Barack Obama inspired us from the first as he inspired countless others who yearned for a leader who was a reformer, someone who could make things better all around the world. A real leader and a man of promise in so many ways had appeared among us, it seemed when we heard him, when we saw him in those early days of his presidential campaign.
Obama vowed to bring change to Washington and the world. A conviction politician, he held a special appeal for us. We were sold on the promise of integrity. Overnight, he became a big hit in our household and in many others all around the world for who he was and what he seemed to represent.
Engaging also was his personal style, the easy, yet practised ways he could articulate his powerful personality and his potential. Obama seemed refreshingly original and different yet there was some resonant quality about him. Something there was that reached out to us and held our attention, captured our belief. He seemed to reach out to everyone.
Part of it was his gifted speech. His sonorous tone and the steady, measured cadences of his speaking voice recharged and nourished our own modest hopes and dreams of a better future, a fairer society a flowering of the human spirit.
Part of it was the timing. Unlike, any candidate we had ever seen before, Obama uniqueness as a man and as a politician came at a time when there were seemed so many prior disappointments to counteract. His vital presence, his direct yet respectful manner and his upright bearing conveyed dignity. His words were a words to listen to; his delivery combined a natural eloquence with a passionate commitment to reason and justice tempered with the hard-won wisdom of experience. We wanted to believe in him. We believed in him. And there was a lot to believe in.
As a presidential candidate, we rated him highly. We thought he would be a natural. Wanted to believe he was a natural, so well did he present himself. Indeed, his gifts seemed to make him more than just an outstanding contender, we thought he had a unique and intrinsic merit. Obama seemed the president his nation and the world deserved.
From afar we saw him as a candidate whose commanding credentials and abundant natural talents were so clearly apparent that it was as if his merit spoke for itself; as if his campaign should succeed as a matter of natural justice.
Clearly intelligent, articulate, eloquent, educated and progressive, Obama’s appeal was also visceral. He could move his audience and move it to believe he felt for them, that he was moved by their suffering and shared their dreams. Obama seemed passionate about the great cause of the people, all of the people, a politician of deep conviction and abiding faith in the cause of humanity. Not only was he young and photogenic he seemed, vital, energetic, charged with the passion of men with vision. He seemed fired up to fight for freedom, equality, justice and all the other ideas, issues and causes that matter to an open society.
Barrack Obama was a beacon of hope to us. A black man in The White House, his origins also added to his charisma and his promise. Yes. We. Can. With this simple yet profoundly empowering slogan, he rekindled belief in the power of faith and hope and optimism. We expected him to build a better world by the exercise of his many gifts and by providing real leadership; a capacity to attract and to inspire the best to devote their talents to the challenges of harmony and peaceful co-existence.
Eight years later the enchantment of the Obama phenomenon has faded into history. Long gone is the enchanted spell of his campaign and inauguration, our hopes of an extraordinary new man and a new beginning. Obama’s charisma has all but vanished, dispelled by a record of achievement which has failed to match the promise of his lofty rhetoric. And Obama the man has revealed more mortal fallibility and frailty than his initial, brilliant presentation of himself ever suggested. More than we vested in him by the sheer power of our belief and hope. Obama the politician, moreover, has failed to live up to the high expectations, he set for himself and his followers from his inauguration.
One of the highest hopes was that Obama would be a healer of a divided nation. Somehow in the achievement he personified, the confidence he exuded, we believed we saw a special gift if not a personal mandate to unite black and white, rich and poor in the common interest of a humane and open democratic society. In the event he has achieved little. Indeed, his critics would argue that he has instead been uninterested in promoting unity or he has been ham-fisted in his actions, risking inflaming division, by dealing in what opponents saw as a partisan manner with such issues as they arose in the Ferguson riots:
There’s no excuse for excessive force by police or any action that denies people the right to protest peacefully. Ours is a nation of laws: of citizens who live under them and for the citizens who enforce them. So, to a community in Ferguson that is rightly hurting and looking for answers, let me call once again for us to seek some understanding rather than simply holler at each other. Let’s seek to heal rather than to wound each other.
