and they witnessed a continuation of business as usual.'
This latter observation I believe also is integral to any final summation of Obama, and it is one that should be a recurring consideration in assessing his legacy.
A Failure to Communicate (What We Have Here)
In a piece that sets out decrying the "groupthink" that prevails within the Obama administration and the "perception management" modus operandi that attends it, Robert Parry highlights a recent independent review/assessment of the White House's response to terrorism that he says 'cast[s] new doubt on the U.S. government's ability to serve as a credible voice against [ISIS] propaganda.' [See "Obama's Credibility Crisis", ConsortiumNews, Dec 6, 2015]
For Parry the problem goes deeper than Obama's failure to counter ISIS propagandising and provide a coherent, convincing alternative narrative. It seems clear the White House continues to get high on its own supply of Kool-Aid, much of it generously provided by the belligerent neoconservatives and the so-called liberal interventionists. This compounds the problem and widens the chasm between said problem and the advancement of any pragmatic solution. It also serves to widen--exponentially so one imagines--the credibility and integrity gaps.
It is herein that Parry cuts to the chase: '[A]lmost no one outside Official Washington believes what senior U.S. officials say about nearly anything--and that loss of trust is exacerbating a wide range of dangers, from demagogy on the 2016 campaign trail to terrorism recruitment.'
In what speaks further volumes about matters of integrity and credibility, he added:
'President Obama seems to want so desperately to be one of the elite inhabitants of Washington's bubble, he keeps pushing narratives he knows aren't true, all the better to demonstrate that he belongs in the in-crowd. It has reached the point that he speaks out [of] so many sides of his mouth no one can tell what his words actually mean.'
Others have highlighted the Obama credibility and integrity gaps, including Edward Snowden no less.
In a 2014 interview with James Bamford in Wired magazine, the whistle-blower and former National Security Agency (NSA) subcontractor indicated he initially held off on exposing their illegal, massive data collection and domestic surveillance and practices. This decision as we know, along with pissing off a lot of people in the US government and the National Security State, stunned the world, and made him a household name, a global brand, and a political pariah in one fell swoop. And depending on which side of the fence one sat, either a hero or a traitor!
With Obama about to be elected, he did so because he felt the political environment for blowing the whistle would be more conducive under the new president. As Snowden told Bamford, 'I think even Obama's critics were impressed and optimistic about the values he represented.'
The way Snowden saw it, [Obama's position was] 'we're not going to sacrifice our rights. We're not going to change who we are just to catch some small percentage more terrorists.'
But Snowden quickly grew disappointed as Obama began to show his true colours. Clearly in his view, the values Obama presented on the campaign trail weren't really the ones he actually represented once in office. As Snowden saw it, more than just failing to follow through on his lofty rhetoric or fulfill [the] promises made during the election, [Obama],
'...entirely repudiated them... [He] went in the other direction. What does that mean for a society, for a democracy, when the people that you elect on the basis of promises can basically suborn the will of the electorate?'
In a further piece, Daniel Lazare makes some cogent observations about Obama's Oval Office address delivered in response to the recent San Bernardino shootings in particular and terrorism in general. Lazare rightly speaks to Obama's 'denials, half-truths and outright misstatements' that leave no doubt 'the man is clinging to a failed policy and that whatever changes he makes in the wake of San Bernardino will only make matters worse.' [See "The Incredible Shrinking President", Consortiumnews, Dec. 7, 2015]
Insofar as terrorism itself goes, Lazare point out that Obama has a "selective view" of what terrorism is, and it would seem to go well beyond mere semantics. Whilst noting, "everyone agrees" that setting off a bomb on a crowded bus is terrorism, he rightly asks, 'what about using an F-16 to deposit a bomb in the middle of a Yemeni wedding party--is that terrorism too? If shooting up health workers is terrorism, then what about using an AC-130 gunship to bomb and strafe hospital workers in Afghanistan? What is the difference?'
Lazare does not leave the question hanging, the answer going to the heart of the president's credibility and integrity, and from there the larger considerations related to his legacy:
'By any measure, there isn't any [difference]. This is why Obama and others utter the word "terrorism" so incessantly--because it is a highly loaded term that serves as a smoke-screen to disguise the true nature of their own activities. It allows them to get away with murder, but it also leaves them punching at the air. By arbitrarily classifying certain groups as terrorist or non-terrorist merely because of which side they happen to be on at any given moment, Obama and other abusers of the T-word wind up not only fooling the public, but themselves as well.'
Given what he inherited from the previous administration, many would say the aforementioned "weight of expectation" was always going to be impossible to live up to. Yet with the possible exception of JFK and maybe Ronald Reagan, few presidents in the post World War Two era did more in their bid for the Oval Office to add ballast to that expectation than Number 44.
