The Obama Presidency Change And Continuity Essay

1 “A skinny kid with a funny name”

Watch it again. He is unusually stilted at the beginning, as you might expect of a debutant on the autocue and the national stage. But soon he finds his rhythm, those crescendos alternating with electric pauses, ecclesiastical notes chiming with his scholarly charisma in a musical voice. Grippingly, he recounts the story of his life, in his telling a parable of unity in diversity—a moral he was still pushing 12 hard, disillusioning years later. “We are Americans first,” he urged in the Rose Garden on the day after Donald Trump was elected.

In fact, by the standards Barack Obama subsequently set—in a presidency defined by its speeches, and perhaps to be best remembered for them—his turn at the Democratic convention in 2004 was mundane. But his ascent will still be dated from the moment he loped onto that stage in Boston, with the rangy gait that became as familiar as his smile: an unknown politician from Illinois, soon to be the country’s only African-American senator, before, in short order, becoming its first black president. The paean he offered to America, a country that had embraced him as “a skinny kid with a funny name”, was also a kind of dare; the self-deprecation camouflaged a boast, since many in his audience saw the obstacles he faced as clearly as he did. “I’m the African-American son of a single mother,” Mr Obama reportedly told Binyamin Netanyahu when, years later, Israel’s prime minister lectured him on the world’s hazards, “and I live here, in this house. I live in the White House.”

His presidency will be counted in speeches because its trials proved harder to overcome than the barriers he scaled to attain it. Often he spoke as no other president could, becoming, through his identity and eloquence, a receptacle for the hopes of Americans and of—and for—the world. Think of his speech in Berlin in 2008, when he extolled multilateralism and the rule of law, or his now-defunct conciliation in Cairo the following year. Think of his eulogy after the Charleston killings. Yet posterity might score him higher on a broader metric had he been as effective in the more intimate persuasions of Congress, as consistent in projecting empathy as at exhortation, or more resolute abroad; had he been as adept at championing legislation or facing down tyrants as he could be at stirring hearts.

He proposed bold reforms, but some were never enacted, while others seem set to be undone; his flickering diplomatic bravery was offset by a sort of rash timidity. He was an incarnation of racial healing, yet at the end of his tenure the civil-rights triumphs of the 1960s seem more remote, to some African-Americans, than the civil war of the 1860s. Preternaturally though typically calm (too calm, for some tastes), the ratiocination almost visible in his composed features, he was obliged to welcome into the Oval Office a successor who, by spearheading the “birther” movement, had contested his right to occupy it. His critics called his an imperial presidency, and he did indeed govern more by executive authority than he would have liked and than others have before. But in truth his presidency demonstrated the erosion of that office’s power, and maybe of the power of America itself.

2 “Inaction tears at our conscience”

Barry Obama, as he was then known, practised relentlessly on the outdoor basketball courts at Punahou, the idyllic private school he attended in Honolulu. “He loved the game of basketball as much as any player I’ve ever had,” says Chris McLachlin, his coach. He made the all-conquering team less than he hoped, but when he played, says Alan Lum, a team-mate and now a teacher at the school, he was “a fighter”. Arne Duncan, his longtime education secretary and a regular in White House games, agrees. “He plays to win,” Mr Duncan says. “He might have a nice smile, but he’s a killer at heart.” The court is “one of the few places he could be Barack Obama, and not be the president.”

The escapism of basketball, and the tenacity he brought to it, are not the only continuity between his presidency and his old Honolulu neighbourhood, where the modest apartment he shared with grandparents, his school, the Baskin Robbins in which he once worked and the hospital of his birth are bounded by a few blocks, but the views sweep out over the city below and the mountains beyond. His Kenyan father’s absconsion, and the extended absences of his adored Kansan mother, left him prematurely self-reliant. He developed, says Maya Soetoro-Ng, his half-sister, “an air of independence which is misinterpreted as aloofness,” a strength and liability which was another of the traits that he carried on to the mainland and into office. As one former White House official observes, he “doesn’t need or show a lot of love”.

As unlikely an origin as any modern president’s, this was an upbringing at once blissful and claustrophobic, privileged and marginalised. It was worldly in its Asian components yet sheltered from the harshest aspects of America, including, for the most part, its racism—even if, in Mr Obama’s recollections, Hawaii’s live-and-let-live multiculturalism was less accommodating of his blackness than his peers assumed. As with many driven outsiders, this alienation supercharged his ambitions. His background also shaped the internationalist world view that guided him after those ambitions were realised.

