Obama’s Legacy

By Andrej Mrevlje |
Barack Obama and Andre 3000/ Outkast in Boston 2004. Photo: Andrej Mrevlje

They fly in three. You see and hear them constantly if you live in Washington, D.C.  Marine One is a heavy VH-3D chopper available for the United States president to use for short-distance travel. After some improvements, it has been turned into a virtually silent helicopter, as people who have flown on them can tell you. You can speak normally on Marine One — you do not have to yell, they say.

But those heavy-looking, old-fashioned choppers are damn noisy for the people on the ground. They make sure that you know almost every move of the U.S. president. And it doesn’t really matter if you do not know exactly which of the identical choppers the president is sitting in — it makes you think of him all the time. So in this sense, the capital of the country is similar to the imperial cities of the past, when the omnipresence of the emperor was necessary to encourage the obedience of subordinates.

I have been living in the U.S. for the last six years, and even though I do not vote here, I feel like a “subject” of the United States president, especially now that I live in D.C. In other words, he is on my mind all the time. And as Obama’s time is running out, I, too, am trying to think about what his legacy will be.

I cannot say much about Obamacare other than the fact that the reform was a huge compromise reached in extremis. Thanks to my wife, I have excellent health insurance, and I do not need to know the practicalities and procedures that look extremely complex from the outside. As does this whole country that hosts me. So I cannot say whether Obamacare is good or bad for this country.

But what I do know and feel is the pain of other journalists who were put under pressure by this president. Obama has had an incredibly thin skin when it comes to the journalists.

It seems to me that America has not changed much under Obama. That is, this president managed to stop the bleeding of the economy, but did not reform the system that caused the crisis, despite having the chance to do so. For this reason alone, we will witness more economic collapses in the future, I am sure. So one can hardly say whether or not America has gotten any better or worse.

Snowden, meanwhile, is a hero for me, but this country was not able to organize a debate that would help to reflect on what the surveillance of American citizens — be it from the NSA or from Google — is leading to. Guantanamo is still there and open, but at least it is not receiving new guests.

It is true that the country does not prosper, but in view of what the next president might bring to this country, America and the world as a whole will be sorry for the departure of one of the smartest, brightest and most thoughtful presidents this country has ever had.

America builds monuments to its presidents. But unlike Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and others, this president will not be accepted into the pantheon. He’ll get his presidential library, but nothing else. You do not build monuments to presidents who were in the White House while the country was sliding away from its past glory. I do not think that this president contributed much to the decline of America, but it’s hard to say that American exceptionalism still exists. Did it ever? Perhaps just in the sense that this young country has always been free of the burden of history — with one exception of course: the guilt of the massacre of Native Americans.

To me, the only monument this president will get is the one that he made for himself — or rather, that he contributed to: the recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture. It is an important new institution that took decades to finish, and it now stands proudly with the other important Smithsonian buildings and museums in the capital. It is an incredible achievement, especially if we consider the recent resurgence of racism all over the country.

The latter started with the first black president in the White House. And yet, Obama’s entrance onto the political stage started well. This country seemed to be so full of enthusiasm and optimism. I remember very well Barack Obama’s first speech during the Democratic Convention in Boston during that hot summer in 2004. Let’s hear again some of the words that enchanted America — that gave me goosebumps as I stood below the podium where Obama, then unknown to most Americans, delivered the speech that made him a rock star in American politics overnight:

It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a millworker’s son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too. Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope! In the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us,the bedrock of this nation. A belief in things not seen. A belief that there are better days ahead. I believe that we can give our middle class relief and provide working families with a road to opportunity. I believe that we can provide jobs to the jobless, homes to the homeless, and reclaim young people in cities across America from violence and despair. I believe that we have a righteous wind at our backs and that as we stand on the crossroads of history, we can make the right choices and meet the challenges that face us. America! Tonight, if you feel the same energy that I do, if you feel the same urgency that I do, if you feel the same passion that I do, if you feel the same hopefulness that I do, if we do what we must do, then I have no doubt that all across the country — from Florida to Oregon, from Washington to Maine — the people will rise up in November, and John Kerry will be sworn in as president. And John Edwards will be sworn in as vice president. And this country will reclaim its promise, and out of this long political darkness a brighter day will come.

