US President Barack Obama recognized almost from the start of his presidency in 2009 that he would never be able to meet the high expectations raised by an election campaign in which he had electrified voters with rolling, honeyed rhetoric and a slogan based on hope.
He had begun his bid for the presidency in earnest in January 2008 in snow-covered Iowa, traditionally the first US state to vote in the nomination battles. An outsider, he hurtled along icy roads, always running late, from church to church, from community centers to school halls. He spoke to meetings of a few score and occasionally a few hundred.
By the time he reached the eve of election day in November that year, he was still running late and it was well into the night. However, the crowd waiting for him in Manassas, Virginia, in fields close to a US Civil War battlefield was more than 100,000, buoyed up by the slogan of “Hope” and chants of “Yes, we can.”
However, within a few months of taking office in January 2009, disillusionment was already setting in.
Speaking at the White House correspondents’ dinner, the social event of the year, in which the president is expected to be a standup comedian for the night, Obama joked about those high expectations.
“I strongly believe my next 100 days will be so successful I will finish them in 72 days. And on the 73rd day I will rest,” he said.
Although he tried to laugh about it, that sense of disillusionment has lingered over his presidency for the past eight years.
Covering US politics for the Guardian from January 2007 through April 2013 — from the start of Obama’s bid for the presidency through to the start of his second term — I never fully shared that sense of disappointment and was puzzled from the outset by the speed with which much of the US left began to disown him.
However, there have been many mistakes, some of them only becoming clearer in hindsight, now that US president-elect Donald Trump is about to take office on Jan. 20. If US presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton had won, Obama could have expected most of his legacy to remain intact. Instead, he faces the prospect of much of it being dismantled.
Obama cannot be directly blamed for Clinton’s poor election run last year, but the Democrats can. All the weaknesses she displayed in the epic 2007 to 2008 contest with Obama to be named the Democratic US presidential candidate were still evident in last year’s race. She showed no sign of having learned the lessons of 2008.
Within weeks of arriving in Washington in 2007, I flew to Iowa to cover a rally by Clinton in Des Moines, Iowa, where the official election campaign would commence one year later. I had been looking forward to seeing her on the campaign trail, but came away underwhelmed.
She was unable to connect with what had been at the outset a sympathetic audience, leaving them listless, with an excessively cautious speech and, in a question-and-answer session afterward, resorting to cliches and platitudes.
Within weeks of seeing Clinton in Iowa, I heard Obama speak for the first time at a Democratic conference in Washington and told Guardian editors I thought Obama would win the Democratic nomination.
One of his best speeches was in January 2008 when he spoke at the Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta, near where Martin Luther King Jr had preached. I almost missed it, arriving late after a long drive. Obama’s press team squeezed me into the balcony and his then-chief press officer, Robert Gibbs, who I knew only slightly at the time, handed me his BlackBerry so I could scroll through the speech and take notes. He was trusting: I could easily have scrolled through his e-mail messages and phone numbers.
This might seem like a small point, but Obama’s campaign team were accessible throughout in a way that Clinton’s were not — another lesson not learned by the Clinton team.
Rereading the speech that day from the pulpit of the Ebenezer Baptist church offers a contrast with Trump. Obama’s message was that the US had to face up to the deep divisions in society and stop stereotyping and scapegoating.
“We can no longer afford to build ourselves up by tearing someone else down. We can no longer afford to traffic in lies or fear or hate. It is the poison that we must purge from our politics; the wall that we must tear down before the hour grows too late,” he said.
That was the central message, even more pressing today than when he delivered it. However, he also set out his priorities for his presidency: Extending healthcare coverage, more resources for education, alleviating poverty and tackling climate change.
In addition, he did, as president, deliver on much more than he is given credit for.
In an interview with the New Yorker, he said that he achieved as much domestically in his first two years as did former US president Lyndon Johnson.
US presidents on average deliver about 75 percent of what they set out to do.
Obama did that. He fears the Trump administration will roll back about 25 percent, but that would still leave a reasonable legacy in place. That might be overly optimistic on his part.
What is that legacy? Only nine days into his presidency, Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Act on equal pay into law. He announced a ban on torture in response to the former US president George W. Bush administration’s use of waterboarding. He pushed through a financial stimulus bill that was to help lift the US out of recession faster than Europe.
The biggest single achievement of his presidency has been “Obamacare,” the extension of healthcare provision to 11 million people, signed into law in 2010 after a prolonged struggle with US Congress. It is such a symbol of the Obama years that Trump will be under strong pressure from Republicans to dismantle it, but it will be hard to take that cover away from the millions who now have it.
Obama supported same-sex marriage and gays serving openly in the US military. He withdrew, at Iraq’s insistence, US forces — 139,500 when he took office — from Iraq. There are 5,200 back there. He did the same in Afghanistan, down from 34,400 to 9,800. He ended the Bush-era rhetoric about bombing Iran.
He was a cool president, seemingly at ease with visiting leaders from overseas or invited guests to the White House. One of my favorite moments was when there was a blues night at the White House that included US blues singer BB King. Obama was put on the spot, invited to sing and joined in with a reasonable rendition of a verse from Sweet Home Chicago.
Despite the calm he brought to the White House and his record of promises fulfilled, the list of failures too is long. Guantanamo is still open, though the numbers are down. His record on education is debatable. Even though he was the first African-American president, race relations are more tense now than when he took office. On foreign policy, he expanded the drone campaign started under George W. Bush. He also underestimated the rise of the Islamic State group and the ambitions of Russian President Vladimir Putin. On top of all that, he was responsible for overseeing a crackdown on journalists alleged to have undermined US security.
One of the biggest frustrations for Obama in the struggle to have the healthcare legislation passed was not just with the Republicans, but also with the Democrats. For almost two years, the Democrats enjoyed a majority in both the US Senate and the House of Republicans and Obama, with the help of those Democratic members, could — and should — have pushed through bill after bill.
That Obamacare took so long to pass and occupied so much of the legislative program was down to those Democrats. In November 2010, the Republicans regained control of the House, the number of Democrats in the 100-seat Senate fell from 58 to just 51 and the opportunity was gone for good. The Republicans who came in played by different rules from the Democrats, out to repeatedly obstruct Obama.
I have strong memories of weekends spent in an eerily empty Capitol Building, occupied only by security guards, senior Republicans and Democrats and fellow journalists as the deadline approached on yet another ultimatum threatening to close down government.
The Democrats too should show the same zeal in opposition to Trump, although the arithmetic would make that harder, with the Republicans in control of both the Senate and the House.
One of Obama’s biggest mistakes might have been, again with hindsight, his baiting of Donald Trump at the White House correspondents’ dinner in 2011. Trump was in the audience that night, sitting at a table as a guest of the Washington Post, and said later that he had not been upset by Obama.
Obama singled out several people that night but he devoted much more time to Trump. Taking revenge for Trump’s campaign claiming Obama had not been born in the US.
They were good gags but they might turn out to have been costly. Trump sat stoically, only acknowledging the jokes with an occasional sideways shift of his head. However, the president publicly humiliated him. Although Trump has since denied it, that might have been the moment Trump decided to run for the White House.
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