In and of itself this presents us with some extra challenges in fairly and objectively assessing the incumbent's time in office, and we might posit not because BHO has thus far avoided being assassinated (or in Reagan's case, an attempt to that end), whilst in office.
To highlight this particular quandary, the following views from Sheldon Wolin in a 2009 interview may be apposite. After indicating he didn't expect much from the new Administration and that "the basic systems" [of power and influence] are going to "stay in place" unchallenged -- Wolin had this to say:
'This [view] is shown by the [Wall Street] bailout. It [the Obama administration] does not bother with [changing] the structure at all. I don't think Obama can take on the establishment... he inherits a system of constraints that make it very difficult to take on these major power configurations. I don't think he has an appetite for it [ideologically].... The corporate structure isn't going to be challenged. There has not been a word from him that would suggest an attempt to rethink the American imperium.'
With the preceding in mind, Obama's performance thus far -- especially now we've had ample time to analyse and assess both the performance and the man himself -- underscores for many the 'thesis' that the presidency is no longer relevant in mapping out a realistic yet optimistic and attainable future for the nation as a whole.
We might add nor is it any longer powerful enough even with a popular mandate to facilitate the machinery of state towards a more egalitarian, equitable and realistic outcome for all Americans.
The Audacity of Amnesty
Interestingly, the recent unveiling in Washington of a bust of former vice president Dick Cheney prompts us to consider another key aspect of the Obama legacy. Apparently such 'rituals' are customary, whereby presumably in honour of their 'service' to the nation, former VPs get their likenesses placed on permanent display on the Senate floor.
Yet, the tradition of the occasion aside, in watching the proceedings, whilst at the same time briefly considering the role Cheney played in events as they have unfolded both during and since his time in office, one could not help be struck (again) by the supreme self-regard and trademark hubris of the honouree, to say little of the sycophantic demeanour of those paying him homage.
Even by its own overblown standards, the self-congratulatory tone and temper of the unveiling ceremony surely ranks as one of Washington's more surreal manifestations of the political insularity, preternatural arrogance and schizoid narcissism contaminating the city in general, and the neo-conservative firmament in particular. All this, to say little of the dearth of integrity and credibility in the broader Beltway it additionally represented. Obama's tenure of course has done little if anything to ameliorate this, despite his earnest promises to do so.
"Yes we can", anyone?
Yet here's the thing. Amongst other observations, it occurred to me Dick Cheney might have been denied his moment in the sun if he had faced prosecution for war crimes for his singular role in precipitating the disastrous Iraq invasion and occupation in 2003 and his sanction of torture, extraordinary rendition and unlawful detention. This is an outcome for which we might presume he's eternally grateful, even as he remains unrepentant vis a vis his own legacy, whilst being unerringly critical of Obama's handling of the mess he (Cheney) bequeathed him.
Interestingly, whether he recognises it or not--and Cheney being Cheney, this isn't so easy to "presume"--this "outcome" is also one he has no-one but Obama to thank for. And that is by any measure, a big "thing". For Cheney and Obama!
More than that, if there is any substance to Robert Parry's earlier assessment that Obama "desperately" wants to be one of the "elite inhabitants of Official Washington's bubble", and we accept that Cheney and his adoring throng are representative of this cabal of "elite inhabitants", we are left with no other conclusion [than] that the president has exhausted any and all semblance of credibility and integrity.
All of which brings us back to Obama and his legacy, and in particular [to] some of the unrequited expectations we might consider in determining the substance of said "legacy". As it turns out, in assessing that legacy through the prism of those "unrequited expectations", we indeed appear to have a big menu to choose from. The effective amnesty extended by Obama to Cheney and Co. for war crimes during their disastrous tenure must surely then be a significant criterion for defining Number 44's legacy.
If, as Ambrose Bierce once noted, amnesty is 'the state's magnanimity towards those whom it would be too expensive to punish', then it is with Obama this adage reaches its apotheosis. This applies as much to the Washington criminals like Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush and others who opened up the Pandora's Box in the Middle East and South Asia with the Iraq and Afghanistan debacles. It also applies to his refusal to aggressively prosecute the Wall Street criminals (the Lloyd Blankfeins, Jamie Dimons and their ilk) for their role in bringing the global economic and financial system to the brink of disaster.
Put simply, Obama's unblemished record of amnesty for the sundry intelligence, financial, military, bureaucratic and political elites responsible for the above debacles should be key benchmarks in determining the shape and substance of said legacy.
Compounding this track record--at once entirely at odds with it and bringing it into razor-sharp focus--is Obama's well documented, unprecedented and uncompromising persecution under the Espionage Act of whistle-blowers, investigative journalists and leakers, the very people he promised would be protected under his administration. Snowden's comment earlier bitterly underscores this reality. It would not be engaging in hyperbole to suggest in this he makes the Bush regime look timid by way of comparison.
