Senator Barack Obama speaking at Grant Park in Chicago on November 4, 2008, after he had won America’s presidential election
IF charm, charisma, a seismic smile, natural, unfeigned grace, a singular talent as an orator and a communicator of emotion and empathy allied to a powerful intellect and a character determined to do the right thing, to change millions of lives for the better; if the determination to make hope a template rather than a foggy maybe, and all delivered in a voice so duvet-warm it might make a Sinatra sit up and listen, could indeed change the world then what a better place it would be this week as Barack Obama prepares to leave the White House after eight years as America’s president.
If Obama’s personal story — one of great achievement despite circumstances that would have scarred many others and led to misshapen, wasted lives — was not enough to vindicate the idea of the American Dream, then, what achievement might? If the great hopes articulated with such conviction before he became president — when he campaigned in prose — now seem at the very least a little hollow, “What then?” as Yeats had Plato’s ghost ask.
Those of us who imagined that Obama could or might actually deliver on most of the promises of his campaign rhetoric were warned that optimism is a drug. We were warned too, even though we hoped otherwise, that despite his intentions, hard and sometimes ugly reality would prevail. That the shameful detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, despite Obama’s avowed intention to close it, remains open and may yet be extended and again facilitate torture is just one example of what happens when threat and hope collide.
As Obama leaves office, the world, especially the tragic Middle East with its despots, terrorists and unquenchable furies, is a more fractured, fraught and dangerous place than it has been for at least 75 years.
The gap between rich and poor is immoral, great and accelerating. The idea of an individual having some power or protection as a citizen of a democracy — or, dare it be whispered, as a member of a trade union — is diminished every day by a cold reordering that looks something like modern serfdom for tens of millions of workers facing impoverishment brought by globalisation or automation.
It is as if the liberal, democratic world is on tenterhooks as the formalised anarchy facilitated by a detached, let-them-eat-cake establishment gathers pace. In a year when France and Germany go to the polls, the legitimacy of our democratic processes is undermined too by one country’s cyber interventions in another’s electoral processes. That old question, ‘Who is really pulling the puppet’s strings?’ becomes ever more pertinent and maybe even unanswerable.
Obama cannot be held accountable for this ebbing away, but as the figurehead of American hegemony — which is still the reality of our world — he was in a better position than anyone to try to prevent it. This stands even if his presidency was repeatedly frustrated by its inability to get things done. American gun culture’s resistance to reform is a perfect example of this. “He can make the speech,” one observer said, “but he cannot make the law.”
That his proudest achievements — Obamacare and a belated commitment to environmental responsibility — might be consigned to history before the Chicago river might be turned green for St Patrick’s Day, underlines how very fickle his power really was. So too does the growing assertiveness of Putin, a goading nastiness that could not realistically be confronted other than through military force. Thankfully, Obama, who authorised the bombing of seven countries last year, was not lured into that trap, even if it would have confronted what American writer Cornel West has described as “the full-scale gangsterisation of the world”.
Any assessment of Obama must remember that when he took office eight years ago, America’s — and the world’s — economy was in freefall. The prospect of a prolonged recession was real but Obama and his administration turned that around, saved America’s car industry and brought the unemployment rate down to low single figures. That bank-driven recession led to his administration’s most unwelcome intervention in our affairs when his then Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner used America’s soft power to veto any plans our Government might have had to “burn the bondholders”. We are still paying for that suck-it-up-suckers intervention. Obama’s light-touch chastisement of an out-of-control Wall Street hardly did him credit either.
Nevertheless, he ends his second term without the slightest hint of scandal. Rather he leaves an impression of a modern Camelot where a happy and loving family kept their feet firmly on the ground and, almost on a daily basis, inspired optimism — even if not always on a “Yes we can” scale.
That happy November evening eight years ago, when he celebrated his victory with his wife Michelle, the most popular, inspiring First Lady of modern times, in Grant Park, Obama referred to America’s founding fathers. This week, when he spoke for some 45 minutes at Chicago’s McCormick Place, he bookended his presidency by referring to an American founding father, George Washington, his country’s first president.
Introducing the tradition of a presidential farewell speech in 1796, Washington warned that self-government is the guarantee of Americans’ safety, prosperity and liberty, but “from different causes and from different quarters much pains will be taken... to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth”. And so Americans have to preserve this truth with “jealous anxiety”; they should reject “the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties” that make them one.
It is hard not to see that as a tacit acknowledgement, despite all of his achievements and all of his failures — too often swept aside by media group think that could not imagine Hilary Clinton’s November defeat either — that his legacy is, like it or not, Donald Trump and his post-factual world.
What a sad closure for the hope-and-change president.