World
29.1.17

Barack Obama: a Presidential Summary

The source of this photo is by Official White House photostream on Flickr, P030609PS-0010. The author is Pete Souza. From Wikimedia Commons.

On Friday, Donald Trump will take what is arguably the most powerful seat in the world. The implications of this are quite possibly fatal but still unknown. Filling the shoes of a man as influential as Barack Obama would not have been an easy task for any of the presidential candidates, even Bernie Sanders. Over the last eight years, change was the key component to the US presidency but perhaps not enough.

Barack Obama was a historical pivotal president. George Bush had left a somewhat bitter pill for Americans. There was a seemingly unending war in Iraq, a global financial crisis and a disillusionment in Government’s ability to intervene, particularly in the wake of such tragedies as Hurricane Katrina. Obama’s message in 2008 was clear: hope. This kind of optimism incited a fervour that is often seen with political ideologies but not political individuals. The very idea that an African American could be president was a powerful moment in the history of the United States. As Obama recently said in his farewell address, he did not begin post-racial politics. Racism is still at the very core of divisions in America. This was so vividly clear throughout 2016. President-Elect Trump based his entire campaign on this platform. Yet change begins somewhere and, in America, this was with Obama.

In the age of social media, Barack Obama flourished against his contemporaries – the likes of John McCain and Mitt Romney. He effectively used Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to spread memes. Indeed, after the 2012 election, his photo of Michelle and himself captioned “four more years” was the most retweeted at that point in time. His engaging personality normalised the president and his family. Michelle Obama regularly made appearances on American talk shows and focused on their familial life, just like any other American … if that American was seen as the “leader of the free world,” that is. Fundamental to the character of Obama was his articulation. In his inauguration speech in January 2009, his words are as true today as they were then:

“Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America: they will be met.”

It cannot be said that from that speech onwards, Obama did not try. Speech after speech, his message was clear – it was time for a liberal and progressive America. An African-American president was the first step to that ideal. However, the American Dream is always a fruitless pursuit.

Some Americans would cite the killing of Osama bin Laden as one of Obama’s greatest achievements in office. I am somewhat dubious of this. A more important change came closer to home. The internal threat of the medical system is one Obama combated from the beginning. Again, in his inauguration in 2009, Obama immediately outed the healthcare system as being too costly. As such, a battle, almost quite literally, was started. The Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, changed millions of American lives. It was the single most significant change in the American healthcare system since the 1960s. Whilst contentious and controversial, leading to a government shutdown in September 2013, Obamacare’s aims were quite simple: the Affordable Care Act, surprisingly, meant affordable, accessible, high quality care through health insurance. The thorn in his side came from the Republicans. The two party system in America has exacerbated its divisions. It created inactivity. Yet despite Republicans’ best efforts, Obamacare continues to be a success. According to the National Health Interview Survey, the number of people without health insurance decreased from 16 percent in 2010 to 8.9 percent in 2016. Around 23 million are covered with health insurance because of the law. It is not an exaggeration to say lives were changed.

Of course, Obama was not a perfect man – he was a politician. Promises were not entirely kept. One of the greatest failures of his time in office was his inability to close Guantanamo Bay. The terrorist internment “camp” has long been an anomaly in the “freedoms” of America. Torture in the form of waterboarding, as famously experienced by Christopher Hitchens, was commonplace. Obama had called it a “sad chapter in American history,” but, other than the improvement in Cuban relations, it was not mentioned in his farewell address. Whilst Obama has continued to release prisoners into the summer of 2016, reducing the number to 61, it is quite clear that conditions remain poor, “aggressive techniques” are still in place, and it is an abhorrent failure of human rights. Donald Trump intends to keep it open in order to detain, as he called them, “bad hombres.” So the conflict continues.

On the other hand, Obama’s greatest regret is probably the failure to create credible gun control within the states. Throughout his presidency there were countless massacres. Blind adherence to the Second Amendment thwarted Obama at every attempt to introduce better gun control. Executive orders were made in 2016 such as the necessity of background checks. This should seem obvious. But the power of the NRA remains. Over the course of his presidency, there were 37 mass shootings. Obama’s disappointment and frustration were seen most overtly in his 2015 speech after the shooting at Umpqua Community College, Roseburg, Oregon. He remarked, “As I said just a few months ago, and I said a few months before that, and I said each time we see one of these mass shootings, our thoughts and prayers are not enough. It’s not enough.” Gun control remains a major issue in American politics.

This article may be perceived as a romantic view of Barack Obama’s presidency. It is. But, parting is such sweet sorrow as we move towards the Trump era. As Obama said farewell in Chicago, the place where it all began for him, the raucous cheers for “four more years” demonstrated the longevity of this man. He created hope for a nation that had built its mythology on freedom yet quite often failed to demonstrate it. Barack Obama said, “yes we can” to healthcare and “yes they did.” Yet the sanctity of democracy and participation are his parting messages to America and, now more than ever, they need it. It brings to mind JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” An enduring message from an enduring president, the likes of which Obama will join. There is so much more to be done and that can be done, yet Obama is not the man who will lead us towards it. 2016 has left us in political turmoil but it does not mean we must defer to apathy and acceptance. Freedom of choice, in all regards, is something we should take from the presidency of Barack Obama. In January 2009, he declared,

“On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord … to choose a better history.”

On that day, it was true. On this day, we’re unsure of what the future may bring, but our ability to choose remains. Let us hope they are the right decisions.

Global Seven News

Catherine McNaughton

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