President Obama’s Legacy will Profoundly Alter America – But Not for the Better
The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and may not be construed as in any way representative of the views or policies of Oxford Royale Summer Schools.
President Obama has been a transformational president. This, in itself, is not a given – America has produced some splendidly unremarkable presidents over the years, from Martin van Buren, who refused to annex Texas but threatened war with Britain over a few hundred miles of New Brunswick wasteland, to William Henry Harrison, who managed to catch a chill at his inauguration and die only 32 days into his first term.
The Obama presidency has been of a different character to these – he has profoundly altered both the relationship between state and society in America, as well as the structure of America’s economy and its geopolitical positioning. The effects of these interventions will reverberate for many generations. But are they wise?
To answer that, we need to answer another question: how do we judge a presidency? We do so best if we begin by looking at what it is a president can do. This itself is an area of some debate. Broadly speaking, there are three conceptual schools. The first is that the President holds only the power to persuade. His office is incapable of meaningful unilateral action, and so he must use his platform to cajole other actors such as Congress and the Supreme Court into supporting his initiatives. The second view is that the President is supreme, although only in those areas particularly delegated to him under the constitution, notably foreign policy and defence policy through his role as Commander-in-Chief. Finally, there is the view that the President should be judged on the broadest possible interpretation of his influence both within the domestic and international spheres. The degree to which Barack Obama is a successful president depends, to a large degree, on which of these views best describes your understanding of the President’s role.
The Great Persuader Mk II?
If the presidency amounts to having the power, and the platform, to persuade, and to build great coalitions from across the political divide, Mr Obama is very bad at it. From 2009 to the present day, Mr Obama’s polling numbers have been remarkably consistent – at least 80% of Democrats approve of what he does; at least 80% of Republicans disapprove. This is irregular in the broader context of the American presidency, although some of it should be ascribed to the increased partisanship of the digital age. Broadly, though, it suggests a president who is unable or unwilling to find compromise positions outside of party dogma, and unable to communicate the rationale for his ideas in a way which is comprehensible beyond the party base.
[pullquote]The one consistent theme of all the insider accounts of the Obama presidency has been its combination of intellectual arrogance and messianic sense of destiny.[/pullquote]There are numerous examples of this inability to fashion consensus in action: the government debt-ceiling shutdown (complete with what bordered on a malevolent glee that the Republicans would be painted as responsible for any associated deaths), the Syria intervention debacle, the five years spent on a healthcare package which appeared impossible to amend. Syria is, in fact, a good example of the shift in approach under Mr Obama. For good or ill, George W. Bush’s interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq only came about because of the supreme effort he made to capture not just domestic support from prominent Democrats – not least John Kerry – but also internationally. The failure of Mr Obama to secure a domestic coalition, and the failure of the UK to pull through as America’s only automatic war-time alliance partner, left the country humiliated by a Russian diplomatic effort which began as a piece of troublemaking and effrontery and escalated into the only meaningful international response to the civil war.
An inability to persuade is symptomatic of an inability to listen. It is difficult to reason with objectors if you hold all other viewpoints in contempt. The one consistent theme of all the insider accounts of the Obama presidency has been its combination of intellectual arrogance and messianic sense of destiny. When challenged by Rep. Marion Berry over pursuing idealistic policies which played poorly on the doorstep, reprising mistakes made by Bill Clinton early in his presidency, Mr Obama allegedly explained to her “well, the big difference here and in 94 was you’ve got me.” This is a fatal misreading of what the American electorate requires – an adversarial system will never be governable in terms of a cult of personality.
The effect that this has had on presidential politics is abject. Without the ability to build bridges, Mr Obama was always likely to spin between triumph and disaster without the moderating influence of reasonable scrutiny. So it has proven. Because the reforms of the Obama administration lack a basis in common thought, or even an acknowledgement of broader concerns, they are by definition more extreme and disruptive to existing patterns of American civic life than the reforms of previous governments.
This partisanship has also had an interesting impact on the Republicans. Confronted by a Democrat president who has proved willing to endure even the shut-down of the state finances in order to avoid compromise, many Republicans have taken the lesson that they must be equally hard-nosed. The emergence of the Tea Party as a serious force in American politics is disastrous for the Republicans. Not only does it weaken them internally by diverting funding from central party activities and promoting discord between members, it also forces the party leadership away from the compromise positions which have proved the bed-rock of Republican presidencies in the twentieth century. A more extreme Democrat president has, therefore, been a large contributory factor in the formation of a more radical Republican Party.
For the general voter, the effect of this tumult is alienating. In a world in which most reasonably intelligent adults accept that shades of grey are necessary in governance for the unity of the nation, both Democrat and Republican politicians appear to be wedded to ideologies of government which permit only black and white. The Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina considers one of the greatest ironies of U.S. politics to be that the age of mass participation has coincided with the age of mass disillusionment, asking why polls suggest that we preferred the bad-old-days of behind-the-scenes stitch-ups. I would suggest that the reason is because we fear the zealotry of the ideologue more than we fear the insipid nature of the moderate man. The human race heaped many catastrophes upon itself in the course of the last century; few of those were the responsibility of the solid, malleable pragmatist.
