A complex world reduced to 140-character fragments

William Saunderson-Meyer says it is too early to say that Obama's presidency was a failure


Barack Obama has been a failure as president of the United States. Despite being a two-termer, he bequeaths a negligible legacy, soon to be negated by a resurgent Republican Party that has snaffled not only the presidency, but — eat your heart out, Barack — now controls both legislative chambers and a majority of state governorships. 

Well, this is the apparent consensus of the pundits. They are mistaken. 

The first drafts of history are notoriously imperfect. Hastily assembled by vying participants and by observers tainted by partisan bias, they invariably are found in the rear view mirror to be imperfect, often grossly wrong. 

We simply cannot authoritatively discern the future consequences of present actions. When state archival material is eventually released half a century down the line, and cause and effect more dispassionately assessed, the picture becomes clearer.

An apposite example among American presidents is that of Ronald Reagan, who was during his tenure widely reviled for his stated readiness to consider the "zero option” of nuclear battle against the Soviet Union's "evil empire”.  But with the benefit of hindsight, this playing chicken with the Russians is now credited with triggering the tumbling dominos that freed eastern Europe from communism and neutered the power of the Soviet Union, elevating him to a place among the great US's presidents, in the view of many historians.

No matter how risible the award of the Nobel Prize to Obama looks, only months after he first took office, the future might yet find evidence of the “inspirational diplomacy” for which he was made Peace laureate. For at the very least, Obama was not afraid to take a hammer to ancient shibboleths.

There was his willingness to speak blunt truths to Benjamin Netanyahu, the first change of tone in the US-Israeli discourse in half a century, which may reverberate long after the Donald Trump presidency ends. In similar mould-breaking vein was his ending the counterproductive 53-year isolation of Cuba.

So, too, his efforts to extract the US from the wars into which his Republican predecessors had plunged the country. While these endeavours became mired and messy, there can be no doubt that Obama was a reluctant warrior, foreshadowing in a way a growing American isolationism that translated into voter support for a Trump who talks of US military withdrawal from Europe.

On the domestic front, the incoming Trump administration has made clear its determination to try to backtrack the eight Obama years. 

To achieve this, they will have to set the political machine to fast rewind, for Trump may have only four years to bring his plans to fruition. The new administration might actually find itself far more engaged with trying to maintain the economic revival that Obama engineered — his first-term stimulus measures saved an estimated 2.9m jobs after the banking collapse that rocked international finance — and which is now glossed over by his critics.

There is also the healthcare initiative that bears Obama's name. The right hates it with passion, but was a game changer to the medical fortunes of millions of lower- and middle-class Americans, and cannot simply be ditched without an equivalent or superior replacement. 

For the moment, the verdict of historians matters less than the verdict of the voters. Whereas Obama, the first black president and born in modest circumstances of a Kenyan father, easily won a second term, the hubris of a socially privileged Hillary Clinton saw her lose in the electoral college, even although she prevailed in the total vote. 

Obama’s America — at least nominally — embraced hope, optimism and an ethically-grounded view of a world that it understood to be complex. The Trump America is a far simpler, more one-dimensional construct. 

It’s Us versus Them.  It’s an administration of political neophytes clustered around Trump’s brash confidence that he can intimidate his opponents or, if that fails, just cut a deal. 

In a sense, the differences between the two men are tellingly encapsulated in the titles of their autobiographies. Trump’s ghostwritten collection of vainglorious platitudes is called The Art of the Deal.  The more cerebral introspection of Obama is called Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.

It may well be that what the US needs at this moment is the hard-headed, hard-hearted, homespun pragmatism of a billionaire property developer. Certainly, one can confidently predict that Trump will not be the disaster that his embittered detractors predict. But nor will he achieve the dizzyingly ambitious Nirvana he has promised his often naïve supporters.

The world is not a simple place. On the contrary, it is becoming steadily more inter-connected and complicated. The US, although still militarily the single most powerful nation, must contend with new, fast evolving combinations of might and influence, ready to exploit its every blunder.

This is a reality that is not well suited to Trump’s favoured political tool, the 140-character Tweet. And incoherent, grammatically incorrect ones, at that.

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