Barack Obama prepares to leave the White House after two consecutive term. “His eight years in office, writes Guy Sorman, can be summed up in one success: Obamacare.”
A great head of state defines their era and shapes events. At least, this is the general definition. Napoleon I is much admired by the French, despised by the rest of Europe, and is seen as “great.” The reign of King Louis Philippe (1830-1848) was characterized by peace and a certain prosperity, and yet the only lasting memory of his name is a style of furniture. Posterity is a cruel mistress. In Obama’s case, partisan judgements divide the United States: He is seen as great by the Democrats and mediocre by the Republicans.
The question of greatness is in fact founded upon a mistaken view of true presidential powers, and as such is perhaps ill-worded. The American Constitution is designed to ensure a president may never be a monarch. He or she may take no significant action without multiple authorizations granted by Congress and a host of legal consultants, all under the piercing glare of the Supreme Court. The president has little power, domestically and internationally; this is exactly why Obama’s eight-year term in office can be summed up in one, meaningful success known as Obamacare, the granting of health insurance to 30 million American citizens. This is no small matter. Those affected are pleased, and the Democrats are proud, but the Republicans have never accepted the federal government’s intervention in the private lives of the country’s citizens. Obamacare will be dismantled so effectively that Obama will leave no tangible heritage by which to remember him.
Other initiatives taken during his two terms were more symbolic than concrete, and supported minorities, African-Americans, transgender people and immigrants. In a nation’s lifetime, these symbols are important, but nothing more. The lives of African-Americans, for example, have continuously improved because racism has spontaneously diminished and numbers of jobs have increased. Obama accompanied this socio-economic trend, but he did not start it. Fortunately, at least, he did not fight it. In politics, as in medicine, “do no harm” should be the first obligation.
Two groundbreaking events that took place during Obama’s presidency were not of his doing: The legalization of same-sex marriage, imposed by the Supreme Court, and the legalization of cannabis, voted in by referendum in 28 states. In terms of domestic policy, the president’s main advantage is the power of the pulpit. After all, the White House is the most influential “pulpit” in the United States, used to galvanize the people and lead by example. The fact the Obama family were exemplary is no small achievement in a country where many African-American families are in tatters. Was Obama a great president? In terms of his dignified behavior, he certainly was.
His foreign policy is harder to evaluate. The president holds more power in this sphere, but is supervised by the Senate, the media and public opinion. The right-wing criticizes his soft approach to Iran, Chinese imperialism and Russian invasions of Crimea and Syria. The Chinese and the Russians would most probably have backed down in the face of the aggressive determination of George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan. But Obama was elected for his pacifism and his promise to “bring our troops home.” And he honored his commitments: There were few American soldiers killed in action during his presidency. This counts more for the American public than dying for Syria, Ukraine of the Spratly Islands. We may reproach him, as the Republicans do, for having failed to go to war against Bashar al-Assad, but would it have been worth betraying his popular mandate? Obama was restricted to a secret war fought by the U.S. Special Forces and drones to eliminate several thousand jihadist soldiers, including Osama bin Laden. Surely a great president is one who respects the wishes of his voters? This criteria is rarely decisive in such judgement, but I believe it should be.
I have often written that the American president is a Gulliver tied down by Lilliputians, and Obama is a testament to this image. Some of his predecessors seem to have thrown off their chains, but this is because events have defined these “great” presidents more than they themselves have defined the events. Take Abraham Lincoln, for example. The American Civil War was thrust upon him, he emerged victorious, and gave the conflict a meaning it did not have at the start — the abolition of slavery. Circumstances defined Lincoln, not the other way around. The same can be said of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose only choice was to win a war he would have preferred to avoid fighting. Ronald Reagan was doubly lucky, with a new economy driven by the Internet (that he did not invent), and the collapse of the Soviet Union (that he did not cause). And yet, today, Americans see him as one of their greatest presidents.
Returning to Napoleon I, he believed that winning a battle depended on luck. In this sense, a great president is one who is lucky, and who knows how to be in the right place at the right time. Obama positioned himself halfway, too reserved to be completely lucky, and never faced with a major crisis. That being said, he did not cause one, either. I do not credit Obama for the economic revival in the United States; he has nothing to do with it, in the same way that George W. Bush was hardly responsible for the 2008 financial crisis. A president is nothing more than a president — a reality with which Donald Trump will soon be confronted.