Obama’s Pivotal Failings
It is possible to argue that an inability to persuade on a domestic front is not terminal to a president. Great American presidents are forged, in this view, in the crucible of world events. There is something to be said for this perspective: unlike domestically, when a president is largely constrained by his need to make deals with other veto holders, in foreign policy he reigns supreme as commander-in-chief, head of state and America’s negotiator with the world. Arguably, it is in foreign policy that we see presidents at their least constrained, giving the truest picture of their abilities.
History supports this thesis. Ronald Regan’s combination of moral certainty and consensus-building skill was clearest in his work bringing the “Evil Empire” of Soviet Russia in from the cold. The gap between the folksy, good ’ole boy charm and the ethical vacuum at its core left as its legacy the killing fields of Rwanda. George W. Bush’s love of big-state conservatism found the American people in the deserts of the Middle East contemplating an imperial path they were not brave enough to take. In each example, the virtues and the flaws found in their foreign policies were also apparent domestically, although usually in a form diluted by the constraints placed on them.
Mr Obama’s foreign policy was always intended to be revolutionary. His “Pivot” strategy has moved the focus of U.S. attention from the Atlantic to the Pacific, producing all manner of unintended consequences. The theory behind this shift in focus makes sense in terms of Mr Obama’s campaigning style. In seeking to position himself as the change candidate in his first election victory, Mr Obama took on the mantle of the forward-looking progressive. Ditching Europe for Asia showed he was mindful of the continent’s future as America’s major economic counterpart; it also showed that he would not be bound by the old orthodoxies of foreign policy which dictated that Britain was America’s lead acolyte, a partnership which had resulted in so much carnage in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In reality, the execution and effect of this policy have left a lot to be desired. Far from being complimented, China has been uneasy at an increasing U.S. focus on the region, while Mr Obama’s greater involvement may soon embroil him in the escalating three-way scrap between China, Japan and Taiwan over the Senkaku islands. If American interests have been extensively served by this arrangement, then it is in an extremely opaque way, and American influence over the Pacific does not appear to have kept pace with the extension of American liabilities in the region.
What Mr Obama has sacrificed for this dubious prize is America’s most reliable alliance. The enthusiasm with which he has set about alienating Britain and America is one of the more interesting aspects of his presidency. Following a strong start in which he relegated Winston Churchill’s bust from the Oval Office and exchanged Gordon Brown’s thoughtful and classy gift of a pen holder made from the wooden timbers of the anti-slaving ship HMS Gannett for a box of 25 DVDs that wouldn’t work in Britain, Mr Obama has continued to step up his game. In more recent times, the president has sided openly with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, refused to attend Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, sending a very low-level delegation instead, turned the Deep Horizon disaster into nationalist politics by repeatedly referring to BP as British Petroleum, declared France to be America’s “strongest ally” in the face of all historical reason, and appointed a greenhorn campaign donor as ambassador to the Court of St James.
This is not a trivial list, and it has not had a trivial effect. By deliberately alienating America’s most consistent and loyal ally, Mr Obama has painted himself into a corner. America’s focus on the Middle East and North Africa means that its Chinese alliance is largely useless. Not only are the Chinese not interested in these regions, but they lack the logistical network to become involved even if they should wish to. The real influence is often that of Russia, always implacably opposed to American objectives in the region which it perceives as power grabs, and the old colonial powers Britain and France. These colonial powers will now not help him. The French, always willing to start somebody else’s fight for them, melted away as soon as the Syrian intervention looked likely to heat up, and the British, tired of being treated with contempt, voted against military strikes. As such, Syria is effectively closed to America, as, without an alliance worthy of the name, is the entire region. For no corresponding gain, Mr Obama has eviscerated America’s global influence.
Similar patterns appear elsewhere. The Israel alliance, again one of the strongest in America’s pre-Obama portfolio, has been weakened by a deal with Iran over nuclear enrichment. Again, it is difficult to see the strategic imperative in preferring a foe to a friend, and America appears diminished as a result.
Foreign policy swings are not alien to America. Famously, it sided with an Egyptian military commander whose personal philosophy bordered on fascism in the Suez dispute with Britain, France and Israel in 1956. This time, though, it feels as though something has genuinely been lost. America feels more remote, more helpless, a vacillating power in a dangerous world. Regaining the prestige and rebuilding the relationships sacrificed in a bid to give the Chinese attention to which they are at best ambivalent and at worst hostile will be one of the difficult tasks his successor faces. Mr Obama’s legacy in this area has been one of empty gestures and myopic destruction of existing relationships for the sake of a slogan – change.
A Poisoned Chalice
So where does this leave us if we conflate the domestic and the international scenes? The answer is in a significantly worse place than in 2008. Mr Obama’s legacy will be difficult to unpick. It is a legacy of factionalism and discord at home, of unfaithfulness and weakness abroad. His America is weaker and more divided than at any point in its history, its writ doesn’t run in the semi-civilised portions of the world that need American help and American intervention where necessary. America itself will never again act with one voice anyway; the domestic legacy is too poisonous for that. A transformative president? You bet. But I doubt Mr Obama’s legacy is quite the change America was hoping for.