In about a month's time, the 44th President of the United States of America, Barack Obama, will finish his eight-year-long tenure at the White House.
In 2008, when Obama beat veteran Republican nominee John McCain to become the first Black President (with a Muslim middle name to boot), it was seen as a change of guard that would benefit not just the United States but the global order itself. After his predecessor George W Bush, who pushed the US and its coalition partners into two wars, the world was looking for a stable, levelheaded leader at the helm of the only super-power. Obama becoming the first Black president of the US was a big achievement, one that perhaps should have happened years ago. But the US overcame some of its biggest prejudices thanks to an increasingly diverse population, and to some extent enough social growth to accept such a change at the conveniently named White House. The question that now remains is, how good was Obama as the president of the world's only hegemonic super-power?
Beyond the public image management, which has been done to absolute precision by Obama and his team, how successful, policy wise, has his administration been?
There is no doubt that Obama over the past eight years has cemented his place as a successful President. Under his watch the US killed Osama Bin Laden, and also opened up long-standing and archaic diplomatic stalemates with countries such as Iran and Cuba via diplomacy and not military might. The President had the audacity to try and give his citizens better, cheaper and all-round health insurance and coverage, a hallmark of any developed nation. His legacy is peppered with successes, not to mention that he has become possibly the most people-friendly and globally popular US President to ever take up the Oval Office.
On the people front, Obama and his team tactfully embraced social media, pop-culture and soft power to get his popularity to skyrocket amongst the younger generation. His liberal outlook, emotively expressed convictions against the current gun-laws in America, support for gay marriage and so on have set a new precedent for a post usually associated with Windsor tie knots and elitism. And while it may just be symbolism, Obama even started to shun wearing a neck-tie unless a formal event demanded so. His no tie, shirt and suit look was also a tactical part of building his image and legacy as the "guy" heading the White House, rather than an alpha-male blueblood.
To take his popularity to the younger generation—a target group that also usually has lower voter turnout rates—Obama has done everything from appearing on late night TV shows to making funny videos for the internet to appearing on comedy shows with stand-up comics such as Jerry Seinfeld and even doing stoner shows such as Between Two Ferns with actor and comedian Zach Galifianakis. In fact, even Hillary Clinton, who is quintessentially the very essence of the "establishment" that has been so chastized in the pre-Obama era, appeared on Galifianakis's show!
The Syrian civil war has unfolded and spiralled out of control under Obama's leadership. His policies there have been nothing short of catastrophic.
But beyond the public image management, which has been done to absolute precision by Obama and his team, how successful, policy wise, has his administration been not just for the US, but the global order that America still pulls the strings for? The answer to this question is the one thing that can rain on Obama's parade, which many think is going to go into the sunset without a blot on him and with his charm and terrifying civility leading the charge. This is false, and in fact it will be an injustice to his legacy if such a narrative is allowed to sell during his last month as the world's most powerful man.
Obama entered Washington at a time when the global economy was in the dumps, the US was facing immense job losses and the country's debt was at a critical stage. The housing economy had collapsed, the auto industry was on the verge of a meltdown and a feeling of economic doom and gloom was setting in even as the country spent billions on offshore wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In this period, during his first campaign, Obama was seen as anti-establishment—a guy who did not conform to the usual ways of how Washington D.C. operated and challenged old notions. With a tint of socialist tendencies, Obama was seen as the best available option, and he in fact was so as well. He took on the economic crisis head on and made mends, he supported the clean-up and increased the transparency and accountability of Wall Street, pushed for healthcare and education reforms and so on despite political chin-wagging by the US Congress and the Republicans that looked to stall most of his domestic policy moves just for the sake of it (the kind of politics that we in India are not unfamiliar with).
During the presidential debate of 9 October between frontrunners Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, a question was fielded to both on the ongoing siege in Syria's historic second largest city, Aleppo. The answers put things in perspective. The public discourse around Aleppo is an example of how vaguely formulated the foreign policy concerns of Americans are during election season.
The Syrian civil war has unfolded and spiralled out of control under Obama's leadership. His policies there have been nothing short of catastrophic. A few days ago, talks between the US and Russia over a ceasefire collapsed, cancelling any hope for aid to be delivered to the besieged city. Obama is also looking to stall this issue long enough for his successor to take up the crisis, meaning he will not commit to a military upscale, or install a no-fly zone under his tenure. With one month left, he wouldn't want to be that guy who promised to pull American troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan only to push them into a new theatre of conflict. And if that means a few more thousand Syrians dying, so be it. These deaths are going to be the biggest blot on Obama's post-retirement sleeves, and he will have to live with them forever.
While the Obama administration still maintains its "no boots on the ground" policy, the truth is at variance from its official line.
However, it is imperative to remember here that with the rise of the Islamic State, the US has in fact installed troops back into Iraq under the guise of "advisors", "aides", "special forces" and so on. According to estimates, more than 6000 US soldiers are now in Iraq, helping Iraqi armed forces and local rebel groups fight off ISIS. While the Obama administration still maintains its "no boots on the ground" policy, the truth is at variance from its official line. The Syrian theatre of war has become more complicated than ever, and the battle one that may last for decades. The US, in attempts to not get involved directly, even as Russia and the Assad regime take the upper hand, is funding jihadist militias to fight instead. To sum up how bad this policy interference has been, many of these groups are found fighting amongst themselves, causing civilian casualties, while using weapons provided by the US.
Beyond the gross failures of Syria, the other thing the US has institutionalized under Obama with precision, and little backlash, is the use of drone warfare and targeted assassinations. While, statistically and under the veil of theoretical realism, drone warfare could be seen as a successful way of taking out high value targets without putting American soldiers at risk, the fallout and lack of culpability over civilian deaths has had next to no voice of support for those who have fallen as collateral damage to this war. On 29 September, for example,15 civilians were killed in an alleged drone strike in Achin, Afghanistan. Such strikes are common, with very little noise raised in the international community in support of civilians being killed. Under Obama, such deaths have become acceptable. This silence has only bolstered the Obama administration's resolve to use drone warfare further, with new American drone bases cropping up around the world while their operators sit in the safe confines of the deserts of Nevada on the American west coast. Many neutral nations such as Niger and Djibouti have allowed US drone bases for the economic benefits they reap, converting such warfare into a new form of "alms-for-access" economics.
Obama comes across as a mix of David Brent from The Office, a character that people love, and House of Cards' Frank Underwood.
So, as the final episode gets ready for its shoot at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington D.C., with President Barack Obama in the lead, the season finale of this show will follow up eight years of a refreshingly idealistic President trying to tame the ways of Washington D.C.— while watching Netflix's House of Cards and perhaps being fearful at the same time about becoming like the protagonist. If anything, Obama comes across as a mix of David Brent from The Office, a character that people love, and House of Cards' Frank Underwood. Obama will exit as a guy still struggling with the realities of America's place in the world, having good intentions, and juggling these contradictory traits. At the end of it, the global-order train that Obama is currently driving at an extremely fast speed will not stop to let him off; he will have to jump off, and hope for minimal scratches and bruises on his legacy as he does so.