The irony of Barack Obama’s presidency is that while it began at a time when it seemed America’s fortunes could only improve, his inauguration day turned out to be his personal high water mark.
The retiring President’s speech in Chicago this week contained flashes of the optimism that he brought to a country and a world which was reeling from the banking crisis and mired in the deepest recession since the 1930s. It recalled the sense of hope that he would lift America’s reputation abroad, shattered as it was by the Iraq war.
Yet eight years on, even Obama’s keenest supporters are struggling to answer: what exactly is his legacy? ‘Yes, we did,’ he roared to the crowd, in reply to his old rallying cry of ‘Yes, we can.’ But did what? By every measure, he claimed, ‘America is a better, stronger place.’ It is hard to square that with the fractious country he leaves behind.
The cold reality is that Obama’s legacy is Black Lives Matter on the one hand and Donald Trump on the other. Of all things, Obama was supposed to be a unifier.
Yet those who had to live under his higher taxes and studied his administration more closely see a man who preached unity and went on to practise partisanship. Bill Clinton realised that it is cross-party deals which tend to endure — his pioneering achievement in welfare reform was the result of his working with Republicans. Obama, by contrast, approached his reforms by trying to overrule legislatures over which he did not have full control. That is why much of his legacy now looks set to be dismantled.
Many believed that Obamacare would be the President’s lasting achievement. Instead it looks doomed, its flaws exposed.