By virtue of his age, Mr Obama was less influenced by the second world war and the cold war, and less devoted to the alliances they nurtured, than were his immediate predecessors. His sense of the wideness of the world was extended by a childhood spell in Indonesia. Both time and place, then, made him a man of the Pacific. That orientation was manifest, in office, in the pivot towards Asia that he hoped would be a centrepiece of his foreign policy—though he failed to deliver its central element, America’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. An ingrained sympathy for imperilled, maritime places was manifest in his concern for climate change—though the international deal on carbon emissions that he finalised in Paris is in jeopardy too.

Any president elected in 2008 would have been subject to certain inexorable forces: a shift in global heft to China; a popular demand for retrenchment after George W. Bush’s adventurism. But, more than others, Mr Obama looked aslant at American power, seeing a need, as he put it in his first inaugural address, “for the tempering qualities of humility and restraint”. “If you are willing to unclench your fist,” he told America’s foes, “we will extend a hand.” And he did. He shook Raúl Castro’s hand at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, and restored relations with Cuba. He patiently negotiated sanctions on Iran, then courageously closed a deal to constrain its nuclear programme—a pact that could, at a minimum, delay a military confrontation and may stand as his biggest achievement. These moves helped to revive the world’s opinion of America, which the Pew Research Centre’s surveys suggest is warmer in many countries than when Mr Obama came in.

What is it good for?

What will survive of him otherwise, though, are the wars that he reluctantly fought, and the wars that he declined to. He was awarded the Nobel peace prize in the first year of his administration; in his second inaugural address he declared to applause that “A decade of war is now ending.” But on his watch his country has fought ceaselessly.

The great unknown unknown of his presidency was the Arab Spring, which helped ensure that the wars were inescapable. He had opposed the invasion of Iraq, and as he had promised he brought the troops home from there, perhaps prematurely, in 2011. But the subsequent inferno has sucked them back in. As Islamic State metastasised, he tried—and failed—to make his countrymen see it in a long perspective which, to many of them, seemed naively otherworldly. The “just” war in Afghanistan also proved interminable. In 2016 America has bombed seven countries, often from unmanned drones, his preferred instrument of destruction.

“Inaction tears at our conscience,” he said in his Nobel acceptance speech, “and can lead to more costly interventions later.” Yet, over Syria, that is what Mr Obama chose. The crunch point came in 2013, when he decided not to enforce the “red line” he drew the previous year to deter Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons.

Mr Obama didn’t miss his chances in Syria, his admirers say; he didn’t dither. Rather he turned them down. This, after all, is the man who approved the raid on Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden—a gamble that might have ended his presidency, as the botched rescue of the Iranian hostages holed Jimmy Carter’s. (As Leon Panetta, a former director of the CIA and defence secretary, says of Abbottabad, “there was a certain attraction to just blowing the hell out of the place.”) Mr Obama believed that bombing Syria for the sake of credibility was dangerous and “dumb”, and that further involvement would enmesh America without saving civilians. He still thinks that. One former adviser predicts he will regret what he did in Libya—helping to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi, but replacing him with chaos—more than what he refused to do in Syria.

No one knows what might have been. What is clear is that the Middle East, convulsed by Mr Obama’s blundering predecessor, is even more wretched after his tumultuous reticence. A terrible war, millions of refugees: Admiral Michael Mullen, a former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, describes Syria as “Obama’s Rwanda”. And into the Syrian void stepped Vladimir Putin, the anti-Obama who has shadowed his presidency, profane, unrestrained by scruple and supremely unilateral. Some trace a direct line from that unenforced red one over chemical weapons to Russia’s seizure of Crimea and to China’s island-building in the South China Sea. As Mr Panetta says, the episode “raised questions about whether or not the United States would stand by its word.”

Martin Indyk, a former ambassador and envoy for Mr Obama now at the Brookings Institution, sees, as an underlying rationale, a switch in emphasis from traditional geopolitical rivalries to global concerns such as climate change and nuclear proliferation—which require co-operation with the likes of Mr Putin or China’s Xi Jinping. Mr Obama’s successful, and thus overlooked, handling of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa fits into this category. He beseeched other nations to jointly address these borderless issues, by agreeing and observing enlightened worldwide rules.

But his allies wavered, while his adversaries saw in his yen for collective action an admission of American retreat. And perhaps, in a way, they were right. His record does indeed imply a humble view of both America’s interests and its influence: a fatalistic accommodation with what he sees as a tragically intractable world. A more introverted (if snarling) America, and a more uncertain, leaderless global order, may be part of his legacy, too.