A second, critical test of Obama’s presidency was his management of the GFC. From afar, his actions appeared admirable. His first significant act was to endorse a package of billion-dollar stimulus spending programmes, financed with debt, aimed at ‘jump-starting’ the economy. Yet the stimulus was all in the rhetoric. Whilst Congress voted for these ‘shovel-ready’ projects, it soon became clear to Obama and others, that the projects were fictions. The projects attracted funds which then disappeared. In the end, Obama has presided over a period in which the poor have got poorer, labour force participation has declined during the slowest recovery since the Great Depression. Nor does there appear to have been any really effective recession proofing. Whilst the Dodd-Frank reforms looked good in principle, the old system in which the big banks and other institutions were too big to fail has been preserved.
Other internal reforms including Obamacare which has benefited ten to fifteen per cent of those it promised to help and immigration reform which has largely been ignored in favour of an abandoned amnesty programme resting on an executive authority which the President does not have. The result is said to have alienated all groups in the immigration debate. ‘Nobody is happy and nothing has been accomplished.’
It is in foreign policy, however that Obama has been caught out most severely. His exit strategy for Iraq was not a success. It may be as some suggest that he was in too much of a hurry not to be George W Bush but in the rush to withdraw he seems to have neglected to see that Iraq was in danger of being destroyed from within and without. Unkind commentators have suggested that Obama was unwilling to interrupt his golf schedule but his administration seems to have been caught napping by the rapid deterioration in Iraq’s stability and integrity as a nation state and the rapid growth of ISIS. Much as we may admire his candour in admitting to not knowing now how to deal with ISIS, the rest of the world is less than impressed with the US’s belated attempt to quickly force an unlikely coalition to deal with a complex and intractable set of problems in the region.
The Arab Spring represented missed opportunities for Obama to develop its power and influence across the Middle East while he is criticised for being so slow in responding to events in Egypt that he is regarded by most Egyptian liberals as a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. The outcome has been to see Egypt revert to the autocracy of its previous regime whilst its government views the US as an ineffectual ally.
Similarly critics of Obama’s isolationist administration take issue with its lack of initiative in exploiting opportunities to In Libya and in Syria to have taken advantage of the Arab Spring to help topple two brutal dictatorships. Many see US failure to intervene in Syria, as three years of dithering which permitted ISIS to rise and then establish itself as a real threat in Iraq. Finally, some see a missed opportunity in the US failing to back popular uprisings in Iran.
In Europe, also the Obama administration has been slow to respond to Putin and the apparent growth of Russian hegemony. Indeed, during a debate with Romney in 2012, Obama was dismissive of the potential risk of a renewed Russian autocracy:
“The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.”
Critics have unkindly but not unreasonably responded that it now seems as if the 1970s are calling, as Russia invades neighbours, making US European allies feel vulnerable and unsure of real support from the US and NATO. Obama has responded to Russian aggression by imposing further sanctions and spoken out once against it in Estonia but appears to have no other plans.
Finally there are many observers world-wide who were dismayed that despite hope and promise, Obama kept Guantanamo operating, allowed the NSA to continue spying, and continued the use of drones.
Obama campaigned on the promise that America would be more respected in the world after the Bush years but in the event has achieved little to earn that respect. Rather the Obama administration has seen America treated less with respect than derision and contempt by its adversaries. The US is now viewed by its supporters as an unreliable ally and an ineffectual opponent by its foes. Rather than respect, opponents such as ISIS are treating it with contempt as they goad it into a confrontation which they are sure they can win.
In the beginning, Obama appeared everything we could hope for. And more. We constructed an image of an ideal type which rested on our hopes for change and his brilliant presentation not the least of which was the sonorous charm of his well-crafted rhetoric. In the end it looks as if we wanted to believe in a president who was different, enlightened, empowered to carry out our hopes for change without checking first more carefully the substance beneath the spin. History will not be kind to this President for seeming asleep at the wheel, his good intentions, his promises and his starry-eyed supporters all left in the dust by the wayside as events took their course.