It is often easy to feel disappointment when considering the presidency of Barack Obama. He may have assumed the presidency during the worst global economic crisis for 80 years, and while his policy response have been far better than Europe’s leaders have managed, there is a sense that he might have allowed that crisis to go to waste. On foreign policy, he has been an enthusiast for drone warfare. What blowback this may produce in time can only be guessed at, but it’s safe to assume that it is and will continue to be a huge source of grievance in the lands subjected to this form of attack. And then there is the litany of NSA abuses, exposed two years ago by Edward Snowden. Connected to the overseeing of this egregious mass surveillance on ordinary citizens is the president’s unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers, with more prosecutions brought by his administration than all of his predecessors combined.
But for all that, I do not think, as a non-US citizen, that I could realistically hope for a better American president. There are certainly few prominent American politicians as sensitive to public opinion in the rest of the world as Obama, these things obviously being relative, and possibly none to match his intellect. Temperamentally, his calm detachment in an antidote to what is typically a hothouse political environment of obstreperous daily rancour. He is what the French would term un homme sérieux. Considering this, and observing the 2016 presidential campaign that is already gaining media attention (it is set to be a $5 billion campaign), the question has to be asked, how confident could anybody be that his successors will be people of similarly serious thought?
The Republican Party has long made it plain its sole objective is to undermine the president at every turn. To take one illustrative recent example, there was the blatantly treacherous letter sent by 47 members of Congress to Iran’s leaders that is intended to derail nuclear negotiations between Iran and P5+1. Beyond that, there is the subordination of everything to their ideology and their antipathy towards progressives. That means they are resistant to things like meaningfully regulating the financial industry, and they are innately suspicious of environmentalism. So much so, they – often proudly – reject the scientific consensus on this issue, as they also do on so many others.
It is worth acknowledging Obama’s sincere attempts to reach some kind of comity with the Republican Party, such as appointing Republicans to senior cabinet positions. However, if Obama felt there was a political payoff to be had in trying to bargain with the GOP because the appearance of offering bipartisan cooperation plays well in the media, it is clear that the president was mistaken. Obama’s Democratic predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was also despised by his opponents, who often referred to him as “that man in the White House”. But the polarisation is far worse now, as Obama’s relations with Republican Party have been characterised by unappeasable contempt on their side. Well into his second term, he eventually seems to have got the message.
All of this foul humoured politics, covered by adversarial media dealing in short news cycles, is taking place in a climate in which the political needle has tended to move to the right over the last three decades, and where the Republican Party has lurched further right still. The Democrats wouldn’t be regarded as a centre-left party in many countries in the world, but in the United States they are, and yet there is still a gulf between the parties. The Republicans’ most important clients are the super-rich, whose policy preferences have steadily moved right, the whole process being a product of growing income inequality. A president who does not care about this is one who at best will let the problem fester, but they could also as easily exacerbate it. Obama might have accommodated himself in some ways to the power structures in Washington, but he retains some compassion in this area.
What will the long-term effect of this be? Looking beyond the Obama presidency, we have to accept the Republicans will one day retake the White House. How does one envisage a future GOP president managing the contradictory alliances the US has formed since they supported the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviets in the 1980s, and which have become glaringly inconsistent in recent years in Syria and Iraq? How will a party, whose tendencies beyond their borders are aggressive, operate in a world where their relative strength will likely be in decline? How will they deal with diverging social and political attitudes at home, with some regions and constituencies within the Union moving on a progressive trajectory, while others remain recalcitrantly paleoconservative? How will future Democratic administrations manage the same? And how will both parties contain the ructions that inevitably accompany extreme inequality.
For their part, many Democratic candidates in last year’s midterm elections tried to campaign against their president, some apparently ashamed of the success of Obamacare. It was but one demonstration of how they are often a supine political entity compared to their opponents. The party could offer some potentially interesting candidates for 2016, but most indications at present suggest the party establishment will support Hillary Clinton. Clinton is not without her strengths, but she also brings with her lots of well-documented baggage. Her positioning on issues frequently seems dictated by the interests of her powerful backers rather than the interests of the public. And she is hawkish on foreign policy, a stance that is usually undesirable at the best of times, and especially in this era of fragility and complexity in world affairs. Obama’s approach hasn’t been perfect by any means, but his caution and thoughtful approach has for all we know quite possibly averted a major conflagration in the Middle East. And a historic deal with Iran could provide a future of greatly enhanced security for the entire region.
Obama doesn’t have much time left in the White House. Our best hope for his last year and a half is that he has enough political capital to protect his most important achievements (on Obamacare, Iran, and financial regulation), and pursue those other goals that he clearly would love to accomplish (most notably on the environment). He has already been a transformational president, but there is a bigger legacy that can still be attained. We should all wish him well during his remaining time in office, because currently it seems hopelessly sanguine to expect much from any likely successor.