The simplest explanation of his wariness abroad is that he wanted to concentrate on his domestic policies and the change they could bring. “The problem”, says Mr Panetta, “was the world wouldn’t allow him to do that”. As it turned out, his opponents at home showed just as much reluctance.

 3 “Sing it, Mr President”

“He fought for that,” says Cheryl Johnson, pointing to the bigger library that in the 1980s replaced the titchy one in Altgeld Gardens—a low-rise housing project on Chicago’s far South Side, polluted then and still by landfills, industrial sites and shoddy construction. Barack Obama is remembered as a young organiser whose grit overcame the wariness caused by his Olympian bearing, the air of a person born to more privilege than he was. He helped to get rid of the noxious fibreglass insulation in the project’s attics, Ms Johnson recalls, collaborating with her mother Hazel Johnson, founder of a pioneering community group, People for Community Recovery.

In Chicago, thinks Reverend Alvin Love, pastor of Lilydale First Baptist Church and an old friend and ally of Mr Obama, he “became the person he was meant to be.” Landing there after student stints in California and New York, he met and married his wife and, later, cut his teeth in politics, including an improvingly failed run for Congress. He found his faith and joined a congregation, immersing himself in the black church and the civil-rights tradition it incubated, such that the cadences and motifs of both thereafter suffused his rhetoric. In Chicago he faced doubts over whether he was “black enough”, a question that overlapped, in a complicated way, with the poisonous and more enduring allegation that he wasn’t truly American. “Chicago is his real birth place,” Mr Love says.

Some Obamaphiles bristle at the idea that he should be thought of principally as a black president—assessed in a segregated category of one. Yet race has been essential to his career, as well as to his finest oratory. The emergency remarks he made, in 2008, after the circulation of radical comments by his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, anticipated his address on the 50th anniversary of the Selma march. In both he advanced a dialectical view of history that transmuted racial traumas into occasions for collective progress, the landmarks of black liberation into milestones in America’s pursuit of perfection. If the story of race is America’s story, his trailblazing role in it must rank among his most lasting contributions.

In “Dreams from my Father”, his memoir, Mr Obama wrote that on leaving Chicago for Harvard Law School he planned to bring the power he would acquire “back like Promethean fire” to communities like Altgeld. And he has—too much for some tastes, not enough for others. His Justice Department strove to protect voting rights (with no help from the Supreme Court). Punishments for cocaine and crack offences were made more proportionate. He pushed for policing reforms. Well before he took office, however, he had eschewed most explicitly race-based policies. “White guilt has largely exhausted itself in America,” he wrote in his second book, “The Audacity of Hope,” an insight amply corroborated by recent events. He believed the best way to help struggling African-Americans was to help strugglers everywhere.

He helped them, vitally but to little recognition, in his handling of the crisis he inherited. The bail-outs and stimulus implemented in his first, fraught months in office not only averted economic catastrophe, saving the banks (eventually at a profit) and the car industry: the slant towards tax credits and welfare spending arrested what might have been a gruesome rise in poverty. David Axelrod, Mr Obama’s long-term adviser, laments a “collective amnesia about just how perilous these times were”: the most dangerous circumstances for an incoming president, he thinks, since Franklin Roosevelt’s in 1933. The changes Mr Obama oversaw, says the White House, will by 2017 have boosted the after-tax income of the bottom 20% of Americans by around 18%, relative to the policies that obtained at the start of his presidency.

The Affordable Care Act helped, too. Without it, says Ms Johnson in Chicago, “I wouldn’t be able to afford my blood-pressure medicine.” Before, she didn’t have health insurance; many people in the neighbourhood used the emergency services as their basic care. “It was a blessing.”

Nonetheless a visit to Altgeld suggests the Promethean fire sputtered. Not far from that library, etched into the crumbling wall of a shopping precinct, is a long list of locals who, Ms Johnson explains, have died at police hands or of environment-related illnesses. “There goes another black brother,” concludes the inscription. All the shops bar the liquor store have closed. “Don’t nobody have nothing to do,” says a reformed troublemaker from elsewhere on the South Side, except “standing on the corner selling drugs, or gangbanging.” Those careers end two ways: “You either gonna get caught, or you gonna get killed.” “Hopelessness,” thinks Ms Johnson, “is a mental illness.”

