In 2008, Barack Obama went on to win the U.S. Presidential election with the biggest majority of any Democrat since 1964, including by unexpectedly bagging white, working-class states such as Iowa and Ohio. “Race doesn’t matter!” chanted the crowds that celebrated his victory.
Idealism drove Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. That campaign was an assertion that one could win a U.S. Presidential election not by appealing to the fears, hatreds, and negative emotions of electorate which is what most politicians were doing, but by appealing to voters’ ideals, aspirations, and positive motivations.
Obama tapped into the dreaming, hoping and aspiring nature of multi-racial U.S. populace. He painted hope as an audacious act: “It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs. The hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores. The hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta. The hope of a millworker’s son who dares to defy the odds. The hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.”
Quite a feat – a political amateur Obama won an election as big as U.S. Presidential election on the template of hope and big ideals. His campaign speeches arose the inner, dormant positive aspirations of U.S. people. In the TV visuals of his many an election campaign, one can see teary eyed audience aptly listening to his idealistic rhetoric. Was Obama really able to govern the U.S. and oversee the rest of the world, in the high-minded idealistic ways as he raised hopes?
When President Obama demitted office in January 2017, his impact and legacy were unclear. He will always be the first African American president and for its symbolic value in U.S. history. His administration was notable for its stability. A Quinnipiac University polls released in late January 2017 found that 29% said he was the greatest president since World War II, just one point behind Ronald Reagan, who was named by 30 percent and well ahead of every other postwar president.
Obama’s lasting impact on American life may turn out to have been greatest in terms of the crises that did not happen. Unlike George W. Bush, Obama has judiciously used his war powers and brought down the numbers of lives lost of American soldiers in battles. During his Presidency, an economic depression caused by the Sub-Prime Crisis was averted and the U.S. did not fall into the abyss of a second Great Depression in 2009. Health care coverage, Obamacare, was extended to over 20 million Americans, the rights of gay and transgender community had improved substantially, a treaty postponing the Iranian capacity to develop nuclear weapons was signed, and a global treaty to limit carbon emissions was finalized.
In retrospect, it seems Obama’s view of human nature being innately good and idealistic was just an aspiration – just that. Italian philosopher and writer, Niccolò Machiavelli believed that people in general are “ungrateful, fickle, hypocrites and dissemblers, avoiders of dangers, greedy for gain.” Obama’s memoir, A Promised Land, the first of his two-part memoir, comes out as a long dialogue between these two opposing visions of what human beings essentially are.
President Obama bordered on the preachy at times, but is said to have been lacking in the required political experience to deal with the Congressional opposition to him. Republicans decided it was in their interest to obstruct every proposal that Obama floated. An engineered white backlash to Obama’s presidency, a product of unprecedented obstruction from the Republican establishment in combination with relentless slander of the President by the conservative media, could not be dealt with the required political savvy by the idealist President.
President Barack Obama’s tenure was defined by idealistic goals and harsh realities. From day one, Obama’s handling of foreign policy has been lackluster, and the world was arguably a far more dangerous place for the idealistic President to stomach. At the same time, President Obama did not show the stomach needed to face gory of wars to discipline the tyrants around the world. He could not stand-up to the real politic of Putin or China. He delayed making a decision to use air power against ISIS armies in Syria and Iraq until it was feared they were close to toppling those countries. He declined to give Kiev’s army the needed weapons to defend itself against Vladimir Putin’s forces that drove ever more deeply into Eastern Ukraine in an audacious assault on a sovereign nation.
On the domestic front – President Obama, hoped as a harbinger of racial justice to the black community, could not usher in any path breaking laws or changes to stop police brutality or gun culture or discrimination against blacks. Obama may be Trump’s opposite, but not because he embraced Black nationalism the way Trump embraces White nationalism. Rather, Obama deliberately or instinctively always veered towards the middle, safe path. But Obama does acknowledge in the book that America suffers from a deeper racial malady under a dominant (white) political culture that feels threatened by multiculturalism.
Obama comes across as someone humbled by experience and bruised by the democratic reality, from his memoir. He also recognises that the President can change a few U.S. policies while in office, but cannot transform its political culture. The two-term presidency of Barack Obama was as though God had decided to conduct a philosophical experiment to find out whether idealism or realism will triumph over and it was the Machiavellian view that had won.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
The author is an alumnus of IIM, Ahmedabad and a retired senior corporate professional.