Obama bows out: ‘Yes, we can. Yes, we did ...’
The more Trump undoes his legacy, the more he will cast Obama in a different light
The mantra-like claim of US politicians keen to wave the flag has ever been that “America is the greatest country on God’s earth”. That “exceptionalism” is standard presidential fare. So Barack Obama in his Chicago farewell last week also hauled out the claim to exceptionalism – but he did so with a very Obama twist, redefining it not as a paean to the country’s perfection, but the opposite, a more humble admission of imperfection, the limits of his own achievement, and a call to action.
It is not, Obama argued, “that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change and make life better for those who follow . . . Yes we can”. And he did, not least in proving for the first time that a black man could ascend to the highest office.
After eight years, Obama steps down this week with his best poll rating since 2010 – 55 per cent approve of the job he is doing – but a country confused about his legacy. Is it actually Donald Trump and, as such, evidence of his failure? Counter-revolutionary Trump, elected to dismantle most of his signature achievements . . . Obamacare, a nuclear deal with Iran, banking and financial reform, the start of immigration reform, a climate deal with China, the bones of a trade deal with the Pacific rim . . . and who thrived on the lie that the growing US economy is in ruins and who now claims already to have set it back on course?
“If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history,” Obama told the crowd, “if I had told you that we would win marriage equality, and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow-citizens, you might have said our sights were set a little too high.”
But now, as he joked, with his typical self-deprecation, at the crowd who would not heed his call to calm down: “You can tell I’m a lame duck”. It is how his legacy is unfairly seen.
The truth is the seeds of a US economic recovery, which surpassed all its major rivals, were sown back in 2009 with Obama’s arrival, his stimulus package and car and financial industry bailouts. The economy, although still marked by socially dangerous inequality and hobbled by poor productivity growth, is remarkable testimony to Obama’s presidency.
Many fear his legislative programme and the executive orders he used to cut through congressional obstruction will be quickly undone. But Obamacare, for example, despite Trump’s bluster, will prove difficult to unpick. Republicans will have to rip away coverage from millions of voters. The more Trump undoes that legacy, moreover, the more he will cast Obama in a different light, the expression of, as Lincoln put it, the better angels of the country’s nature, of the possibility that there is another way, and that it can again prevail.