The black experience in America is as multifarious as the white one, and there is no racial monopoly on poverty; most poor Americans are white. Nevertheless, African-American communities continue to suffer disproportionately from the sort of problems that afflict parts of the South Side. For all the improvements in America’s schools, they are still one of the places the trouble starts.

After knowing the president in Chicago, says Mr Duncan, “if he would have asked me to come and take out the garbage at the White House, I’d have said, ‘I’m in’.” As it was, his long spell as education secretary saw many more minority students go to college, more generous student aid and improved early-childhood provision. The gulf between black and white high-school drop-out rates narrowed (from 5.1 percentage points in 2008 to 2.2 in 2014). But, as Mr Duncan acknowledges, “the achievement gap is still unacceptably large,” not least because, under the prevalent localised funding model, “the kids who need the most, get the least.” Among hard-pressed families, de facto school segregation is rising: the number of students attending schools in which over 90% of students are Latino or black, and over 90% are poor, doubled between 2001 and 2014.

The disparities widen in adulthood. Blacks still earn less than whites, even in similar jobs and with comparable qualifications. They are around twice as likely to be poor or unemployed. The net wealth of a median white household is 13 times higher than a black one, reflecting the particular havoc wreaked by the housing crunch on black families, who tended to have lower home equity. Black men remain wildly over-represented in prison.

Many African-Americans expected faster progress. Some folks, says Mr Love—whose church is in a Chicago neighbourhood where 54% live below the poverty line—thought Mr Obama would ensure their economic rights, as Martin Luther King secured their civil rights. The disenchanted anger has been fiercest over police shootings of young black men in dubious circumstances: an old outrage, but now widely publicised by cell-phone footage, and denounced by a generation of black activists who grew up with the seeming reassurance of a black man in the White House. Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling—their names form a litany which, along with the protests their deaths inspired, has been part of the soundtrack of the Obama years.

“None of us can or should expect a transformation in race relations overnight,” Mr Obama said at the funeral of Clementa Pinckney, a victim of the racist massacre in Charleston in 2015, before unforgettably leading the mourners in “Amazing Grace.” (A microphone captured the moving entreaty, “Sing it, Mr President.”) To some activists, he seemed to have swallowed what MLK called “the tranquillising drug of gradualism”. As a result, the kind of implacability Reverend Wright once espoused is more widespread now than when Mr Obama was elected.

Elation deflated

Some white Americans, meanwhile, are irked by the persistent talk of discrimination, believing, as Carol Anderson of Emory University paraphrases, that “You got a black president, there is no racism,” and that African-Americans’ misfortunes stem from their own failings. Thus for all the elation about race relations that Mr Obama initially encouraged, the share of Americans who worry about them “a great deal” has almost doubled since 2008. Surveys by Pew record the bleakest outlook among blacks; whites, conversely, are far likelier to think race receives too much attention. In Dallas this July, in what may have been the last great display, in office, of his amphibious rhetorical power, Mr Obama grieved the murder of five policemen in terms that resonated more widely. It felt, he said, as if “the deepest fault-lines of our democracy have suddenly been exposed, perhaps even widened.”

Amid the gloom, though, are reasons for optimism; because it bespeaks high expectations, the disappointment may even be one of them. One view, advanced by Mr Love, is that race relations are “not worse but more visible,” Mr Obama’s presidency forcing Americans to grapple cathartically with their prejudices. And, from a historical perspective, change of the kind he represented was always liable to rile those who, as Ms Anderson puts it, “see American society and its rights as a zero-sum game.” Mr Obama, remember, was a symbol of change as well as its agent: not just a black president but the harbinger of a demographic shift that will relegate non-Hispanic whites to a minority in the country by the middle of the century. In 2009 talk-show hosts ranted about black retribution. Many people told pollsters they were afraid—a fear which, in a generous interpretation, has always been an inverted form of guilt.

The bloodshed that followed emancipation in the 19th century, and that accompanied the civil-rights movement of the 20th, suggests a backlash was unavoidable. That halting pattern, which retards but does not cancel progress, may have been on Mr Obama’s mind when he spoke, after November’s election, of the zig and zag of American history. As Reverend William Barber, a latter-day civil-rights leader in North Carolina, says of reactionary schemes to rig his state’s voting rules: “A dying mule kicks the hardest.” Sometimes it kicks very hard indeed.

