When Barack Obama was selected as the president of the United States in 2008, his campaign slogan was ”Yes we can”. He was the first African American president and during his campaign he promised to bring forth chance. Also, he stepped in the Oval Office in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. He also had to deal with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, conflicts that had already formed a great burden on the US.
Obama started his presidency with genuine enthusiasm. The international community welcomed him, and he was able to improve United States reputation around the world. Still, he couldn´t fulfill all of his promises, like closing the Guantanamo bay detention camp, which is still in operation.
The clearest example of his popularity was the Nobel Peace Prize, which he won after only nine months in office. Many say that the prize was, at best, premature.
Obama also used more drone strikes than any other president.
Obama´s record in foreign policy is multifaceted. On the one hand, he oversaw the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, negotiated the Iran nuclear deal, which ended the decade-long nuclear sanctions, and lifted the Cuban trade embargo, which had lasted for more than half-century. Especially his allies in the US and in Europe welcomed these acts as a move away from the unilateral politics of his predecessor, Georg W. Bush.
On the other hand, during his presidency Obama witnessed the bloody Syrian civil war that has left over a half a million people dead and destabilised the whole region. Obama famously stated that the use of chemical weapons by the Bashar al-Assad´s regime would be a red line and that crossing that line would lead to a military intervention. But after Assad´s forces used chemical weapons several times in 2013, Obama decided not to use military force against him.
Also, after the American troops left Iraq in 2011, the country fell swiftly to sectarian warfare, which led to the rise of the terrorist group ISIS. Some have argued that that the American troops left too soon, before the Iraqi security forces were ready to take full responsibility of the situation.
In addition, during Obama´s presidency the international community watched aghast as the full scope of the NSA surveillance programs was revealed by the whistleblower Edward Snowden. Obama also used more drone strikes than any other president, which has caused a lot criticism both domestically and internationally.
The phrase ”red line” in Syria was a mistake.
During his two terms as the president of the United States, Obama accomplished many things but his critics will point to his failures, especially in the Middle East.
”I think that, at least for now, Obama will be remembered as the culmination of American liberal internationalism. But he will also be remembered as a president who promised many things about the Middle East, but many of those promises were not fulfilled”, Researcher Ville Sinkkonen from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs sais.
”The phrase ”red line” in Syria was a mistake. The leader of the only superpower in the world cannot use a phrase like that and fail to act, if the red line is crossed. But the decision not to use military force in Syria was not necessarily a mistake, the situation on the ground is so complex”, Sinkkonen states.
Domestically Obama faced fierce opposition from the Republican party. His ideas about healthcare and gun laws were cheered by the Democrats and booed by the Republicans.
Obama tried repeatedly to enforce stricter gun laws. He called the Sandy Hook massacre, where 20 first-graders were shot in their classrooms, the worst day of his presidency.
Nevertheless, the US Congress rejected Obama´s attempt to expand federal requirements for background checks on gun sales. Especially during his last years as president, Obama admitted that gun violence and his failure to impose stricter laws was one of the biggest disappointments of his career.
Professor Mikko Saikku from the University of Helsinki emphasizes that the gun lobby is a major political player in the United States.
”National Rifle Association, also known as the NRA, is a well-funded organisation that can greatly influence the political discussion and electoral outcomes. Also, during Obama´s presidency, the majority of the Supreme Court has held a very conservative interpretation of the Second Amendment of the Constitution. These circumstances have made it very difficult for Obama to change the gun laws”, Saikku explains.
The Second Amendment of the US Constitution protects the right of the people to keep and bear arms.
I think that LGBT people will remember Obama warmly.
During his first term as president, Obama´s main focus was on healthcare, or Americans´ lack of it. People without health insurance were in a perilous situation, because even a minor health problem could ruin their financial situation permanently.
Obama´s solution was the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, which was the first social safety net created in the United States in fifty years. Even though the ACA is considered a compromise, it´s still one the biggest political achievements of Obama´s presidency. Obamacare provided health insurance for 22 million Americans.
The fate of Obamacare is uncertain. President Donald Trump has made numerous statements where he promises to repeal the ACA, which would damage Obama`s legacy.
During his second term, Obama achieved political victories in two fields. First, under his presidency the United States legalised same-sex marriages. The Supreme Court ruling meant a huge victory for sexual minorities.
”I think that LGBT people will remember Obama warmly”, Saikku says.
Secondly, Obama played a key role in the Paris climate agreement. He also rejected the Keystone XL pipeline after a long deliberation. When his time in the White House was coming to an end, he spoke more and more about climate change and the threat it poses to humanity.
”Obama had many ambitious ideas about climate politics, even though I wouldn´t call him a traditional environmentalist. But he was very active with alternative energy sources and the Paris climate agreement. Obama´s legacy in climate politics depends on heavily on his successor”, Saikku states.
During the last months and weeks in the Oval Office, Obama took steps to secure his legacy.
Just three days before he left office, Obama transferred a second 500 million instalment to the Green Climate Fund. The fund was established in 2010 and it´s financed by wealthy countries. Its main purpose is to assist developing countries with adaptation and mitigation.
Originally, the United States promised to transfer three billion dollars to the fund. Obama´s move can be seen as a proactive maneuver before Donald Trump´s presidency. Trump has suggested that he will cease all payments to the fund.
Also, during his final days as the president of the United States, Obama commuted the prison sentence of Chelsea Manning. Manning is a former intelligence analyst who leaked more than 700 000 documents, videos and battle accounts to the website Wikileaks. A military court sentenced herto 35 years in prison back in 2013.
While in prison, Manning has tried to commit suicide. Human rights groups have welcomed Obama´s decision. Manning will be free on 17 May, seven years after her arrest.
He was willing to make compromises.
How will history remember president Obama? A lot depends on his successor. Also, the situation in the Middle East and how it develops in the near future will determine his legacy.
”The expectations for Barack Obama were unrealistically high when he was elected back in 2008. He sincerely tried to make compromises with the Republican party, which wasn´t always the best strategy. Obama was a pragmatist and he was willing to make compromises. He was a moderate with many issues, and because of that he recieved criticism from both ends of the political spectrum”, Saikku states.