Obama’s biggest failure was not securing a Democratic successor
Greatest material legacy may be his rescue of US capitalism from the 2008 recession
‘President Barack Obama’s admirers emphasise the dignity, grace, restraint and moderation with which he exercised power as the first black president.’ Photograph: Patrick Hamilton/G20 Australia via Getty Images
Assessing Barack Obama’s legacy as US president is a necessary part of coming to terms with his successor Donald Trump. Rarely has a transition been so polarised in terms of policy, personality or talents.
Trump vows to reverse major cornerstones of Obama’s achievements on affordable healthcare, climate change and Iran.
Arguably, Obama’s greatest failure was to not secure a successor capable of carrying them on.
His high outgoing polling indicates he would probably have won a third term if that was possible.
His victories in 2008 and 2012 were won by impressive mobilisations of a multi-ethnic coalition which recast the Democrats in that mode.
The party’s traditional white working-class base turned towards Trump on this occasion, notably in the mid-west rust-belt states of Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Their higher turnout was matched by a relative turnoff of black voters voting for Hillary Clinton compared to 2012.
Obama has been criticised from the left for not sustaining the potentially transformative social movement which got him elected in 2008.
He resists the criticism, saying it was up to him as president to implement the mandate for hope and change he received.
He is not a radical left-winger but an intellectual centrist who sought to get bipartisan support for his legislative agenda.
He was not willing to compromise his pioneering role as the first black president by tacking left.
But that opened the field to the Tea Party counter-mobilisation in 2009, the origin of the white nationalist and nativist movement that drove the Republicans further right and bolstered Trump’s victory.
Mid-term elections in 2010 and 2014 were disappointing for the Democrats while a more polarised Republican opposition was less and less inclined to give him bipartisan support.
Obama’s admirers and many more independent observers emphasise the dignity, grace, restraint and moderation with which he exercised power as the first black president, resisting and rising above any pressures to be defined by resentment of his background and practising those values as part of a common humanity.
His best speeches articulated them remarkably well. Many praise his family’s exemplary role and his scandal-free White House.
Obama’s restrained temperament and analytical approach to policy also encouraged a caution that others say made him underachieve against his evident promise.
But as Gary Younge has put it: “Judged by what was necessary Obama was inadequate; judged by the alternatives he was a genius”. His legacy will be judged by Trump’s record in office.
Obama’s greatest material legacy may be his rescue of US capitalism from the Great Recession of 2008 during his first year in office, ensuring it did not become another Great Depression like the 1930s.
He tacked towards Wall Street to do that, saved General Motors and Chrysler, injected $787 billion into the economy and stemmed job losses, collapsing stock and housing values.
In doing so he harnessed these big interests and was in turn harnessed by them to limit budget deficits in following years.
This squeezed the resources available for redistribution to counter the growing inequalities built into the model of open-market globalisation he inherited from the Clinton and Bush years.
He must share responsibility for not protecting the non-college educated and mainly white losers of globalisation whose revolt has brought Trump to power.
Some of them did benefit from his other major domestic programme, affordable healthcare, which gives insurance to 20 million mainly black people who did not have it before.
If Trump dismantles it he will face a revolt of the disentitled that may feed into other rebellions against his administration.
His 21-member cabinet is now worth more than the 43 million poorest US households combined.
On foreign policy, Obama describes himself as a realist internationalist. Realism counselled a cautious use of military power except when US national security interests are directly challenged.
Although he disputes a declinist account of US power, he sought to develop a co-operative internationalism in office.
Most apparent on the Iran nuclear deal, on climate change and in his pivot to Asia and China, this did not stop him relying to an unprecedented extent on drones, even as he sought to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan.
He defends his record on Syria as better than the interventionist alternatives, despite its tragedies.
He leaves a more decentred and emergent multi-polar world to his successor.
Should Trump use force to broker trade deals, impose Islamophobia or assert an America-first agenda we are into a much more conflictual world order than Obama’s.