4 “A hard particle of reality”

As a teenager, says Eric Kusunoki, one of Barry Obama’s teachers, “he was a very good listener,” skilled at negotiating the schoolyard cliques. From there, to Harvard Law School, to the Illinois state senate, his polymathic intelligence and flexible, Hawaiian charm neutralised adversaries and forged alliances. Literary critics admire his summer reading selections, musicians his playlists, scientists and tech entrepreneurs his acumen and curiosity. He is a talented wrangler of small children. Yet despite that wide-ranging appeal, his presidency has been among the most divisive in American history. “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle,” he said in his second inaugural, “or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.” He was already too late.

Listening to politicians in Washington account for the rancour of the past eight years is like documenting irreconcilable sides of a terrible war. “I don’t wake up in the morning, ever,” insists Bob Corker, a Republican senator, “thinking that my goal that day is to stick it in their eye.” The trouble, he reckons, was that the Democratic majorities Mr Obama initially enjoyed in Congress bequeathed a “tremendous laziness” over bipartisan outreach (though he stresses that when the president did dabble in persuasion, he did an “exemplary job”). “It was, ‘Here’s the cake, eat it’,” complains Charlie Dent, a moderate Republican congressman. “It wasn’t, ‘will you help me bake the cake.’” Mr Obama, he thinks, “holds Congress in contempt.”

Some Democrats, disappointed with Mr Obama’s communication with them, too, admit he could have been more affable. But others echo Steve Israel, a now-retiring Democratic congressman, who cites “the poison the Republicans injected into the atmosphere on day one.” In this telling, Mr Obama solicited Republican input on his fiscal stimulus, but they rejected his plan out of hand. The president “extended an olive branch,” says Mr Israel, and they responded “with a baseball bat.”

This is the more convincing version. After all, Mitch McConnell, now the majority leader in the Senate, said in 2010 that his party’s top priority ought to be seeing that Mr Obama served only a single term. Some Republicans came to believe that defaulting on the country’s debts was a legitimate tool in their campaign against him, kamikaze tactics that presaged the wrecking ball of Trumpism. One speech of Mr Obama’s will be remembered less for what he said than what a listener did: the time, in 2009, when a congressman yelled “You lie!” during a presidential address. “No other president in history has given a speech to Congress and engendered that kind of reaction,” says Mr Axelrod.

Republicans didn’t like the Dodd-Frank financial-regulation bill. They thought Mr Obama antagonistic to business. (Noting record-high share prices and strong corporate earnings, one official jokes wryly that “In our efforts to destroy the stockmarket, we failed miserably.”) Above all, they loathed Obamacare. They loathed it so much that, in 2010, not a single Republican voted for the Affordable Care Act; so much that they have tried more than 60 times to repeal all or some of it; so viscerally that, in 2013, some engineered a partial shutdown of the federal government in a quixotic bid to undo it. Some Republican governors turned down the federal money it made available to expand Medicaid in their states.

Again, accounts of this reaction diverge. Senator Corker criticises Mr Obama’s timing. The early months of his presidency were, he says, “a hair on fire moment”, at which health reform was a mistaken priority. Mr Obama, he says, brought the Tea Party insurgency in the mid-term election of 2010, and the implacable mood of Congress thereafter, on himself. (Mr Axelrod says waiting would have meant Obamacare never happened: “If it didn’t get done in the first two years, it wouldn’t get done.”) Then there are the flaws and frictions intrinsic to a mash-up of a private health-care market with state subsidies and mandates. In a mildly redistributive system, some premiums are rising; adverse selection has led some insurers to withdraw.

Most of these glitches are fixable. None makes Obamacare the un-American, socialist anathema of Republican imaginings. Meanwhile, as Mr Obama often points out, the law provided health insurance for around 20m people who, like Ms Johnson in Chicago, didn’t have it. The proportion of Americans without coverage is now the lowest in history—though many seem fated to lose it again. The ferocious antagonism was less a reasonable critique of an imperfect scheme than a self-interested bid to squish his presidency, gratifying the incandescent Republican base even if doing so harmed the nation.

The limits to power

Many democratic leaders leak political capital as they govern, their clout declining in office even as their proficiency improves. Republican election victories and recalcitrance meant that, in Mr Obama’s case, that process was rapid and costly, for him and for the country. America’s finances were patched rather than mended. Immigration remains unreformed. Gun regulations were not tightened, even after the slaughter of children at Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012—for Mr Obama the worst day of his presidency. Each new, avoidable massacre elicited condolences from him that escalated in tearful fury before towards the end subsiding into despair. (“He has to make the speech,” says Reverend Love, “but he can’t make the law.”) The oubliette at Guantánamo Bay remains in operation, despite the closure order he signed on his second day in the job and a last-ditch rush to depopulate it. On Mr Trump’s watch it may fill up again, just as the torture Mr Obama repudiated may be revived.

