London. In the midst of the Brexit campaign, I am taking part in a public reckoning of the debits and credits of the Obama years.
I stand by my criticisms of a foreign policy that has ceded too much to Bashar al-Assad, to Vladmir Putin, and to the enemies of the United States generally.
Is it because, this time, I have to take an overall view of the whole period?
Is it the effect of the final adjustments and last regrets of a president who obviously cares about his legacy?
Or have I simply become more clearly aware of the poisonous climate of violence with which the 44th president of the United States had to wrestle?
The fact is, for at least five reasons I find Barack Obama’s record, on balance, to be a positive one.
First, there is the 2008 crisis, the most serious that the United States has experienced since the 1930s. Obama responded to that crisis with a recovery plan of colossal proportions ($800 billion injected into an economy that was on the verge of bankrupcy); with political steps that were unprecedented because they were foreign to the political culture of the country (the de facto nationalization of General Motors); and with the beginnings of a moral reconstruction of Wall Street (the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 which, for the first time, called into question the dogma of the infallibility of the financial markets). It is hard to imagine what more he could have done on this front.
Second, there are the commitments he made on the most sensitive social issues, most of which, despite the opposition of the Congress and of many of the states, he fulfilled. Same-sex marriage is now recognized as a right across the land. Despite the continued failure of the DREAM Act, he began the process of rescuing from limbo and integrating into American society millions of children of illegal immigrants. And, however one feels about « socialized medicine, » his reform of the health system repaired some of the deadliest effects of the preexisting system. Obama will finish his second term without having closed Guantanamo or curtailing the free and open sale of assault weapons. But he can be proud of what he did to expand the rights of the disenfranchised.
Third, there is the so-called race question. Discrimination against African-Americans is an open wound in the side of American society, to which Obama’s election was itself a powerful response. Some say that with the election behind him he chose to take a low profile on the topic. That is not inaccurate. But he returned to it forcefully after the tragedies in Baltimore and Ferguson. He has embraced—and coming from the president of the United States, this is not nothing—the Black Lives Matter mantra of the new equality movements. Those who would have us believe that, by his personality, he inflamed the very conflicts that he sought to quiet, should ponder one simple fact that trumps their arguments: It is during his presidency that the extremists, the preachers of violence, the reverse racists of the Nation of Islam began to lose ground.
Fourth, there is Obama’s style. Style may seem like a minor thing. Except, from Etienne de La Boétie to Ernst Kantorowicz, from Machiavelli to Rousseau, political theorists are in agreement: every social pact, always and ultimately, comes to be epitomized in a name; that name in a body; and that body in a loose blend of presence, distance, and bearing that we are right to call a style. Think of Donald Trump and his appalling vulgarity. Or of the list of presidents undermined at the end of their term by impeachment, scandal, or paralyzing war. One has to admit that, in contrast, Obama’s probity, his elegance, his behavior, the spotlessness of his final months, the way in which he has been able to counter the partisanship of his opponents with virtuous dexterity and unmatched political skill, have given America a good image of herself—and the rest of the world a good image of America.
Fifth, there is foreign policy. Incontestably, this is the area where the disappointment has been most keen. But here too is where the most significant of the recent adjustments that I spoke of at the outset have taken place. His speech in London on the Brexit corrected the unfortunate impression to that point of a president who seemed to have turned his back on Europe. The November 2014 climate agreement with China took some of the sting out of the partitioning of the globe by the two super-victors of globalization. And the acceleration of the battle for Fallujah, the intensification of aid to the Iraqi Kurds outside Qaraqosh and Mosul, the support provided to the Libyans of Misrata facing off against the Islamists of Sirte—these moves countered the notion that America believed itself absolved of further responsibility after killing Bin Laden (but allowing Daesh to thrive).
What all of this says is that Barack Obama is far from being the « failed president » depicted by my opponents in the London debate.
I even allowed myself to muse out loud, in their hearing, about another commander in chief who, in the midst of another war, though one infinitely more terrible than our war against postmodern forms of chaos, sought and was granted a third and fourth term.
A president who began his administration looking like Kennedy and finished it as Roosevelt? Absurd, of course; the transformation began too late. Yet the impression remains.