Former US Presidents resemble zombies: physically, they seem alive; but for all practical purposes, they are as good as dead. That’s why any attempt to sum up their term in office inevitably sounds like an obituary.
About nine years ago, a relatively young, unknown US senator was bursting into the limelight of world’s attention, as presidential candidate. Although few would admit it, it was – initially at least –the colour of his skin and his unusual name that made him a favourite, not just among African Americans, but also among liberals of every race and nationality, those eagerly seeking oppressed minorities in need of saving.
But Barack Obama was not just another African American candidate. He was the perfect one: the exact opposite not just of George W. Bush, but also of Jesse Jackson. He won over large parts of the American mainstream vote, because he was calm and not angry; because his demeanour was cerebral, rather than emotional; because he spoke on behalf of all Americans, not in the name of African Americans. More than his policies, his charisma, his personal charm and his obvious intelligence carried him to fair and square victory not in one, but in two presidential elections.
Luck was on his side, too: he presided over no major national calamity – no 9/11, no Hurricane Katrina; by the time he took the helm, the worst of the credit crunch was over – and that financial disaster certainly couldn’t be attributed to him.
He seemed to hold (no pun intended!) all the trump cards. And yet… and yet Barack Obama spent the bulk of his second presidential term with negative approval rates. Why?
To understand the reason, one has to go back in time, to 22 January 2009. In his second day in office, newly-anointed US President Barack Obama issued his first Executive Order: he directed that the Guantánamo Bay prison camp be closed within a year.
Yes, within a year. But, eight years later, ‘Gitmo’ is still there – and around five dozen prisoners still linger in that geographical and legal limbo. Obama’s supporters will say that his deep, sincere desire to close down Guantánamo has been not just opposed, but sabotaged at every step. And perhaps it was. But that’s no excuse for a man in his position: after all, it was another US President (Truman) who displayed on his desk a sign with the wistful words ‘The buck stops here!’
More than anything else, it is the Guantánamo debacle that characterises Obama’s presidency. And, more than anything else, that combination of good intentions and little to show for them explains the popular verdict of under-performance. Because, in the eyes of the most pragmatic nation on earth, he seemed to want a lot, but do very little. Sure, he was opposed; no doubt, the US political system – designed by America’s Founding Fathers above all to prevent tyranny – strongly curtails presidential power. And yet, ‘The buck stops here!’ Navigating that difficult political system (not by issuing executive orders, but by cajoling and threatening, by wheeling and dealing) is – or should be – one of the President’s most essential skills.
Nobody gains respect by failing. And when one is President of the United States of America and fails to implement what is – when all is said and done – an internal American decision, how can that President gain enough respect, how can he gather sufficient clout to implement foreign policy? To carry with him, by dangling hopes and fears, other leaders – with smaller economic resources, but perhaps larger egos and stronger determination?
On the international scene, where America is either a leader or a scapegoat, Barack Obama just didn’t.
He was ideologically favourable to the Arab Spring and wanted to help – but didn’t; he wanted to save the Libyans – but didn’t: that failed state is no longer a country; nor is Syria – another place where Obama didn’t; Egypt’s anti-Islamist regime now draws succour from the Saudi theocracy, not from the US democracy, whose President just didn’t.
For the first time in a long while, Russia felt its heavy fists free to punch – not just in Ukraine, but in the Middle East. Secure in the knowledge that the President That Didn’t – wouldn’t.
In 2012, the Obama Administration announced – with quite a bit of fanfare – a dramatic change of foreign policy focus, a ‘strategic pivot to Asia’. Can someone tell me – without hours of intricate research and scalp scratching – what are the top three moves United States did as part of that new strategy?
That new US strategy was supposed – as everybody understood – to assert and defend America’s interests in the face of China, with its newly found economic might, political weight and augmented military capability. I won’t even discuss whether the ‘pivot’ was a sensible decision. Wisely or not, the US Administration decided to ‘pivot’. Only… it didn’t. Last time I looked, China was still building up its military and civilian presence in disputed South China territories. Beijing brushed aside with contempt a UN tribunal’s ruling, which rejected the Chinese territorial claims. The United States did… exactly nothing. ‘Pivot’ – my foot!
Not only ‘the enemies’ were contemptuous, however. Even America’s closest allies were left unimpressed. In October 2013 (i.e., in the midst of the American ‘pivot’), then British Chancellor George Osborne made a widely publicised visit to China, in search of tighter trade links. Oblivious of the ‘special relationship’ between the United Kingdom and the (‘pivoting’) United States, Mr. Osborne declared (in a public speech and without even blushing) that the UK and China had “much in common”. This overture was followed less than a year later by the visit to the UK of China’s Prime Minister. China’s President was given a red carpet reception when he visited the UK in 2015 – and a very thick carpet it was, too!
Israel is another ‘special relationship’ ally. Soon after being sworn in for his first presidential term, Obama publicly pointed at Israel’s West Bank settlements as the main obstacle to the ‘two state solution’. Eight years and about 200,000 ‘settlers’ later, Secretary of State Kerry tells us that they still are. Little has changed – if one ignores the difference between Obama’s cold, measured delivery and Kerry’s strident ‘gewalt!’
Now, there is much to be said – and much has already been said – on whether ‘the settlements’ are indeed the problem, or whether ‘two states’ is really the solution. But that’s not the point. The point is: if Barack Obama, President of the United States of America, believes that they are and that it is; if, moreover, the issue is so very important to him as to qualify for the very last gesture of his presidency, then how come he didn’t manage to do a thing about it? In eight years of being the uncontested leader of the most powerful nation on earth? Sure, sure, there are mitigating factors: Netanyahu is obstinate… or perhaps the Palestinians are vengeful and intractable… Whatever: ‘The buck stops here!’ The bottom line is: the President didn’t.
I’ve no idea if Trump will be a better, or a worse President. Who knows? I claim no clairvoyance towards the future. But I can analyse the past and one thing is clear: 2017 finds America with colder friends and bolder enemies than it had in 2009. As for Barack Obama, he is about to enter history as The President That Didn’t.