Washington: It's an end-of-term ritual. The outgoing president glides from the peak of one success to the next, sketching a preferred draft of his own legacy and at the same time, daring historians to repudiate it.
And so, in Chicago on Tuesday evening, Barack Obama soared.
In a last delicious serve of his spoken elegance, America's first black president picked his peaks – "If I'd 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; if I'd told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran's nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, take out the mastermind of 9/11; if I'd told you that we would win marriage equality and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens — if I'd told you all that, you might have said our sights were set a little too high."
Indeed, sir, great achievements all. In a congratulatory farewell editorial this week, USA Today seemed to concur: "Obama inherited a collapsing economy and passed on a vibrant one. He kept American out of stupid wars, such as his predecessor's invasion of Iraq. With the transition of power just 10 days away, sometimes, as Joni Mitchell sang, you don't know what you've got till it's gone."
And yet ... Pull the lens back for a wider view, and individually and collectively Obama's achievements are diminished, by a sense that they exist in a trough of contradiction that could become the dominant memory of a presidency from which, admittedly, too much was expected – always.
That contradiction has a name – Trump.
Notwithstanding Obama's rare talent as a communicator, the 44th president never quite constructed the kind of narrative that would bring Americans with him. Obama surely had the visions, but he seemed disdainful of having to sell them – a shortcoming he acknowledged after his first two fraught years in the job, but which he failed to rectify.
Attributing the shortcoming more directly to the party than to himself, Obama told Rolling Stone, in an interview the day after Trump's stunning election victory: "When I sat here and talked to Bernie Sanders, one of the things that he and I both agreed on was that we have to reinvigorate the DNC so that it's not viewed as a Washington entity but rather that it is a grassroots organisation that is out all across the country and making a common cause with working people."
And in a moment of candour in September 2016, Obama acknowledged in an interview with The New York Times, that despite his passionate embrace of the dangers in climate change, Americans simply have not been galvanised by his rallying cries on the issue.
Ironically, on leaving office Barack Obama is getting up to being twice as popular as the man who replaces him, but the Democratic Party is "a smoking pile of rubble", the labour movement is on life support and many of Obama's proudest accomplishments – like Obamacare, the Iran deal, his work on climate change, the Dodd-Frank financial reforms and protection against deportation for young migrants – are vulnerable because they were achieved by executive fiat, not by decisions of Congress.
His governing was described in the Times as "bureaucratic bulldozing rather than legislative transparency".
The ease with which Trump can undo what Obama did is hotly debated – bureaucrats can move slowly; if industry had retooled to meet Obama regulation, will they retool again to take advantage of Trump's deregulation. Theoretically, though, what the outgoing president achieved by the stroke of a pen, the incoming president can undo by the stroke of a pen.
More importantly, what does it say about the effectiveness of the Obama presidency that, despite his glorious gift of the gab and all that professorial brainpower he brought to the Oval Office, Obama could not rise above the partisan din to save his policies and his party?
Even the most laudatory postmortems trip on this narrative question – "he's turned out to be much more of a doer, an action-oriented policy grind who has often failed to communicate what he's done," Politico observed early in 2016.
Here's the unsettling reality of the Obama-Trump transition – after his eight years as chief executive, in which he often seemed to be the only adult in the Washington room, Americans are so enamoured of Obama and his policies that they are replacing him with his political and personal polar opposite.
They have given the White House, House of Representatives, Senate and, by extension, the Supreme Court to a man who mocked and challenged the very legitimacy of Obama's citizenship and his right to hold office; and whose tweeted twaddle amounts to a barbarian declaration of war – there would be no Obama legacy.
Obama was a new kind of president – an outsider and idealist, who didn't seem to like politics and didn't seem to like Washington. He believed that to be effective political tradition had to change – but, in DC, no one was listening.
He brought the intense, if mild-mannered, temperament and leadership of a professor to serial crises – from the BP oil spill and the Christmas underwear bomber to the Benghazi attack and the IRS scandal. His former economic adviser Alan Krueger observes: "History will remember Obama for his rational, evidence-based approach, as opposed to the emotional, visceral style of the two presidents who will bookend his time in office."
History is an odd beast. Often what might seem fantastic or egregious as it unfolds becomes a mere footnote when observed in hindsight, as noted by some on a panel of more than 50 historians canvassed in a bid by New York magazine to tease out the essentials of the Obama legacy.
