As President Barack Obama prepares to leave office, CHRISTOPHER JACKSON looks at his administration from the perspective of an observer in the UK, and explains why we’ll miss him.
I have been recalling the day when Barack Hussein Obama was elected president of the United States. The reflection is of a strange kind: a pleasant one that also engenders melancholy. It might be that the world is always losing a portion of some original innocence. 2008 felt at the time a sober moment compared with, say, the 1990s when the world had time to pause and debate the sex life of Bill Clinton, and not everyone had yet heard of Al-Qaida. At the time of Obama’s election, with the Iraq troop surge and the onset of the financial crisis, we felt in need of some Great Leader to come and fix things. But with Donald Trump, the possible unraveling of the EU and the deeds of ISIL uppermost in people’s minds, 2016 seems of another seriousness altogether.
2008, London. I recall the three of us — my sister, my girlfriend now wife, and a younger version of me — all crammed in our Pimlico living room. We had pledged to stay up all night — as long as it took to experience the Historic Moment. We had determined to make it through until at least Obama’s victory speech.
It was a near landslide — even Indiana had turned blue! — and Obama walked out at about 5 a.m. GMT with his young family to address what we already thought of as a new America.
There in London, we were all — and the same went for everyone I knew — unusually emotional about this distant plebiscite. There was the sense that U.S. presidential politics had dashed across the Atlantic to alter one’s own self: This was the case even though Obama hadn’t pledged to alter our health care system or even to right our economy. Why was this? There has long been a feeling among the U.K. electorate — certainly ever since Franklin Roosevelt gave Winston Churchill such vital assistance in World War II — that the identity of the U.K. prime minister is of less consequence than the identity of the U.S. president. This is entirely a function of power. Power, which whether you like it or not, is alluring. Power, which really can alter your life and the life of your children. The American president makes the weather of the times. His or her identity is a marker about who we are and where we’re heading — it helps us navigate our way through the confusions of modern reality.
The Obama election was the ratification of that feeling: It really did seem as though one human being might solve the world’s problems.
A pesky amendment to the U.S. constitution
To fast forward eight years is to discover in the U.K. not disappointment, but the fact that such emotions die hard. For most of us today, the 22nd Amendment to the United States Constitution makes for unhappy reading:
No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of President more than once.
And the reason it makes grim reading in the U.K. is because it is precisely this clause that bars Obama from another four years in office. Over here, we would like that very much: One says this not as a personal opinion but with some confidence that it has its roots in objective reality. I recognize that we inhabit the age of the discredited pollster, but according to a recent YouGov survey, 72% of people in the U.K. think Obama has done a good job, versus a mere 16% who don’t. Such polls, if translated into electoral terms, wouldn’t wholly disappoint Vladimir Putin in a Russian presidential election. Obama has similar popularity in France (83%), Italy (77%), and Germany (73%). Without the 1933-1945 reign of FDR — the only president ever to serve more than two terms — perhaps there would have been no swell of need ever to pass the 22nd Amendment during Harry Truman’s administration, and we might now be talking about Obama running for a third term. There is also a sense that Obama wouldn’t mind staying on himself. At the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on July 28, 2015, the president ad-libbed during his speech:
I actually think I’m a pretty good President — I think if I ran I could win. But I can’t. … There’s a lot that I’d like to do to keep America moving, but the law is the law. And no one person is above the law. Not even the President.
Even a relatively level-headed man like Obama feels the addiction of power. He certainly could have won against Donald Trump — probably at a cakewalk. But if everyone in the world had a vote, he would win by a landslide more or less indefinitely. So why is Obama so popular? Put it another way — what has Obama ever done for us?
A scene from Monty Python
In Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a raging John Cleese, in the walk-on part of Reg, asks rhetorically what the Romans have ever done for the citizens of Jerusalem. It turns out that they have done rather more than Reg expected. Just at the moment he most thinks to find his rage confirmed, it is undermined. The Romans have built aqueducts, roads and bridges, and much more. It is a marvelous reminder of the unheralded nature of achievement in politics: Improvement is rarely showy, and people tend to take it for granted. Here is the culmination of the scene:
Reg: All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the freshwater system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
Xerxes: Brought peace!
Reg: Oh peace? Shut up!
Obama’s comparative unpopularity in his home country can seem to those of us who have watched his administration from afar, somewhat like this.
What has Obama ever done for us?
- There’s the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which upgraded 42,000 miles of road, 2,700 bridges, and 6,000 miles of rail, and cut middle-class taxes.
- There’s the small matter of universal health care, which keeps coming in ahead of the gloomy economic predictions of the right.
Yes, but apart from the Recovery Act and Obamacare.
- There are the Dodd-Frank reforms, which have done much to rein in the excesses of Wall Street: the best indicator of their importance is the $1.3 billion that the Chamber of Commerce has spent in trying to stymie their introduction.
Okay, apart from that.
- There’s the immigration executive orders, the Paris climate change agreement, the nuclear agreement with Iran, real attempts to move the dialogue on gun control, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
- Unlike Xerxes, one cannot cry out that Obama has brought peace, but we can see certain gains in that direction: the refusal to be involved in any invasion of Syria, and his attempt — albeit somewhat more staggered and protracted than he would have liked — to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and Iraq.
Of course it’s not quite that simple. Obama’s international popularity is also a function of our not being so much involved in living through the domestic problems he has attempted to address.
Indeed, one can imagine that for those Americans who are less than impressed with Obama’s government, the Europe-wide affection for him must seem a function of distance and ignorance. I believe this is largely false and that Obama’s achievements will eventually warrant the gratitude of history. But it doesn’t mean that there is no basis for it: Politics is so complex that unanimity of praise is rightly held in suspicion. For instance, global polls show that Obama’s popularity lessens where his policies have had most direct impact. A 14% approval rating in Pakistan is in large part a resounding rejection of drone strikes. His 15% rating in the Palestinian territories is an indication of the miserable condition of a people to whom help has not come in the last eight years, nor shows any particular likelihood of coming soon. In the U.K., you will find very few people who love, for instance, the nuclear agreement with Iran, or even the landmark Paris agreement on climate change. But you will find plenty who love Obama himself.
Why is Obama loved?
One aspect of this love is grief at his departure. It might possibly be that there is the sense that his presidency fell short not because of his own failings but because of Republican obstructionism. This gives his presidency an unusual sense of latent potential though it is nearing its conclusion. Imagine what he might still achieve, one thinks, without Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan there to block everything he wants to do: a cap-and-trade climate change bill, legislative action on immigration, consequential steps toward the alleviation of inequality. There is the sense that he isn’t done yet.
It must also be observed that Obama had a larger pool of goodwill to draw from in the first place. Here was a man of obvious kindness and good humor. It is now difficult to remember the George Bush years, and even the Bill Clinton years before them — how redolent the former was of gaffe and bloated confusion, and how the latter had the whiff of scandal and compromise about it. The Obama presidency has retained, in the eyes of the wider world, this impression of benevolence, and even fun, without losing its integrity. Is it that we have turned too much of a blind eye to