Unable to pass laws, Mr Obama turned to executive decrees and regulations much more frequently, notes one old acquaintance, than he would have countenanced in his days as a constitutional-law professor. He used them to advance transgender rights and gay rights: after it was legalised, his support of same-sex marriage was emblazoned in rainbow lights on the White House façade. He used them to improve the lot of federal workers, protect consumers and shield some undocumented immigrants from deportation. He needed them to implement America’s commitments under the Paris climate-change deal, limiting emissions from power plants and cars. Benign as these edicts often were, this path was doubly risky. Many will be undone (some have stalled in court); and they set a precedent for President Trump.

Did the colour of Mr Obama’s skin sharpen Republican resistance? Race has infected discussions of public expenditure in America so insidiously and for so long that it is fair to wonder whether Obamacare would have aroused the same passions had its progenitor been white. Mr Obama was not really an American, a few Republicans maintained, so never really the president.

Nonsense, insist most of his opponents, in what, without prying into their hearts, must be an insoluble debate. In any case, wider factors contributed to the bitterness. Every statesman’s record is a compound of leadership and events, his own decisions and external trends he strives to harness. Mr Obama identified one that would define his own presidency a decade ago, in “The Audacity of Hope”: the way a canard “hurled through cyberspace at the speed of light, eventually becomes a hard particle of reality.” He was the first president of the Twitter age, in which the bully pulpit shrank, partisanship intensified and Americans settled into separate intellectual universes, immured in adamant opinions and, ultimately, discretionary facts.

At the same time he governed through the fallout of the financial crash and the ongoing derangements of globalisation, with the rising feeling it induces, as he put it in the same book, “that America seems unable to control its own destiny”. Those forces have unbalanced economies and polarised politics across the world. He met them with the same analytic reasonableness which helped him navigate many crises soundly. That was not always the demeanour the country looked for in its therapist.

5 “That was me”

Like all presidents, Barack Obama has aged in public. Americans have measured his years in the White House, and perhaps the passage of their own lives, in the greying of his hair. Still, at 55, he leaves office 15 years younger than his arriving successor. He has plans. He will continue to be involved with My Brother’s Keeper, a public-private initiative that aims to steer disadvantaged youngsters away from trouble and into work. (“Guess what?”, Mr Duncan recalls him saying, on school visits, to pupils from broken homes. “That was me.”) He is writing another book. His family will stay in Washington until his younger daughter finishes high school in 2019; his library and foundation will be in Chicago. But according to the capital’s scuttlebutt he longs to spend more time in Hawaii—eating the icky shave ice which is a local delicacy, bodysurfing with the daredevils on Sandy Beach. “He didn’t want the job to be his whole self,” says his half-sister, Ms Soetoro-Ng, who still lives there. He is, she says, “remarkably unchanged.”

Given the Democratic Party’s denuded leadership and Mr Trump’s agenda, he might feel obliged to intervene in politics more than he intended. The startling trajectory of his approval ratings suggests that many Americans will listen. He and the obstructionism he endured disappointed some, others never embraced him; plainly the affection he commands was not transferable to Hillary Clinton. For all that, and notwithstanding the anti-incumbency mood, he is twice as popular as George W. Bush was at the end of his second term, and roughly as well-liked as Ronald Reagan; the only two-term president in recent history to leave office more popular was Bill Clinton. “The last time I was this high,” Mr Obama joked at his last White House correspondents’ dinner, another forum in which his versatility shone, “I was trying to decide on my major.”

The uptick in the economy doubtless helps: median incomes are finally rising; the unemployment rate is below 5%. But so must the absence of scandal in his White House, an exemplary probity that may seem even more of a recommendation in the years ahead. So does his unfeigned devotion to his wife and children, a commitment by no means universal among politicians, and which, say those who know him well, is a reaction to that childhood loneliness. Then there is his civility, even when insulted or traduced—another virtue burnished by comparison—plus his generosity. In 2008 he told Coach McLachlin, who he thought left him out of the basketball team too much, to look him up if he came to Washington. Mr McLachlin assumed he would be too busy; the president saw him five times. He wrote to Mr Kusunoki when he retired, and when he lost his wife. Unpublicised loyalty to old acquaintances is a fair indicator of character.

