Books

A paean to the Obama years

Stanly Johny | Updated on January 13, 2018 Published on February 19, 2017

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Here’s a useful even if an overly uncritical view, particularly with respect to foreign policy



Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States eight years ago amid high expectations. He had promised “change” to American voters who were increasingly upset with the administration of George W Bush amid the Great Recession of 2008, and the outside world where America’s image had taken a hit following the Iraq war. Eight years after, with a new incumbent in the White House, it’s time to ask questions on Obama’s performance.

Did he live up to the expectations which his high-octane campaign had generated? Did he offer the change the Americans believed in? Did he fix the adventure-prone US foreign policy?

American journalist and author Jonathan Chait would say ‘yes he did’. Chait’s book is one of the first books that takes a holistic view of the Obama presidency and builds an ambitious case about the former President’s legacy.

Overseas errors

“Audacity is not a history of the Obama administration”, as Chait, a political columnist at The New York Magazine and a long-time Washington reporter, writes in the introduction. He doesn’t offer any inside accounts either. It’s a book “that makes an argument”. And that argument is that Obama’s presidency was “transformative” at home and “corrective” abroad — the benefits of which could not be done away with short-term setbacks such as the election of Donald Trump as his incumbent.

Chait has divided the book into topics that are closely associated with Obama over the past eight years. He starts with the America’s racial relations and explains how Obama’s election has influenced them, and then goes on debating the merits of Obama’s economic policies, healthcare reforms, climate change and foreign policy, arguing how the President has done well from within the limitations of the Washington politics in each of these areas. To be fair, some of his arguments are convincing, some teetering on the surface of ideology while some others lack clarity.

For example, Obama made a decisive intervention to fight the recession despite almost ideological opposition from the Conservatives in the Capitol. As other advanced industrial countries in the West adopted brutal austerity measures to ride out of economic crisis, the US under Obama followed the Keynesian way by announcing a huge stimulus and bailing out crisis-hit corporations.

One can still argue that the American economy, despite Obama’s efforts, is still not out of woods. But Chait argues a “fairer comparison would juxtapose the United States against other economies that suffered through the same systemic crisis it endured in 2008.”

Of the 12 countries hit by recession in 2008, only the US and Germany had returned to their pre-crisis GDP by 2014-end. In 2014, the US “created more new jobs than it had in any year since 1999”, writes Chait.

But Chait’s arguments on Obama’s foreign policy are hardly convincing. In his view, Obama has “reversed the tide of anti-Americanism”, “widened the contours of America’s diplomacy with its adversaries.. He also extended the parameters of America’s military power against al-Qaeda, expanding the use of air strikes, and sending Navy Seals to Pakistan to kills Osama bin Laden”.

This analysis, however, suffers from two problems.

First, it’s coming from the American liberal internationalist worldview that places the US at the centre of the global system. Second, Chait conveniently overlooks the flip-side of Obama’s interventions. While Chait considers the Iran nuclear deal a diplomatic victory, and rightly so, Iran for him, like many other American exceptionalists in Washington, is “an aggressive regime ruled by religious extremists that had sponsored terrorism and brutalised its own people”. He has no doubt that Obama’s invasion of Libya “prevented a humanitarian catastrophe” though it “failed to bring democracy or stability”.

But in reality, the Libyan war destroyed one of the most stable states in Africa, leaving the country to the mercy of armed rebels and jihadist groups, including the Islamic State. Libya is not the only blackmark in Obama’s foreign policy. He lacked a cohesive approach towards Syria.

He supported the rebels against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and looked away initially when the Islamic State was gobbling up territories in Syria and Iraq. Chait also doesn’t talk much about the expansion of the drone war programme, in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and other countries, under President Obama, nor about the President’s war against whistleblowers. These are hardly “corrective” foreign policy decisions.

Anti-establishment backlash

Finally, Chait, like Obama, is basically a centrist, who believes in transformation through status-quoist policies. He doesn’t miss a chance to attack the “despairing” leftists such as Bernie Sanders. He argues that Obama has left an indelible influence on the young America who are going to take his legacy forward.

In the long run, it will be this legacy that will reshape America. But he fails to explain what drove the millions of young Americans to the leftist anti-establishment camp of Bernie Sanders.

And even if one takes Chait’s argument at face value, Obama could still not escape the immediate consequences in history of his presidency. Donald Trump is more than a short-term setback. He’s now the 45th President of the United States.

In both Houses, the Republicans are in clear majority, potentially weakening the centrist politics of the Democratic Party. However, these partisan arguments are part of the Obama narrative. Chait is honest in his approach. He doesn’t claim to be a neutral analyst. He’s consistent in his arguments.

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Published on February 19, 2017
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