President Barack Obama made his greatest contribution to modern day United States when he was elected eight years ago, defying a long, painful racial inequality of a large part of the American population. His election became the undoing, even if symbolic, of some of the bigotry and prejudice that had afflicted African Americans for centuries. What had remained for him to do was to live up to the wide support and landslide victory he enjoyed in his election.
Since then, we have heard a lot about how brilliant and eloquent he’s been and how dignified was his presidency, yet was that really the legacy upon which an outgoing president needs to rely? Does leaving office without any scandal amount to a real accomplishment? Is this not too low of an expectation?
Americans have heard a lot about president-elect Donald Trump’s inexperience and the concern we are feeling about his upcoming presidency, and rightfully so! Being president of the greatest power in a complex and accelerated geopolitical world requires more than intelligence and eloquence, qualities which we have yet to determine whether President-elect Trump possesses. But was then President-elect Obama not similarly inexperienced in governance? Albeit he was a Harvard Law School academic and an Illinois Senator just shy of two years.
So, aside from appointing good people to key positions, what do fledgling presidents do to overcome this critical gap in their political practice and governing experience, as pertained to Obama then, and to Trump now? Of course, President Obama did work closely with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, and for a while with House Republican Leader, John Boehner. However, it has been suggested that President Obama relinquished any attempt to ‘roll in the mud’ with his fellow Legislative Branch members from both sides of the aisles, and instead demonstrated the elitist attitude of an intellectual academic with little appetite for conditions unfavorable to his status.
Americans have heard a lot about how much this president ‘listens’ and entertains opinions from all those around him; but the fact is that presidents are judged on their actions and not their attitudes alone. Sadly, Obama’s inexperience has caused the country great pain. No doubt he had lots of opposition, but no more than Clinton or Reagan, yet they each left a legacy of accomplishments, still relevant long after their leaving office.
Yet, despite all his failings, polling suggests that Obama’s approval ratings are at an all-time high. Americans seem to enjoy a love affair with young, smart and eloquent presidents with good looking wives, but did Obama actually accomplish anything to justify such popularity? Are being adept at eloquence and skilled in ‘listening’ to others, having a ‘picture perfect’ family and the absence of scandal enough to paint a president as great?
Let’s actually look at his so-called accomplishments:
After wasting all of his political capital on Obamacare, exclusive of anything else for a good number of years, his signature legislation is in danger of total reversal or, at least it will be stripped of many of its main features.
His pivot to the Southeast, while perceived as a genius move, will likely be abandoned by the new administration.
His infamous backing away from his ‘red line’ in Syria, not only showed America as a paper tiger that doesn’t follow through; but it became a nightmare scenario whereby Putin’s Russia has taken over the region and together with Iran is pushing US influence away from the entire Middle East.
His premature removal of troops without securing a transition left a vacuum in Iraq which had caused the rise of ISIS and together with his Iran deal, on which he gambled much of America’s reputation, in essence, turned Iran from a country under debilitating international sanctions, to one that spreads its influence from Lebanon to Yemen, at the cost of America’s geopolitical demise.
In the process, he has broken the historic partnership with most US allies in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, and betrayed Israel – the only country that has a 100% record of voting with the US. He retreated from his own veto over a similar UN resolution in 2011, to lead a condemnation of Israel in a UN resolution that renders the Western Wall as occupied territory. He orchestrated this travesty amidst a petty fight with Netanyahu and in total reversal of his declaration that Palestinian-Israeli territory status would not be decided at the UN. Thus, he started his presidency while marginalizing Israel in his 2009 Egypt speech and is leaving office with a premeditated blow to Israel at the UN.
But the greatest irony of all is that he single-handedly resurrected the RNC from being written-off eight years ago, to assuming a majority over ALL branches of government, winning not only the presidency; but also, dominating the Senate, the House as well as 32 governorships across the country. Millennials, who are the mood sensors of the country, grew tired of elitist attitudes and ‘business as usual’ politics and went left to Sanders. All of that happened under Obama’s presidency!
His admirers call him “no drama Obama” and “no shock Barack”; but, is that all that we need in a leader? Ta-Nehisi Coates loves President Obama for his racial activism, and David Brooks is already missing President Obama for his dignified style, but are these not too low of expectations for a leader — a world leader?
In sports, great players are not the ones who score the most points, but those who elevate and lead their teams to victory, often selflessly and with great collaborative spirit. President Obama has not been such a President! In fact, the consensus is that he may have listened to everybody, but that he played alone! He may have been a community organizer, but as a President he had no emotional range for the give-and-take political horse-trading that is a part of the legislative process and which is achieved through strong personal relationships.
Presidents George H.W. Bush and Reagan are known to have spent more than two hours a day either speaking on the phone, or meeting in person, with legislators who opposed them, and President Johnson was known for his BBQ deal-making. These great leaders knew that it required effort and close contact to shift the political terrain and enlist people into their camp.
Yet, Obama’s trump card was in presiding over the past two years mostly through unilateral executive legislation. And his excuse was that his Presidency was hampered by Republican opposition. So what? It’s truly embarrassing how little we have expected from him. He should have gotten over it, stopped whining and become a real leader for G-d’s sake! Not only one with good Instagram karma!
Surely, he followed through with important promises he made. Healthcare for the poor and bringing back our troops from battle are great, but at what cost, and to what effect?
With a reversal of Obamacare on the horizon – that dream may be lost. And now ISIS’ Caliphate dream invigorates militant Islam across the world, after Obama’s Isolationist America has abandoned its course and allowed resurrection of Russian aggression and Iran’s dominance.
Sure, there are many causes for such failures, but great presidents are not the ones who hide behind excuses but those who rise above the challenges of their times.
Hamilton’s economic system of the 1790s, Social Security of the 1930s or the civil right and social welfare legislation of the 1960s were all signed amidst strong opposition, but they couldn’t be rolled back. Not so with Obama’s legislation.
So, what is Obama’s legacy after all? If being a dignified family man who leaves no scandal behind were sufficient requirements for being a great leader, we might as well have elected Mr. Rogers, but a president?! C’mon, give me a break! This is the greatest example of the soft bigotry of low expectation that I have ever seen.
There are many sources for the following proverbs, but I heard them from two great men in Israel. One was a dignified Arab who once told me: la tujad ‘akhta’ saghyrat, eawaqib faqat … “There are no small mistakes, only consequences.” The other was a rabbi who told me:
כל טעות היא הזדמנות”!ו — ”Every mistake is an opportunity”
We need to see things for what they are:
President Obama failed to rise above his weaknesses. It was his arrogance that lured him to play into his admirer’s image — a mirage, however fleeting. As a result, we have a total retreat of the democratic process, because people feel cheated and deceived by a president who played to his perceived legacy, rather than to his people.
Then again, with the election of Trump, against all the odds, what can any of us claim to know about politics anymore?
So, let’s party and lower the bar even further. It feels better to have a dapper photogenic president — doesn’t it?
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