And maybe the standards applied to him have, as Mr Axelrod puts it, been “rightsized”. He tells a story of the campaign of 2008, in which, arriving at a rally, Mr Obama worried that he could not bear the weight of expectation he had inspired. There is wisdom in the adjustment from hero-worship to realism, but there is also sadness. On the night of his first victory he spoke of “unyielding hope” in “a place where all things are possible.” Yet for all his achievements, his intellect and his grace, his eight years in office imply that even the most powerful leader in the world—a leader of rare talents, anointed with a nation’s dreams—can seem powerless to direct it.

From the ruins of Syria to the barricades in Congress and America’s oldest wounds, sometimes nothing has been the best he could do. Sometimes it was all he could do. The possibilities seem shrunken. After its collision with history, so might hope itself.

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With his beloved but often absent mother, Ann Dunham, 1960s

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The foreign policy of Barack Obama was the foreign policy of the United States during his presidency from 2009 to 2017. Obama named Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State during his first term, with Massachusetts Senator John Kerry taking over the post in February 2013.

Substantial geopolitical developments that occurred during Obama's presidency include:

Supporters of Obama's foreign policy applaud cooperation with allies and his efforts to end the Iraq War, the administration's attempts at destroying al-Qaeda's core leadership, the killing of Osama bin Laden; the 2015 Paris Agreement on global climate change, brokering a nuclear deal with Iran, and normalizingU.S. relations with Cuba.

Comparatively, the Obama administration's foreign policy received criticism across the political spectrum. Conservatives such as Obama's 2008 Republican challenger John McCain[1] and South Carolina SenatorLindsey Graham[2] have accused the President of being timid and ineffectual in wielding American influence. On the other hand, liberals including Jimmy Carter[3] and Dennis Kucinich[4] accused him of cynicism and heavy-handedness. More specifically, some critics charged that he had pursued similarly imperialistic policies to those of his predecessor, George W. Bush,[5][6][7] of whom Obama was deeply critical during his tenure in the Senate and his 2008 presidential campaign.[8]


See also: Barack Obama presidential campaign, 2008 and Presidential transition of Barack Obama


Obama gave his first major foreign policy speech of his campaign on April 23, 2007 to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, in which he outlined his foreign policy objectives, stressing five key points:

  1. "bringing a responsible end to this war in Iraq and refocusing on the critical challenges in the broader region,"
  2. "by building the first truly 21st century military and showing wisdom in how we deploy it,"
  3. "by marshalling a global effort to meet a threat that rises above all others in urgency – securing, destroying, and stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction,"
  4. "rebuild and construct the alliances and partnerships necessary to meet common challenges and confront common threats", and
  5. "while America can help others build more secure societies, we must never forget that only the citizens of these nations can sustain them."

President-elect Obama nominated former rival, Senator Hillary Clinton to serve as his Secretary of State on December 1, 2008, and chose to keep Secretary of DefenseRobert Gates as his Secretary of Defense. He appointed General James L. Jones to serve as his National Security Advisor and nominated Governor of ArizonaJanet Napolitano as Secretary of Homeland Security.

Clinton stated during her confirmation hearings that she believed that "the best way to advance America's interests in reducing global threats and seizing global opportunities is to design and implement global solutions." She stated, "We must use what has been called "smart power", the full range of tools at our disposal – diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal and cultural – picking the right tool or combination of tools for each situation. With smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of our foreign policy."[9]

During the last weeks before his inauguration, in addition to the several major conflicts in the world, fighting related to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict erupted anew, specifically in Gaza, between Israel and the Hamas-led government. The 2008–2009 Israel–Gaza conflict ended in an uneasy cease-fire on January 18, 2009, two days prior to Obama's inauguration.

Initial themes[edit]

Further information: Obama inauguration

In his inaugural address, Obama, elaborating on his foreign policy, suggested that he hoped to begin the process of withdrawing from Iraq and continuing to focus on the conflict in Afghanistan. He also mentioned lessening the nuclear threat through "working tirelessly with old friends and former foes." He spoke about America's determination to combat terrorism by proclaiming that America's spirit is "stronger and cannot be broken – you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you." To the Muslim world, Obama extended an invite to "a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect." He also said that the United States was willing to "extend a hand" to those "who cling to power through corruption and deceit" if they "are willing to unclench" their fists.[10]

