For a president who was written off as a doomed lame duck sometime around 2011 when the Republican party seized back control of Congress, the actual amount which Obama has accomplished can take you by surprise. Beyond the controversial (and frankly compromised) affordable health act which took up most of the contemporary column ink, he quietly reduced unemployment from 7.8% to 4.9% (and falling), successfully bailed out (and saved) the American Auto industry, reached a nuclear deal with Iran, appointed two women to the Supreme Court, tripled renewable energy sources like solar and wind power and presided over the legalisation of gay marriage.
However the sky-high expectations brought about by the popular movement behind his 2008 election (Obama himself has said that he has often seemed to act as “a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views”) meant that disappointment and disillusion were the only practical outcomes.
The Obama presidency also took place during a period where the mainstream media began to lose its grip on the general public in an unprecedented fashion. Carefully researched facts could be ignored in favour of a teeming multitude of fake news sites that published clickbait headlines that didn’t even bear a nodding acquaintance with the truth.
The proliferation of patently untrue conspiracy theories such as the ‘birther’ movement (who claimed that Obama was born in Kenya and thus ineligible for the presidency) managed to dominate public consciousness (President-Elect Donald Trump was a prominent birther) in a way that would be unimaginable even as recently as 2007. Complicating matters was Obama’s perceived aloofness, affected in part in order to attempt to smother accusations that he was allowing his racial identity to effect his decision-making process, which as a technique ended up pleasing neither side; liberals felt disenchanted that Obama wasn’t the leftist avatar of change they’d anointed him as and the right remained threatened by what he was perceived as representing.
Of these two responses to Obama’s premiership it was the Republican party whose behaviour has had the largest effect on American political and public life. Riding a wave of alienated voters enflamed by the nascent post-truth news reporting of Fox News and their ilk, the Republican reimagined themselves as something closer to saboteurs than a party in opposition.
Throwing themselves into fevered opposition of any and all legislation or policy decisions emerging from Obama to subvert the President eventually turned the very idea of non-partisan politics into something of a joke. After the 2010 midterm elections where the Democrats suffered some of the biggest losses since the great depression, the Presidency and the Republicans have tussled for political control in a battle with all the dignity of a drunken brawl.
Before the midterms, Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell expressed his intention to make Obama a “one term president” and former Republican House Leader John Boehner went as far as to say that due to the looming Healthcare reforms “This is not a time for compromise…We’re going to do everything — and I mean everything — we can do, to kill it, stop it, slow it down.”
This wasn’t just related to partisan issues like healthcare. Fewer district and circuit court judges were confirmed in President Obama’s first term than in the first terms of the previous three presidents, thanks to Senate Republicans’ stall-and-delay strategy. A majority of Obama’s uncontroversial first-term judicial nominees, those who were both reported by the Senate Judiciary Committee and confirmed by the full Senate overwhelmingly, took over 200 days to be confirmed.
Since Republicans took charge of the Senate in 2015, judicial confirmations have virtually ground to a halt. According to the Alliance for Justice, Senate Republicans are “on pace for the lowest number of judicial confirmations in more than 60 years.” The nadir of this policy came with the infamous government shutdown of 2013 where the Republicans forced the workings of government to grind to a halt for 16 days as a last ditch attempt to break what they disparagingly dubbed ‘Obamacare’.
Even in the last days of the Obama presidency we’re seeing the continuation of these politics of obstruction with the still ongoing blockade on the Supreme Court nomination to replace the arch-conservative Antonin Scalia (who died in February) which ignored Obama’s compromise choice of Merrick Garland in favour of political gridlock. Prior to Donald Trump’s electoral victory senior Republicans like John McCain were even go as far as to claim that this stalling would proceed indefinitely in the event of a Clinton victory “I promise you that we will be united against any Supreme Court nominee that Hillary Clinton, if she were president, would put up”.
As a result of this historically nearly unprecedentedly hostile Congress, Obama increasingly began to use his executive privilege to govern like a monarch, via executive orders. As a result as his premiership has worn on, it increasingly felt like Obama was effectively ruling alone.
As ever the perceived aloofness in legislates based on his feelings of personal moral and political authority on a multitude of controversial issues ranging from abortion to gun rights, has had the knock on effect of turbocharging the fires of paranoia and alienation over government overreach amongst his critics.
Regardless of the absurdly partisan waters in which Obama was obligated to swim, he wasn’t exactly without his own disappointments. Guantanamo Bay remains open, Wall Street has run rampant in a historic stretch of regulatory and prosecutorial inaction and the betrayals on security-state issues like drone assassination, secrecy and surveillance have been a hard pill to swallow for even his most dedicated supporters. The ‘blank screen’ has proven a far greater willingness for ‘business as usual’ style politics than the message that he ran on would ever have suggested.
However despite these disappointments he has governed with an intelligence and style that will only be thrown into sharper relief by the incoming, notoriously thin skinned, Donald Trump. He faced an extraordinary challenge, entering the White House as the first African-American president at a time when the economy was in ruins and the culture wars were spiralling out of control.
His political path forward has always been a tightrope where both ends threaten to burst into flames at any moment. A presidency weighed down by corruption, indecisiveness or personal weaknesses would have been a disaster and he was able to avoid each with striking alacrity.
In addition his flagship healthcare initiative, even in its current, Republican mutilated, form was an incredible achievement in a country that effectively still views even the slightest whiff of socialism to be political (if not actual) suicide. Obama’s calm unruffled approach to the ‘tsunami’ of hatred (both racially motivated and not) and vicious, laughably untrue rumours (that he was a secret Muslim, that he was born in Kenya etc ad infinitum) has been a masterclass in statesmanlike grace.
The 44th President of the United States was mortal and occasionally fallible, but has proved a credit to his office. By contrast the 45th seems to be determined to reduce the presidency to an ugly joke.