As President Barack Obama gracefully departed the Oval Office for the last time, the words, ‘yes we can,’ continued to linger. They remain the symbol of his uncanny talent for drawing hope out of even the darkest firmament of America. And whilst the hope that was once so vigorously attached to his iconic campaign slogan seems hesitant under the Trump Administration, it continues to lull, albeit tentatively.
Or, perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps being remembered for what he represented, and not what he accomplished merely points to the fact that Obama was an admirable role model but an ineffective president. The tragedy of reaching for the stars but ultimately, due to the disappointing realities of governing, falling short, is most evident in his foreign policy. His embrace of the Bush administrations approach to the ‘war on terror’ saw an unprecedented escalation of drone use with somber results. By February 2015, Obama’s covert drone strikes killed almost six times more people and twice as many civilians than those ordered under Bush. Reflecting on these statistics makes President Obama’s 2009 Cairo address seem almost imagined. Following the devastation of the Iraq War, it is difficult to find another speech that captured the boundless optimism and possibility that Obama embodied. At the time, it was circulated that if a man with distant Muslim family ties who had spent his childhood years in Indonesia, a Muslim- majority country, couldn’t improve America’s relationship with the Muslim world, nobody could. And yet, the speech that once emanated a hope that America’s relationship with the Arab world would improve, it now merely reflects the gap between what the Obama administration might have been and what it actually was.
These once certain promises became the mood music for the abating relationship between the United States and the Middle East. The disastrous Libya intervention, the inefficient diplomatic interference in Yemen and the hasty request to remove Assad in Syria directly contradicted the ‘new beginning’ Obama once promised in Cairo. However, his failed foreign agenda also reflected the fact that the days in which the United States could create security and maintain world order are long gone. Obama had the opportunity to choose which places matter most and which can be left to run themselves, and largely, this choice was never made. Instead, his decisions only compounded the mistakes he inherited whilst in office.
Domestically, the obstructionism Obama faced from Republicans and the Right was historically unprecedented. Indeed, one of his hardest battles fought was bringing about the health care law known as Obamacare. His goal, to help millions of Americans who couldn’t afford health insurance, emanated nobility and quickly overshadowed his other domestic endeavors. It was desperately needed, and despite it’s many flaws, was able to change the lives of countless Americans. However, whilst it seemed to be a huge step toward the Democratic dream of health care for all, creating the Affordable Care Act brought neither affordability nor workability. It turned out to be yet another dream that shattered and bore little resemblance to his soaring rhetoric.
What he did do, quite well actually, was hasten state surveillance. But perhaps that’s the wrong way to describe it. Because you see, Obama publicly declared his opposition to the Patriot Act and Bush-era secrecy whilst building his career. And yet, it didn’t take long for him to quickly devastate progressive hopes by actually expanding the illegal wiretapping of American citizens that he was once so against. By 2012, XKeystone, a system used by the National Security Agency, was storing as much as forty-one billion records in thirty days. Meanwhile, whistleblowers and journalists were being prosecuted by the Obama Administration more robustly that any of his predecessors. Whilst justified under the untouchable umbrella of ‘national security,’ the ironic effect is that storing such volumes of data make the detection of security threats all the more difficult. Perhaps the most devastating result is that Donald Trump has now inherited such a powerful set of tools.
However, Obama cannot be dismissed as merely a silver-tongued politician. The advancements made to the LGBT community during the Obama administration were striking. Indeed, marriage equality, the condemnation of discrimination in the military and the appointment of 11 openly gay federal judges were huge steps toward a progressive future. While discrimination still exists towards marginalized groups, Obama started a conversation about this marginalization with confidence that was previously unforeseen in American politics. The 44th President also faced dire circumstances when taking office. The world economy was in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and the US was steering close to an economic meltdown. Yet, the Obama administration were able to lessen the blow of the Global Financial Crisis and see for America’s relatively slow economic recovery, eventually bringing the unemployment rate to below five per cent. Moreover, amongst the promises he was criticized for abandoning, one he did keep was not adding anymore detainees to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Barred by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress from closing Guantanamo, Obama nonetheless chipped away at the population by making 196 transfers to third-party countries. Indeed, the Obama administration recognised that the closer Trump came to placing his hand on the Lincoln Bible, the chances of helping those remaining were drastically slimming. As such, Obama worked tirelessly to get remaining detainees, many of which were held captive mistakenly, out of Guantanamo before he left office- even making four transfers in the 24 hours leading up to Trump’s inauguration.
Whilst these achievements are honorable, they are few. The thought of what might have been if he had governed in a more tranquil era overpowers the progress that he did achieve. However, these missteps and missed opportunities do not take away from his ability to describe the nation’s pain with a delicacy, maturity and elegance that is unlike any other of his predecessors. They do not take away from his being an intelligent, eloquent, disciplined and wholly admirable man. And they most certainly do not take away from his ability to instill a genuine, and unparalleled hope into the hearts and minds of not just Americas, but all those willing to listen, with the reassuring words, ‘yes we can.’