EDITORIAL: Barack Obama: an unfulfilled promise

Barack and Michelle dancing at the 2009 Inaugural Ball

The unfulfilled promise of Barack Obama.

The Obama era will be remembered as one of opportunities lost and promise unfulfilled.

It began with high hopes. The decision by US voters to elect their first black president suggested that maybe – just maybe – the racial divide plaguing America had finally been bridged.

The new president seemed to embody hope. At 47 Barack Obama was young, charismatic and eloquent. To a weary world, he seemed everything that is predecessor, George W. Bush, was not.

Foreigners adored Obama. The Norwegians awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 – well before he’d had a chance to do anything even remotely deserving.

During the early years, he wowed crowds from Berlin to Cairo.

Canadians were particularly enthralled. Even as late as last summer, rapturous MP’s gave Obama a standing ovation in Parliament.

But throughout, there was always a nagging problem: the reality of Obama was rarely able to match the president’s soaring rhetoric.

Perhaps nothing exemplifies this more than his failed effort efforts to close the controversial US prison camp at Guantanamo Bay.

To Obama, Guantanamo was a stain on America. Situated on land leased from Cuba, it was a place where alleged terrorists could be jailed and without ever being charged. By keeping the prison, open, Obama said, “We have compromised our most precious values.”

In his second day in office, Obama pledged to close the prison within a year. Almost eight years later, it is still open.

The reasons are many: there were disputes within the administration; Obama’s attention shifted to other priorities, as time wore on, Congress became increasingly reluctant.

But the bottom line was that the president couldn’t get it done. America’s commander-in-chief was unable to shutdown a prison run by his own soldiers.

In a sad way, Guantanamo became a metaphor for Obama’s presidency. He promised to win the war in Afghanistan. Eight years later, the conflict against the Taliban remains a draw.

He promised to get US troops out if Iraq. Eight years later, they are back and fighting again – as they are in Syria and Libya.

He began his presidency by calling on Israel to freeze settlement building in the West Bank. He ended with the same plea. But in the interval, he put a little practical pressure on Israel to achieve this goal. Instead he provided it with more money and weapons then had any of his predecessors. Even his signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a Obamacare is being dismantled. In part this is not Obama’s fault. Last November, Americans chose to hand control of the presidency and Congress to a Republican party that has vowed to destroy Obamacare.

But in part, Obama is culpable. In an effort to appease drug and insurance companies, Obama had devised the healthcare plan so complex and flawed that it never won the loyalty of rank-and-file voters.

If Obamacare were as popular as, say, social Security, (the old age pension) Republicans would find it far harder to undo.

None of this is to say Obama was a dud. He did have recognizable accomplishments. On the international front, he never let his antipathy toward Russian President Vladimir Putin get in the way of working with Moscow – as in the successful agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

And while the US remain tangled in at least five Wars (Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Libya), Obama is – to his credit a reluctant combatant who understands limitations of American power.

Put simply, it could have been worse.

On the domestic front, he was hamstrung during most of his tenure by Congressional Republicans who refused to legislate his agenda. But even when Obama’s Democrats did control Congress as they did in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, the president preferred caution to boldness.

His professed love affair with Canada was also more talk than action. Obama may have praised this country and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. But that very public bromance produced a little concrete.

Canada’s software wood lumber industry is still in America’s crosshairs. The Keystone XL pipeline project to bring oil from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico will remain blocked until Obama is replaced by his Republican successor, Donald Trump.

Obama was bold in the sphere of executive action. He involve the US in wars without getting explicit Congressional approval, an act that is arguably unconstitutional.

He authorized the assassination by drone of more than 3,400 foreigners and US citizens, actions that were arguably war crimes.

He bypassed congress to fight climate change. The goal might have been virtuous but the means were of dubious legality.

In a strange way, Obama ended up being the kind of imperial president he once railed against.

How will he be remembered? He is a rational and thoughtful man, so perhaps he will be remembered for that. He was America’s first black president and he will be surely remembered for that.

But there is also a hauntingly and sad quality to Obama – a sense of unmet expectations. He will be remembered for that as well.

Thomas Walkom, Toronto Star

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