Obama has been President for most of my adult life, and it is weird to consider that very soon he won’t be. I will always sympathize with him, but he wasn’t a good or successful president. The reason why: I don’t think it’s controversial that the world and the U.S. are in worse shape now than they were when Obama was elected. The main factor in this is the election of Donald Trump, a disaster of historic proportions. Of course, Trump’s election is not exclusively – or even primarily – Obama’s “fault”. But it happened in reaction to Obama’s presidency. Trump and the Republicans can quickly work to undo most of Obama’s other positive achievements. For now, it seems fair to me to say that the primary legacy of Obama’s presidency is the election of Donald Trump.
Most or all of Obama’s achievements – Obamacare, the Paris Accords, the EPA rules on carbon, the Iran nuclear deal, Dodd-Frank, changes in the tax system, etc., can quickly be reversed. Jon Chait makes the counterintuitive claim that Obama’s legacy can endure, but I don’t buy it. His argument mainly consists of two parts: (a) lots of stuff happened on Obama’s watch that isn’t in the purview of U.S. government and (b) Trump and Republicans may pay a political price for undoing Obama’s achievements. I think it’s not right to give Obama so much credit for (a), and overly optimistic to think Republicans have no aims other than staying in power for (b).
Obama had a theory about how the world works. I sympathize with Obama, because I thought his theory was correct. It seemed like careful, small nudges in the direction Obama thought the world should go were the best way to proceed. But they weren’t. Trump’s election has shown that he was wrong.
In his farewell address, Obama spoke as if he still believed in this vision. But I don’t. Not anymore. As Anton Chigurh says, “if the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?” And I am very doubtful that Obama believes it anymore either. I think he is scrambling to figure out a new way to see the world and how he should act with the power that he has in it. I think moves like the UN resolution on Israel are examples of this scrambling.
It’s not useful to talk about whether a President is a “good guy”. The moral decisions of the US presidency necessarily involve knowingly killing innocent people for complicated geopolitical gamesmanship reasons. If someone does that and is not horrified every minute of every day, his morality is at least not one I can recognize. But Obama was a person I admired.
There’s one more reason I will appreciate him more than his achievements warrant. Unlike most politicians, he seemed extremely, sincerely worried about trying to do a good job. Maybe that’s not much – after all, Mark Zuckerberg also seems to be sincerely worried about doing a good job, and I think electing Mark Zuckerberg as President would be terrifying. Still, it’s a surprisingly rare trait: I don’t think Trump, Bush, or either Clinton possess it. But Obama did, and I am grateful for that.
So, bye bye, Obama. And Thanks.