And as for the president's much-touted transparency, whether in domestic or foreign policy, most would argue it didn't even show up for duty to go AWOL in the first instance.
Insofar as foreign policy is concerned, it was William Blum who brought into sharp relief also the myriad anomalies, double standards, inconsistencies, logical conflicts and outright hypocrisies that have characterised the Obama presidency in this area, by framing a series of telling questions that might be presented to the president at a White House press conference.
In order to elicit from him a satisfactory rationale for the manner in which his administration has formulated and implemented foreign policy on any number of key issues, Blum's hypothetical journalist--presumably one who was certain he/she no longer wanted the White House 'beat' or [was] on the verge of retirement--would ask the following, the questions themselves representing only a few Blum posited:
1. Which is most important to you--destroying ISIS, overthrowing Syrian president Assad, or scoring points against Russia?
2. Why does the United States maintain crippling financial sanctions and a ban on military aid to Syria, Cuba, Iran and other countries but not to Saudi Arabia?
3. Does it concern you that Turkey appears to be more intent upon attacking the Kurds and the Russians than attacking ISIS?
4. Does the fact that ISIS never attacks Israel raise any question in your mind?
5. Does the United States plan on releasing any of its alleged evidence to back up its repeated claims of Syrian bombing and chemical warfare against the Syrian people?
6. Does the United States plan on releasing any of its alleged evidence to back up its repeated claims of Russian invasions of Ukraine in the past year?
7. Do the numerous connections between the Ukrainian government and neo-Nazis have any effect upon America's support of Ukraine?
8. Would you prefer that Russia played no military role at all in Syria?
I expect any one of us could readily think of any number of additional, similarly pointed questions we might ask the president in either the foreign- or domestic-policy spheres that would accentuate those anomalies. I know I could, but space herein limits such an exercise. And there is of course such a thing as overkill. Although apparently not in the gratuitous vilification of Vladimir Putin, the continued embrace of regime change as a key foreign-policy instrument, or the indiscriminate and counterproductive use of drones ostensibly to battle terrorism, to name a few areas where "overkill" might apply.
The More things Change
If Obama promised change, then as already hinted at, his first-term tenure alone appeared to underscore the hoary old platitude that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Whether he instinctively knew that was how it was going to play out before he was elected may for some be open to debate, but it is now very difficult to escape the view he did.
With his political capital all but exhausted, and his time nearly up, it will be even more difficult for Obama to change that perception between now and January 2017, assuming he sees things that way in any event and might even be inclined to try. And with there being little indication he does indeed see "things that way"--much less might be "inclined to try"--one imagines few will be holding their breath.
By way of a final analysis then, it may just be Obama recognized -- as Wolin suggested above -- that as president he represents, embodies -- and acts in the interests, and on behalf of -- forces that are much larger, more powerful and much more immutable than the office itself and any person who might hold the office, totally removed from their popularity with Americans, or for that matter, the rest of the world.
Accordingly, in response to this recognition--whether through pragmatism or cynicism or a combination of both--he recalibrated his agenda upon taking office to accommodate these political exigencies. Either way it seems nothing less than a case of 'damn the grand promises for change and the much-touted hope for a better and brighter future!'
All in all, the singular disappointment of Obama's time in office--and one that must necessarily form the substance of his legacy--might be summed up as follows.
Given the degree of optimism and goodwill he generated with his election--and factoring into account how much he inspired so many ordinary Americans to not only actively campaign on his behalf but actually register to vote--in both instances, many of them for the first time ever--one suspects the sense of disillusion and despair will be even more profound come November this year.
That of course does not augur well for a democracy that by any measure is already exceedingly fragile.
It seems then the best and simplest measure of Obama's legacy--albeit not necessarily from the president's point of view or those of his ardent supporters--is the Grand Canyon divide between the promise of his tenure and the expectations he actively solicited; the degree he met such expectations (or how much he tried to meet them or even could have met them particularly given the immense political capital invested in him by the voting public back in 2008); or most importantly, how much he genuinely intended to meet those expectations from the get go.
Which of course once again brings us squarely back to the integrity and credibility thing when it comes to assessing the man, his tenure in office, and finally, his definitive legacy! But, sadly, in the view of many--and let me emphasise here for the record if it's not already clear, myself included--there isn't much of either to be found once we 'arrive' back 'there'!
With only one year left to run--and taking into account that a year is an especially long time in presidential politics, lame-duck phases notwithstanding--this might especially be the case with Number 44.
Greg Maybury is a Perth, Australia-based writer and blogger. His blog is poxamerikana.com and he can be contacted on Twitter: @gjmaybury or @poxamerikana