As Obama hands over the reins of power, Dr Mark Ledwidge, Senior Lecturer in American Studies, reflects on his administration and looks ahead to America’s new political landscape under the leadership of Donald Trump.
Elected on a tidal wave of hope, Barack Obama made history in 2008 when he became the first African American to win the US presidency. But eight years on, having served two terms in office, what legacy does he leave behind? Did his presidency succeed or disappoint?
The Wider World
Obama was referred to as the new face of US foreign policy. He was viewed as someone who might be able to help America’s flagging image. The Bush years had increased polarisation and the ‘war on terror’ was perceived by some as an ethnocentric religious attack on Islam and Muslims generally. That was partly because of the Bush administration’s lack of diplomacy and extremely poor use of language regarding the ‘war on terror’.
When Obama came to office, he was identified as the first global president. As his ethnicity differentiated him from previous US presidents, it was thought he would take a new approach and this was seen as a potential breakthrough moment. The Obama administration wanted to tone down the rhetoric that depicted America as being omnipotent and inherently benign. What it did well was to position America with other nations, to discuss how to work together to solve global problems, and also to be more open to developments in Asia. I think history will judge Obama’s cultural sophistication and his understanding of global politics in a positive light – he did a much better job than his predecessor.
But the core question is, did Obama really differentiate his policies sufficiently from those of the Bush administration? He did not manage to close down Guantanamo Bay because he was blocked by the Republicans in Congress. He oversaw the ‘surge’ in numbers of US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and he also followed Bush’s policies by increasing the number of drone strikes. So one can argue that there were significant continuities, but this was inevitable, especially as many of Obama’s staff had also served under the Bush and Clinton administrations. However, it’s important to remember that the Obama administration was able to hunt down Osama Bin Laden, and remove him, something that the Bush administration failed to do.
New Global Dangers
Generally, people overestimate the power of the president in the first place. It is often said that the American president is the most powerful person in the world, but the truth is that the presidency exists within an institutional framework where the separation of powers limits the scope of presidential power. The world is moving toward a more dangerous position – irrespective of who the president is. The problems lie with the fact that America can no longer play the role of the global policeman it once did because it is overstretched, both in terms of manpower and the amount it spends on defence. The Bush administration arguably made the world a more dangerous place because it was too unpredictable. In addition, the Bush idea of striking first was clearly very problematic. These are characteristics the Obama administration were able to successfully curtail.
“The world is moving towards a more dangerous place – irrespective of who the president is.”
In terms of Syria and the US’s reluctance to engage in direct military action, we could either argue the world was made safer or it wasn’t. Some people maintain that ISIS exists because of the vacuum that was created when Saddam Hussein was removed in Iraq and with the removal of Gaddafi in Libya. Therefore, it has been argued that America failed to develop and craft comprehensive plans in relation to the crisis in both Libya and Syria, which has increased the problems within the region. However, this can’t be blamed on the Obama administration; instead, it can be traced back to lack of planning from the Bush administration that led to a deteriorating situation in the Middle East. In reality though, people will complain about America’s intervention and non-intervention creating global problems.
The UK-US ‘Special Relationship’
Obama made a decision that he would not necessarily put Britain at the forefront of American foreign policy. He paid attention to Europe per se, but he was also able to draw on the established relationship between America and the UK. With Trump now in the foreground, the relationship is going to be more tense than people imagine. Brexit is also of significance because it means Britain’s relative power and its influence in Europe could be seen as decreasing. Britain and America are in a bit of an unknown place right now and Britain has to begin to re-establish its political and economic identity. For instance, the fact that India has surpassed the British economy points to Britain’s fluctuating and declining status, which is something the British Government will have to address and adjust to.
The Race Relations Issue
Race relations is going to be a very problematic legacy for Obama. Racial inequalities have existed in America since its formation with the genocide of the Native Americans and the shameful history of slavery. Given that African Americans have only been legally and practically free in the full sense of the word since 1964-5, Obama was never going to fully resolve the race problem. But the question is, did he miss a golden opportunity to place the racial agenda at the forefront of American politics? The reason I ask this question is because race and ethnicity represent a major fault line in American politics, which affect millions of people’s lives within the social, economic and criminal justice context.