His rescue of the economy would be judged to be more significant with the passage of time, though Kimberly Phillips-Fein, of New York University, cautions: "Future historians are likely to focus on the rising inequality in the American economy during the Obama years, the deepening precariousness experienced by people who once anticipated a greater level of security and prosperity, and on the poisonous impact this has on the entire American political system."
The historians congratulate Obama for not starting new wars and though they acknowledged the absence of a terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11, they chip Obama for his embrace and expansion of the security state that he inherited. And many opt for the awesome symbolism of the first non-white first family as his lasting, can't-be-taken-away-by-anyone legacy.
Oddly enough, that a grand narrative defeated Obama might in time be attributed to a surprising disconnect with little people. Yes, he did save the economy, but by his rescue prescription the fat cats got fatter and it was the little guys he made pay for the rescue.
Bankers, hedge fund managers and their cronies were the bad guys in the financial collapse of 2007. Only a handful were punished and most came through the crash unscathed, unlike the tens of millions of working class Americans who lost their homes, their jobs and their savings.
The taxpayers bailed out the big banks; no one bailed out the taxpayers. To be sure, Obama was driven by a legitimate fear of total collapse, but in neglecting to do anything for ordinary Americans, a narrative evolved by which the President was seen to be in cahoots with his Wall Street buddies – and to this day there is little public awareness that the bulk of the bailout billions were repaid to the US Treasury.
Looking back at those tumultuous days in a memoir published in 2014, Obama's first Treasury secretary, Tim Geithner, writes: "we saved the economy from a failing financial system, though we lost the country doing it."
By American standards, the Affordable Care Act is a stunning achievement. As the University of Chicago's Thomas Holt told New York magazine: "[It's] easily the signal accomplishment of this president ... an achievement that will put Obama in the ranks of FDR (Social Security) and LBJ (Medicare) because of its enduring impact on the average American's well-being. He won't need bridges and airports named after him since opponents already did him the favor of naming it 'Obamacare'."
But compared with national health schemes that are taken for granted in other developed countries, Obamacare is a bizarre, Heath Robinson-esque construct – and while there is strong support for individual components of the law and little understanding of its potential to radically improve a seriously dysfunctional medical status quo, the inability of Obama and his party to sell the concept of genuine national health in the face of Republican charges that it amounted to socialism is another narrative failure.
Conversely, Obama who publicly was slow to support LBGT rights came across more as an insurgent than as a reformer in his second-term enthusiasm. In the 2008 campaign he was opposed to same-sex marriage – and while his support on transgender bathroom access was well meant, it was not well sold amidst the bitterness of last year's election campaign.
Obama is acknowledged for a litany of lesser but profound policy shifts, of which Stephen Kinzer, of Brown University, observes: "Forging a popular coalition ... requires a galvanising inspirational agenda, [but] his policies were too moderate to electrify the public."
These include professional, not partisan, appointments in the Department of Justice; reformed sentencing guidelines to reduce the rate at which African Americans are jailed; outlawing a slew of abusive practices by which credit-card companies were screwing customers; more equitable tax rates; and a massive investment in Pell Grants subsidies for needy college students;
Obama is championed for not starting new wars. But in May last year he passed a disquieting milestone – he had been at war longer than any of his Oval Office predecessors. And in 2016 alone, despite no new declarations, the US reportedly dropped more than 26,000 bombs on seven Muslim countries in what seems to have become an endless war against terrorism, across central Asia and the Middle East.
Obama's foreign policy is encapsulated in his "don't do stupid shit" declaration, but too often his sales pitches have been too measured, too cautious and so loaded with explanation and qualification that any don't-do-stupid-shit clarity gets lost. But explaining himself last year, to The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, he said that core US interests had to trump peripheral interests and that Washington should not pretend otherwise.
In a conversation with The New York Times' Mark Landler, Goldberg explains: "The whole 'we're America, we must do something' argument no longer has much sway."
Landler: "Obama believes America does have to act when vital national interests are in play. But he defines vital national interests much more narrowly than a lot of the foreign-policy establishment ... A telling moment was a dinner he had with former officials and foreign-policy experts. They were talking about Ukraine, and Obama asked, 'Will someone please tell me what America's vital national interest is in Ukraine?'"