It did not happen. John Kerry did not embody the same kind of energy, could not be the kind of inspiration that would reach across traditionally divided American constituencies. Kerry could not touch the souls of young Americans. Meanwhile, in Barack Obama, America heard something that went beyond the terror and fear that George Bush and John Kerry argued about during the campaign that year. Because, Obama said:

The pundits, the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into red states and blue states — red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too: we worship an “awesome God” in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states, and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq, and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

That young skinny black man with the weird name talked like a prophet. He immediately sparked a fire across the country. For me, he was the new president of America. And clearly not just for me — the day after his speech, his staff told him that he should run for president in 2008. He asked them if they were insane. But everybody was fired up. Perhaps this was the main reason why Kerry lost. How can you go and vote for someone so flat and normal when you could see Obama’s fire — his desire for change — during his 18-minute speech?

So by 2008, when I was back in the U.S. and following the primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire, I found myself at a friend’s house in Concord, New Hampshire, which was full of Obama’s surrogates, donors, congressmen and governors. Paul Hodes, then-representative of New Hampshire and one of Obama’s first supporters, told me that Obama’s calling was to become president.

When Senator Dick Durbin gave the closing speech that night, the room was charged with unsustainable emotions, with all present convinced that they were witnessing a historical moment. It felt almost like a religious spell. A conviction that, after 40 years, the time had come for a change, and that Obama was absolutely the man to lead. There were tears, there were sighs of hope that America would finally end its racial civil war.

We all hoped. But there were the voices that said that Obama was just talk, that he could not walk the walk. This is the judgment that prevails today. It gave birth to Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, the rebellions against the political establishment, the populism that attempted to play a disruptive role. It did not happen with Sanders, and I hope that it will not happen with Trump, despite his constant instigation of the crowds at his rallies. It could not happen with the one person who seems to have his head in the right place. Obama could not do it alone. I actually think that even he does not have the right vision or capacity to lead this country towards reform.

I have always said that my impression was that among all the books he’s read, Obama probably most despises Machiavelli. He does not seem to like power, but it seems to me that he likes the pleasures that come with it. He loves to fly in Air Force One, for instance.

So there is a long list of his mistakes — or better, his missed opportunities. How true is it, for instance, that the fact that he was the first black president made him conscious of the limits of what a black man can do in this country, even today? Do you remember the first debate between Obama and Mitt Romney during the presidential campaign in 2012? Romney was lying to Obama’s face, turning all his previous statements upside-down. Obama was furious, but did not say anything. He simply went numb and silent. Later on, quite a few experts told me that he could not say anything. Obama, as a black person, could not show anger towards a white person in public for fear of backlash. In 2012, after he was already president for four years?

But the list of mistakes and missed opportunities are long. Obama is not an apostle, and he was not a prophet. Americans — and even Europeans — wanted him to be one, but he could not deliver. Still, Obama is definitely a decent and non-corrupt man, materially and morally. And that alone made him almost an apostle.

And with him returning to private life, the world is losing a great political personality. Because if nothing else, Obama has tried — as he promised he would during his first campaign — to speak to other leaders. He tried to reason and establish a permanent dialog with China, to persuade Chinese leadership that the U.S. and China are on the same page, that both countries are responsible for the future of the world.

And initially, he did have a constructive relationship with Russian Vladimir Putin. But if we judge by the present situation, Obama’s rhetoric did not work well with either Russia or China. There could be a myriad of reasons why it didn’t. Is it due to a lack of trust? Because world leaders are not used to Obama’s style and rhetoric?

Obama’s mind is complex, as we can see from “The Obama Doctrine” — the most extensive interview that the American president ever gave on his foreign policy. It is mostly about Syria and the dilemmas and concerns that come from his intellectual background.

Then there was his idea of leading from behind that he applied in Libya while trying to put his new security policy into effect. It was a disaster. And yet, in all his decisions, even the most powerful person on this world — as the American president is wrongly called — is not alone. Obama has no absolute power, and many times there are discrepancies in principles between the White House, the Pentagon, the CIA, and others that lead to certain political decisions, as I tried to prove was the case in Syria.

Obama will also be remembered as a “drone” president. But was it him, or was it new technology in the context of modern warfare that now also includes cyber war? Recently, the Atlantic discussed whether a world without militaries is possible. If you have been in this world long enough, you might know that the answer is “no.” Not unless humanity finds an outside enemy that unites us all. Till then, hoping that an American president — or any other country’s leader — can disarm the world is a terrible illusion.

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