Barack Obama’s presidency was always bound to be something of a disappointment. Few presidents can have entered office with such great expectations, not least because of what went before him.
Indeed, when we try to make sense of the significance of Obama’s term in office, we need to remember the truly appalling legacy he inherited from his predecessor.
Not only did George W Bush begin an entirely unnecessary and disastrous conflict in the Middle East – the consequences of which continue to destabilise the region to this day – but he also helped trigger a major economic crisis that threatened to bring down the international banking system.
The massive spending – and deficits – required by Bush’s ruinously expensive war in Iraq contributed to America’s economic problems. But the efforts of the Bush administration to wind back a painstakingly constructed, largely effective, regulatory framework that exercised some degree of control over the banking system and its self-destructive pathologies was another entirely avoidable incidence of self-harm on an epic scale.
The first thing Obama had to do on taking office, therefore, was to stop the international financial sector from falling off a cliff and prevent icons of American manufacturing like General Motors from going bust.
The fact that the sky didn’t fall in tends to be forgotten or wilfully ignored by Obama’s growing army of critics. If he did nothing else, though, staving off the world’s second Great Depression looks pretty good on the CV.
He might have done much more if he hadn’t been so initially bogged down with cleaning up someone else’s mess, not to mention dealing with a hostile, ideologically recalcitrant Congress that remained implacably opposed to everything he did. Whatever else the Trump presidency has to deal with, the domestic institutional roadblocks should be easier to navigate.
That Obama managed to get his signature healthcare reforms through Congress is a minor miracle, although one that is likely to rapidly dismantled on ideological grounds – not to mention the fact that “big pharma” will be enthusiastically backing its repeal.
Bizarrely, some of the people who actually benefit most from Obamacare – poor, white and working class – are also the most hostile to Obama and his “socialist” policies.
It is testimony to just how difficult it is to have a rational, much less an informed, debate about key elements of public policy in the US that such counter-intuitive outcomes are possible.
It is not necessary to be a conspiracy theorist or even a critical Marxist to recognise that there’s something odd, rather sad and deeply troubling about people voting against people and policies from which they might have been the principal beneficiaries.
Sadly, the domestic agenda, disappointing as it has been in many ways, was arguably Obama’s strong suit.
Critics argue that procrastination and an unwillingness to use America’s undoubted military might decisively has made the situation in the Middle East even worse. Red lines were crossed by the likes of Bashar al-Assad with no consequences, something that encouraged Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping to test America’s commitment to maintaining its primacy, the arguments go.
Perhaps so. And yet, “don’t do stupid stuff” is not the worst strategic doctrine the world has ever seen. Indeed, when contrasted with Bush in particular, it looks entirely reasonable and in keeping with a highly complex and unstable international order that defies quick fixes.
More pointedly, we actually know what happens when American administrations are determined to do stupid stuff, no matter how implausible such a strategy may be.
If we’ve collectively learned anything over the course of the last few decades – indeed, the last few millennia – it ought to be that wars are a lot easier to start than they are to finish. They generally don’t have happy endings either.
Perhaps a few carefully calibrated surgical strikes would have made a difference in Syria, but the record of American intervention over recent years is not encouraging. The motto “if you break it you own it” is worth keeping in mind.
We will soon have the opportunity to compare and contrast Obama’s presidency with someone who is altogether more impulsive and apparently determined to act decisively.
Whether the Hulk is preferable to Hamlet we shall have to wait and see. But that we came through one of the more troubled periods in recent history more or less in one piece is perhaps as much as “we” – privileged denizens of what’s left of the Western world – can hope for.
Donald Trump may rapidly discover that there are no tweet-sized solutions to the world’s problems. Winston Churchill’s famous aphorism may prove alarmingly prescient:
Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing, but only after they have exhausted all other possibilities.
Obama’s great attribute was that he recognised in advance how dangerous and counterproductive certain actions could be. There is absolutely no guarantee that his successor does. The Obama presidency may yet go down as a relatively sane and sober period bookended by the two worst presidents in American history.
Authors: Mark Beeson, Professor of International Politics, University of Western Australia