November 11, 2016
President Barack Obama’s legacy: What happens now?
By Sam Clench
The biggest loser of the US election wasn’t even on the ballot.
I’m not talking about Hillary Clinton, even though her political career has been crushed for good. No, the ultimate victim of Donald Trump’s stunning triumph is the man he will replace as president, Barack Obama.
“My name may not be on the ballot, but our progress is on the ballot,” Obama said before the election, urging his supporters to vote for Ms Clinton. “Tolerance is on the ballot. Democracy is on the ballot. Justice is on the ballot. Good schools are on the ballot. Hope is on the ballot.”
The president said he would consider it “a personal insult, an insult to my legacy” if Trump won. Well, here we are.
It’s a bizarre situation. Eight years ago, Obama was swept into power by America’s fury with his predecessor. This time, Trump won despite Obama’s remarkable popularity.
The president’s approval rating has risen steadily this year, and is now at its highest point since the heady days of his political honeymoon in late 2009.
“There’s a contrast with George W. Bush, who exited with very low favourability ratings,” Dr Gorana Grgic, a lecturer in US politics and foreign policy at the United States Studies Centre, tells news.com.au. “If you look at it from a historical perspective, Obama is up there.”
To give you some of that historical perspective, Obama’s ratings are comparable to those of Ronald Reagan, who often tops polls asking people to name the nation’s greatest president. But while Reagan’s legacy has shaped American politics for decades, Obama’s could vanish within months.
When Trump takes office, the Republican Party will control all three levers of power in Washington: the White House, Senate and House of Representatives. That means he will have free rein to pursue his agenda – and systematically dismantle Obama’s achievements.
The most obvious threat is to the president’s signature domestic policy, the health care law known as Obamacare. It’s already in trouble, with rising premiums and too few young, healthy people signing up to subsidise the nation’s older, sicker health insurance customers.
Obviously, Donald Trump has said that he would push for the repeal of Obamacare. The Republicans have already tried almost 50 times,” Dr Grgic says. Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell has confirmed that repealing the law is a “pretty high item on our agenda”.
Dr Grgic argues the next president should focus on “getting more people into Obamacare, increasing competition and seeing whether something can be done about rising drug prices”. That is probably what Ms Clinton would have done.
Instead, Trump plans to scrap the whole thing and start again. Obama’s foreign policy record is flawed, but he has overseen a dramatic recovery in America’s reputation, which suffered badly during Bush’s second term.
“Obama has been pretty clear on what his outlook is for the way that the US engages with the world. It’s a very multilateral approach. and it’s principled on ‘don’t do stupid stuff’,” Dr Grgic says. “It was very much a reaction to what was perceived to be the overreach of the Bush administration.”
The world is somewhat less enthusiastic about a Trump presidency. A global poll taken shortly before the election showed people in every overseas country surveyed, with the exception of Russia, overwhelmingly preferred Ms Clinton.
Trump’s victory will clearly cause a seismic shift in America’s image – and its approach to the rest of the world.
The President-elect has been a scathing critic of Obama’s foreign policy doctrine. During the campaign, he called the much-hyped agreement with Iran, which aimed to curb the country’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons, “the worst deal ever negotiated”. Trump has promised to tear it up. He will also consider reversing Obama’s landmark decision to normalise relations with Cuba.
If those achievements are wiped away, Obama’s record will pretty much be reduced to the messes in Libya, Ukraine and Syria, which developed into a cataclysmic civil war on his watch.
“Obviously we have the nonintervention in Syria. Whether this was a mistake or not, we know Hillary Clinton was very vocal in support of a more assertive response,” Dr Grgic says.
“Obama had a very principled approach to foreign policy, and that involved mutual efforts and burden-sharing, and that simply wasn’t there in the early days of Syria.
“What you see in Syria now is a complete asymmetry of power, where you have the Assad regime being supported by Russia.”
Speaking of Russia, Obama’s efforts to rein in Vladimir Putin could be ditched completely when Trump takes control.
“There has been a complete breakdown basically of the relations between Russia and the US,” Dr Grgic says. That breakdown “started with the 2011 intervention in Libya,” which Putin opposed, and “spiralled” from there.
“It takes two to tango, right? I don’t think it’s just Obama’s fault for this one. It’s very clear that Putin has been very skilful in using this window of opportunity to assert Russia’s power,” she says. “When you are dealing with an autocratic leader, it’s very difficult to make a case for co-operation, when Putin is not constrained by the same factors as Obama.”
Trump repeatedly praised Putin during the campaign, calling him a “stronger leader” than Obama and suggesting he could work alongside the Russian dictator as an ally. That would mean a drastic reorientation of Obama’s foreign policy.
But put aside the policy implications of a future Trump administration for a moment, because part of the legacy Obama wanted to leave is in tatters already.
Back in 2008, Obama energised his voters with a promise to revolutionise politics in the United States. Sarah Palin infamously referred to this as the “hopey-changey stuff”, and perhaps she was right to mock it, because the bipartisan dream Obama spoke of so eloquently never materialised. That was partly his own fault.
“Obama is simply not the kind of politician that likes to get down and dirty with the kind of everyday politicking, and the horsetrading. He was simply not willing to engage in politics as it is usually done on Capitol Hill,” Dr Grgic says. That hindered the president’s ability to negotiate with Congress.
“A lot of people have said that it’s a kind of product of his personality and who he was previously. An academic, someone who’s very aloof maybe. He’d rather debate things, he’d rather try to show that his argument is plausible or he has more evidence to support his course of action than make those compromises.”
With the Republican Party pulled to the right by its base and Obama unable to break the gridlock in Washington, we’re now witnessing “the most polarising environment ever” in the US, she says.
That environment led directly to the rise of Donald Trump. It decimated the Democrats, whose numbers in Congress have plummeted, and who now face an utterly dominant Republican Party at both federal and state level.
Obama’s one great talent was getting himself elected. His party has crumbled around him over the last eight years, with most of its rising stars turfed from office, and now there is no obvious leader ready to pick up the pieces when he’s gone.
Obama isn’t the only one to blame for this – not even close – but it’s an undeniable fact that he failed to bring the country together. White people and minorities are bitterly divided. Urban elites and rural voters openly sneer at each other. And now, in a sickening dose of irony, America’s first black president will hand over the White House to the man who spent years hounding him with a racist birther conspiracy theory.
“We want to do everything we can to help you succeed. Because if you succeed, the country succeeds,” Obama told Trump when they met today. Those were the right words, and they sounded sincere.
But inside, even if he doesn’t show it, Obama must fear for his legacy. His proudest achievement, health care reform, is in mortal danger, his foreign policy doctrine is about to be reversed, and the nation he hoped to unite is seething with resentment.
Hillary Clinton lost an election, and I’m sure it hurts badly. But Barack Obama could lose everything his presidency stood for, and that is far worse.