Obama was caught in a difficult position on controversial race issues as he tried to maintain a position of ‘objectivity’ but, when he did comment, he was often heavily criticised by sections of the media and political opponents for ‘taking sides’ (a criticism, it should be noted, that isn’t made of white presidents in similar circumstances). His position on some race relations issues was, therefore, rather muted. One of the most difficult historical problems in US society is the profound lack of trust between African Americans and the police. This is hardly surprising when so many black people have been killed by an increasingly militarised police force in the past few years and Obama’s intervention on this has been limited and ineffective.
The combination of having an African-American president and the oft-quoted demographic statistic that white people will not be a majority in the US by 2050 have also stoked up an increasingly racialised and sometimes overtly racist political backlash from Obama’s political opponents. Elements within the Republican Party, and conservative groups, such as the Tea Party, circulated the ludicrous conspiracies which allege that Obama was not an American by birth (while simultaneously implying in coded discourse that African Americans or Obama cannot be ‘real’ Americans). Trump himself was an early proponent of this baseless idea and his campaign was rightly criticised for its use of racist stereotyping as well as the overt support he received from a variety of white supremacist groups.
So the issue of race will not go away; it will increase and Trump may well shift his position and move back from some of his statements because of the difference between campaigning for election and becoming President. Nevertheless, the powder keg is there and the fuse may already have been lit.
Trump was underestimated by just about everybody. He showed an ability to read American society in a way others hadn’t. First of all, he’s media savvy and played that to his advantage. Trump didn’t do what Obama did, he spoke in an everyman language. Some may mock this approach, but this simple messaging resonated and was effective with sufficiently large sections of the electorate.
However, Trump has made it very difficult for himself. His brash approach to the election worked to get him in but we’ve already seen him backtracking. Trump’s tax cuts will only favour the rich 1%, not his working class support. His foreign policy is also difficult to read. Trump has spoken in very strong and powerful terms – he’s a so-called ‘man’s man’ who projects a macho image. The question is, can Trump follow through with his bold rhetoric and, if he does, at what cost to America and the world? Is he going to allow the extremes of his characterisations during the election to form the basis of his foreign policy?
The constraints against Trump’s belligerent world view might be the separation of powers and the sober fact that the presidency exists within the institutional framework of the US political system, including the Executive Office of the President, the White House and Congress. Indeed, in office, he will still be reliant on the advice of the Washington elites who one assumes have a deeper understanding of national security issues and foreign policy. So I suspect we are going to hear different noises from President – as opposed to candidate – Trump. Currently, he is making, or has made, overtures to certain people, which will seem to many to be very ‘non-Washington’. Some people say he’s moving towards people who have white supremacist or ultra-right leanings. That could be highly problematic for the US.
His relationship with Putin will also be of considerable interest. How will that be read by the rest of the world? Will his relationship with Putin reflect this alleged ‘love affair’ that some people say exists? Do countries, such as Russia and China, perceive that having someone less politically savvy in global terms like Trump would be better for them than someone who knows far more about how government and international relations really work?
US Politics in Crisis
In short, Obama’s core constituency claim he did not promote change or do enough either domestically or internationally. However, many people view Trump’s role as being somewhat extreme.
I would suggest that there is a crisis in American politics. It’s not a crisis with the Democrats or Republicans, but a crisis in US politics in general because it has lost its way. Scholars and laypersons alike have to ask whether a system that was developed centuries ago can rectify, resolve or contend with the key issues both at home and abroad. Either way, identity politics lies at the heart of this – not just in terms of race and ethnicity, but regarding America’s status and role in the world. In the final analysis, is America still a hegemonic power or an empire in decline, and does the election of Donald Trump reflect the symptoms of an unhealthy and troubled nation?
Dr Mark Ledwidge is the Subject Lead and Senior Lecturer in American Studies in the School of Humanities. He has emerged as one of the UK’s leading scholars on the presidency of Barack Obama. His publications include: Obama and the World, 2nd edition (co-editor), Barack Obama and the Myth of Post-Racial America (co-editor) and Race and US Foreign Policy, all available from the University Bookshop.
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