Toby & Toby on... the legacy of President Barack Obama

12:00 pm on 5 October 2016

Opinion - Toby Manhire & Toby Morris

Legacy? Bit early for that, isn't it?

The end is near. And so he faces the final curtain, with a successor elected in just over a month, on 8 November. Obama and his family will have to shift their stuff out of the White House before inauguration day, on 20 January, when that successor, which will be either Hillary Clinton or her rival, who is the one who, he, and... a bit scared actually.

Was that sentence meant to end like that?


Surely the point is that it's too early to judge Obama's legacy today, next month, next year - such things demand the passage of time.

That's what Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon Wood told New York when they came asking for his reckons on the legacy of the two-term Democrat president.

"It's a fool's errand you're involved in," he said. "We live in a fog, and historians decades from now will tell their society what was happening in 2014."

What does he mean, "in 2014"?

The magazine started asking historians in 2014. Getting in early.

Still, at this stage what are thought to be the big achievements of Obama's presidency?

Two are most often cited. First, the very fact of winning election to the White House, as a black person, is clearly epochal, even if some suggest it will become seen as less extraordinary over time, much like the fact of John F Kennedy's Catholicism.

And the second?

The Affordable Care Act, enacted halfway through the first term. The legislation extended public health insurance coverage to tens of millions of Americans, and became widely known as 'Obamacare'.

A bit arrogant to name it that.

Obama's opponents did so, thus ensuring the reforms will forever be credited to, or blamed on, him. That's assuming the reforms survive, of course: they are firmly opposed by the Republican candidate who is did you hear what he said the other day oh boy oh boy.

Keep it together.

Will try.

What other factors are likely to determine Obama's domestic legacy?

The US economy eight years ago was in a hell of a state. Under Obama, who can claim credit for an effective stimulus programme and a successful bailout of the automotive industry, it has returned to a more even keel. The headline figure for Obama fans is a reduction in the unemployment rate from almost 8 percent when he took office, to less than 5 percent today.

He nevertheless faces criticisms over economic management, with those to his left saying he failed to address inequality and welcomed a bunch of Wall Street scoundrels into the bosom of government, and those to his right saying too much intervention has suffocated growth.

What else?

Progressive types cheered student loan reform and same-sex marriage legislation. They were less keen on the presidential response to surveillance scandals, mostly notably in the Snowden leaks - on this score, Obama's civil liberties rhetoric was shown to be shallow.

In a presidency regularly punctuated by mass shootings, Obama spoke boldly on gun control but achieved little, in large part owing to the balance of power in Congress.

Just how constrained was he?

There were limits to what Obama could achieve, given Republicans have held a majority in the House of Representatives since 2011, and in the last couple of years a Senate majority, too.

That has informed some perceptions of what Gary Younge, one of the finest writers on Obama's America, calls "a phantom legacy" in which the president has been assessed not for "what he actually achieved, but what he might have achieved if the other side weren't so unreasonable. As endorsements go, this seemed like faint praise".

Was there much disappointment from the left?

A fair bit, as encapsulated in the 2016 book Buyer's Remorse by Bill Press, which laments that as his "typically centrist presidency comes to a close, he leaves his supporters haunted by what might have been".

But while Obama can point to a substantial legislative programme, his politics for the most part have long been moderate and cautious, at the centrist end of the Democrat Party, albeit presented with oratorical mastery, amid hopey-changey declamations and talk of transformative politics.

Younge again: "The reality was always going to be a buzz kill."

What about foreign affairs?

The nuclear deal with Iran is a high point (some disagree). Troops were withdrawn as promised from Iraq (some say this created a vacuum for the growth of Isis). Osama Bin Laden was executed (some say he wasn't and is currently working in a Swiss ski resort). Troops weren't quite withdrawn from Afghanistan. Relations were opened with Cuba. Guantanamo wasn't shut down. There was a massive escalation of drone strikes, mostly in Pakistan, Yemen and Sudan, the implications of which warrant much greater scrutiny. The "reset" with Russia went badly. The "pivot" to Asia hangs in the balance, with the Obama-backed TPP apparently doomed, given it is opposed by both Hillary Clinton and the other one who imagine if can you just think haiaiai holy moley.

And Syria.

While you can hardly pin the appalling carnage and human suffering on Obama, his administration's approach with regards to the Assad regime and Russia's interventions has clearly not worked, leading some to accuse Obama of earning a "bloody legacy" thanks to the "cowardice and appeasement" with regard to Putin.

And climate change?

Obama deserves plenty of credit here. On the home front he has led a massive expansion in renewable energy, and internationally championed the Paris agreement, while working with China to set targets in tandem. This is in marked contrast to the kind of person who, say, thinks climate change is a hoax invented by China, if you can you really oh boy just woah.

And race.

Obama is backing Hillary Clinton in the presidential race, urging his supporters to get out and vote for her.

That's a super clever play on words there. But what about race relations?

Headlines of the last year show that there remain deep rifts over race in America, most dramatically evidenced in responses to a series of police shootings of black people.

Obama has faced criticisms from supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement for being insufficiently vocal, while some Republican commentators have charged him with fanning the flames "by meeting with race-baiters and issuing inflammatory comments".

Another view is that a black family in the White House simply flushed out the racism pervasive in America. "A perverse gift" of Obama's presidency, writes novelist Attica Locke, "is the fact it allowed a sickness to bubble up to the surface, like a boil on the skin. You can't treat what you can't see".

Does Obama also bear some responsibility for the rise of you-know-who?

On the one hand, some say that Obama "created [the Republican candidate]", that "[the Republican candidate] is running as an angry populist, fuelled by the promise that whatever supposed elites such as Obama have done to the country, he will largely undo. Obama's only legacy seems to be that 'hope and change' begat 'make America great again.'"

Yikes. And on the other hand?

On the other hand that's pretty much BS, although it is true Obama did not take action to outlaw tax-dodging pathological-liar megalomaniac man-baby demagogues.

And how is Obama seen today by Americans?

They like him. Or, at least, his recent approval ratings have been as high as 58 percent - way above where George Bush was at the sunset of his presidency.

What explains that?

Clearly he is entitled to take credit, but it probably helps that Hillary Clinton is ranking as the second most unpopular presidential candidate in at least the last 60 years.

Who is the least popular?

The other guy. Trmfffffghfohfppdppppgrrrrgggghhhh.

Everything OK?

We live in a fog.

  • Donald Trump is in the House
  • US election: Clinton rips into Trump over taxes
  • Trump Foundation ordered to stop fundraising in New York