You needn’t be American in order to be led by their presidents. Even here in Europe, our lives are informed by the US presidents we’ve seen rise and fall. The very best of them lend their name to styles, doctrines, and sometimes even eras, which is why American leadership is the stuff that can earn a president a pair of rocky nostrils on the top of Mount Rushmore.
It’s also fair to say that President Barack Obama never did display that kind of leadership. He drew red lines that others crossed and he made plans that he never saw implemented. He entered the White House on the promise that ‘yes we can’ and leaves it not entirely comfortable saying ‘yes we did’. His presidency was restricted by a gridlocked Congress and even his greatest achievement is now under attack, with Obamacare the first target of the new Republican administration. It is sobering to consider how ‘boundless and bare’, to quote Shelley, Obama’s legacy might be given a few years of Donald J. Trump.
The paradox in all of this is that we cannot simply say that Obama leaves office as a failed president. Obama was not an ordinary president and to measure him against ordinary presidents would be to overlook the unique quality he brought to the role. It was a quality that his enemies loathed and sometimes even left his supporters frustrated. It gave him poise and grace in his best moments but timidity in his worst. To reduce it to a single word, that quality was compassion that manifested itself in those faraway looks and fragile moments when Obama revealed his vulnerability, when he wept for gun victims or looked startled by the great incurable problems of the world. More so than any of his predecessors, Obama the President and the Obama the man always seemed in close proximity; his struggles more personal and his failures corrosive from the inside. If Nixon was crooked, Ford momentary, Carter naive, Reagan personable, Bush controlling, Clinton streetwise, and Bush W. laidback, then Obama was meditative. And that is enough to make any president unique.
Reflecting on Obama at the moment of his departure means, of course, being shaded by what now looms. Obama’s best qualities are magnified by the worst qualities of his successor. Obama has just commuted the prison sentence of Chelsea Manning, who was serving 35 years for releasing classified material to Wikileaks, and you would not be alone if your first thought wasn’t ‘Will Trump overturn this?’ Obama’s leniency was hardly a surprise and the only question for the remaining hours of his presidency is whether he’ll afford the same forgiveness to Edward Snowden. That would, admittedly, be more of a surprise but, still, not entirely out of keeping with a presidency that has ended with numerous displays of warmth towards staff, supporters, and friends. He made Joe Biden cry with a Medal of Freedom and made a surprise appearance at the last press conference of his Press Secretary, Josh Earnest. Obama is leaving office well liked by those around him, whilst Trump arrives with the lowest popularity of any new president.
Perhaps, then, it’s just the swaggering boastfulness of Trump that makes it easier to reflect kindly on Obama’s humble presidency. Obama’s critics rightly argue that the President has shown too little leadership in the Middle East. Yet the irony is that many of those same critics routinely argue that America and the West should stay out of those hot civil wars. It’s a view shared by many in America, not least the President-Elect who proclaims his love of the military and promise to strengthen America, whilst also vowing to stop acting as the world’s policeman. ‘We are going to take care of this country first before we worry about everybody else in the world,’ he has said. The posture is a product of hard lessons of recent history but the same is true of Obama who came to power at a point when America’s willingness to fight overseas was already on the wane. The adventures of the neoconservatives taught America that geopolitics is not an easy game to call from the sidelines. Obama knew that and knew that his mandate from the American people was not a mandate for more war. He gave America what America wanted, even if the result after eight years is a reduced presence in the world’s trouble spots and an expanded drone program, which by the last count, had killed 2,436 people during Obama’s time in the Oval Office.
Given such numbers it might seem odd to talk still about his compassion but that’s what his strategies always seemed to entail. Obama’s flaw was that he turned the presidency from a collective duty based around the cabinet to a burden placed upon an individual. Drone strikes became an extension of presidential power but also the heavy weight that the president looked to bear alone. Speaking about the drone program, in 2013, the President admitted:
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‘It is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in every war. And for the families of those civilians, no words or legal construct can justify their loss. For me, and those in my chain of command, those deaths will haunt us as long as we live, just as we are haunted by the civilian casualties that have occurred throughout conventional fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.’
This turn from policy to psychology has been typical of Obama. It gives rise to the sense of isolation that followed him around. ‘During very difficult moments, this job can be very isolating,’ he admitted in an interview with The New York Times this week. Isolation, perhaps, explains his relationship with the press, which is sometimes described as fraught. Writing in the current issue of The New Yorker, Ryan Lizza describes it as an ‘escalating cat-and-mouse game between a communications staff that has constantly sought new ways to directly communicate with the public and a corps of White House reporters who see the efforts as a manipulative attempt to limit their access.’ Despite the perception of openness, the Obama administration has been one of the most insular, with very little information passing between the press corps and White House staff, whilst policy has been run through the small team centred around the President.
There is, in this, a pathology that suggests that Obama ingested the duties of the presidency and that the burden was sometimes too great. Did he think too long about Syria when Putin acted and acted decisively? There are some who will certainly claim that Obama was America’s worst president; worse even than Carter, Ford, or Nixon. Yet it is always the case that all presidents mix the good with the bad. Whisper it quietly but perennial bad guy, Richard Nixon, forged a long standing relationship with China, created the Environmental Protection Agency, and brought an end to the Vietnam War (though, of course, rumour circulate that he’d done much to perpetuate by interfering in the Paris peace talks during the 1968 campaign). Good guy Ronald Reagan was mired in the Iran-Contra affair, and the need for brevity means that it’s best not to list the sins of the populist favourite William Jefferson Clinton.
There are, of course, right-wing websites that go further and claim all manner of evidence to damn Obama. ‘The most dishonest President in the history of the United States,’ says one comment over at the dubiously titled ‘Accuracy in Media’ website. Another writes: ‘He hates Jews, kills Christians and has allowed brutal wars and new dictatorships to flourish across Europe and North Africa? Who is this man? He can only be the Black Hitler.’
You are not, I hope, swayed by those arguments but, if you are, there’s perhaps little to convince you otherwise. For the rest of us, it’s perhaps enough to recognise that Obama had his flaws but he also brought to the White House something that his critics will never acknowledge. That was an unadorned decency. He cried for the victims of mass shootings, knowing that it should have been within his power to do something about America’s gun epidemic. He fought for Obamacare, a term much loved by his enemies because the alternative, ‘The Affordable Care Act’, sounds like one of those self-evidently good things that nobody in their right mind could possibly question. As we look forward, or shall we say, ‘anticipate’, the presidency of Donald J. Trump, we are perhaps more fearful (or his fans more eager) because we all know it will be so very different that what came before. As one of his last acts as President, Obama invited cameras into the White House, to film every room from every angle. Did he do it to ensure that there won’t be any doubt about who is to blame for adding the gold plated flamingo cocktail bar to the Oval Office? It would make sense. After Friday, very little will be the same. It might not even make much sense.
Not that we can or should judge Trump’s presidency from the context of Obama’s final days. We can, however, hold on to a sense of balance. Obama had a thoughtful, sometime pensive view of the world, underlined by compassion and an urgency to do that right thing that sometimes left him powerless. There was a fundamental decency evident in his every interaction. His critics will scoff as they always do but history will be a more sober judge. From the viewpoint of today, Obama seemed like an intelligent, decent, mature, and compassionate man doing a job that made foibles out of intelligence, decency, maturity, and compassion. I, for one, will miss him.