Obama's audience was slack-jawed, but as explained by Landler, the President's point was that it was unthinkable that the US would immediately rush to the defense of a former Soviet satellite whose trade with the US was minuscule, "and [because] Ukraine means so much more to [Vladimir] Putin and Russia than it does to us, that Russia would double-down and triple-down on anything we did."
If George W. Bush accidentally demonstrated the limits of American military power in the botched Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Obama has more deliberately factored that sense of limitation into Washington's world view in a cautiousness and withdrawal on the world stage, for which he has taken a lashing.
But as observed by foreign policy expert James Mann: "Obama will be viewed as the first president to take seriously the notion that the dominant role America has played in the world both after World War II and again after the end of the Cold War cannot be maintained over the long term. In that sense, he was ahead of his time."
Kinzer agrees – "He will be seen as the president who finally realised that this 70-year engagement [with the Middle East] has encouraged tyranny, crippled Arab societies, and exposed the US to profound new threats. Breaking the cycle of intervening, withdrawing, and then returning to clean up the mess would be truly epochal."
Yet Obama joins a succession of presidents who have left office with a deserved ticket for sleepless nights for years to come – in his case, his failure to do something, or to inspire others to do something about the Syria conflict, in which hundreds of thousands have died and millions have been displaced.
The first President Bush could assemble a global coalition to take on Saddam Hussein when a few Kuwaiti princes and their oil wells were under threat in 1991 and Washington lent muscle and leadership in Libya in 2011, when Muammar Gaddafi merely threatened the people of Benghazi.
In time, libraries will be filled with books on the intractable complexity of Syria and the failure to stabilise Libya frightened Obama from further interventions in the Middle East – but Obama seemed out of his depth in dismissing the potency of Islamic State and in failing to act as he said he would when Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad crossed the publicly declared red line on the use of chemical weapons, both of which were points at which any of a variety of interventions in Syria might have been more manageable.
The US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power addresses the UN Nations Security Council, after the council voted on condemning Israel's settlements. Photo: UN/AP
Similarly, Obama might have had a greater impact on the Israel-Palestine conflict if he had supported criticism of Israel at the United Nations in the first years of his presidency, rather than in the last minutes, when his decision not to veto a UN security Council motion critical of Israeli settlement activity looked more petulant than strategic.
Remarkably, Obama seemingly got away with embracing drone warfare over boots-on-the-ground as a response to perceived threats abroad. Looking to what his successors might take from the Obama playbook, author and historian Jonathan Darman says: "Presidents will long note that a war-skeptic like Obama not only embraced drone warfare but paid essentially no price for it with his peace-loving base."
Some on New York magazine's panel of historians, like Brown University's Alexander Gourevitch, are excoriating on what Obama did for blacks – "Obama was and wasn't a black president. It is hard to think of anything he actually did where the fact that he was black, rather than the fact that he was a moderate Democratic president, seemed to matter."
But it's hard for Obama to win on the tortured pitch of race relations.
Against a backdrop of widespread acknowledgement of the powerful symbolism of him being the first black occupant of the White House, he has been subjected to the Trump-stoked lie – that he might be black, but he was not born in American and therefore was not eligible to be president. And for many observers, much of the opposition to his administration was because he was seen as a black interloper doing a white man's job.
At times Obama spoke powerfully on race – stopping the country in its tracks when he broke into the classic spiritual hymn Amazing Grace while speaking at a memorial for those killed in the 2015 massacre at an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina. But invariably, Obama stuck to a belief that he was president for all Americans – "I can't pass laws that say I'm just helping black folks – I'm the President of the United States."
Obama supporter and civil rights leader Al Sharpton insists that Obama was a "transformative" president, but one who was held back by a need to serve varying constituencies and who was forced to compromise by congress – "he tried to be as balanced and respectful as he could, to the chagrin of many in the black community who felt that he was leaning over backwards".
In historical rankings, David Greenberg, of Rutgers University, rates Obama as better than the "complete disaster, reckless and arrogant" George W. Bush but as not up to the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton's more nimble dealings with NATO, his emphasis on diplomacy over military action and his limited interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Author Joseph Ellis believes that like a good bottle of wine, Obama's legacy will improve – "over the next 20 years, [his] standing will move from the top of the bottom third to the bottom of the top third of presidents."
And despite partisan claims to the contrary, there was personal scandal at the White House – Obama smoked the occasional cigarette.