On his first full day as president, Obama called on Israel to open the borders of Gaza, detailing early plans on his administration's peace plans for the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.[11] Obama and Secretary of State Clinton named George Mitchell as Special Envoy for Middle East peace and Richard Holbrooke as special representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan on January 23, 2009.[12] The Mitchell appointment signaled that Clinton might stay away from the direct Secretary-level negotiating that her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, had spent much effort on during the previous two years.[13]

Within less than a week in her new position, Secretary of State Clinton already called almost 40 foreign leaders or foreign ministers.[14] She said the world was eager to see a new American foreign policy and that, "There is a great exhalation of breath going on around the world. We've got a lot of damage to repair."[14] She did indicate that not every past policy would be repudiated, and specifically said it was essential that the six-party talks over the North Korean nuclear weapons program continue.[15]

His trip to Denmark, that failed to convince the International Olympic Committee to award the 2016 Summer Olympic games to Chicago, made Denmark the sixteenth country Obama visited since becoming President on January 20, 2009. This edged out President's Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush (both tied at 15 visits in their first year) to make Obama the most traveled first year President.[16]


Further information: Confirmations of Barack Obama's Cabinet

The administration appointed, or allowed to remain in office, 2,465 ambassadors. Most were career diplomats. 805 were political appointees. 110 of 150 ambassadorships were political in the Caribbean; 259 out of 358 appointees in Western Europe were political. Career diplomats dominated all other areas including: North and Central America, South America, Africa, Eastern Europe, Middle East, East Asia, South Asia and Oceania. In Central Asia, all appointees were career.[17]


While located on the African continent, the countries of Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, and Western Sahara are not considered to be part of Sub-Saharan Africa and therefore are not associated with Africa for the foreign policy purposes of the United States.[18] Instead they are considered to be part of the Near East (commonly referred to as the Middle East) when talking about United States foreign policy. Depending on the source, these countries may or may not be included when African foreign policy is mentioned.

During the 2008 campaign, Obama outlined his priorities for developing an Africa policy including taking action to stop "what U.S. officials have termed genocide in Darfur, fighting poverty, and expanding prosperity."[19] Some analysts believed that Obama's appointment of Susan Rice who was a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations was a sign that his administration would prioritize the continent.[19]

Then Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton, in a January 13 hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that the administration priorities would include "combating al-Qaida's efforts to seek safe havens in failed states in the Horn of Africa; helping African nations to conserve their natural resources and reap fair benefits from them; stopping war in Congo; [and] ending autocracy in Zimbabwe and human devastation in Darfur."[20]

Darfur, Eastern Congo, Ghana and Zimbabwe have all played a significant role in the United States Africa policy. Some foreign policy analysts believed that conflicts in "Sudan, Somalia, and eastern Congo" would "eclipse any other policy plans."[19][dead link]

President Obama visited Cairo, Egypt, where he addressed the "Muslim world" on June 4[21] and followed this trip with his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa, as President, on July 11, 2009 where he addressed Ghana's Parliament.[22]

He was followed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who took a seven nation trip to Africa in August including stops in Angola, Cape Verde, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and South Africa. Some foreign policy analysts have made the claim that this is "the earliest in any U.S. administration that both the president and the secretary of state have visited Africa."

War in Somalia[edit]

The Administration had been interested in propping up the Transitional National Government in Mogadishu. To this end, as well as to help cut down on terrorist activities and piracy in the region, the United States had deployed special operations forces, drones, air strikes and some military advisers to influence the ongoing Somali civil war and neutralize prominent Al-Shabaab members.[23][24][25][26]


One of the first actions of the Obama administration was to sign a memorandum of understanding with Kenya to allow pirates captured off of Kenya's coast to be tried in Kenyan courts.[27][28]

Somali pirates took Richard Phillips, a captain of an American cargo ship, hostage on April 8, 2009 during a failed attempt to take over the Maersk Alabama.[29] President Obama ordered the U.S. military to conduct a rescue mission to free Phillips who was held hostage by the pirates for five days. He was rescued on April 12, 2009 by United States Navy SEALs who killed three pirates and obtained the surrender of a fourth, Abduwali Muse.[30][31][32][33][34]

The Obama administration's reaction and response to the kidnapping of Phillips had been commended as well as criticized, while others downplay his role in the rescue of Richard Phillips.[35][36][37] In 2014, Obama sought to increase operations in the Horn region in response to the Westgate mall attack in Kenya. A taskforce for the Horn peninsula had initiated drone strikes against pirates and al-Qaeda affiliates.[38]


Further information: Zimbabwe–United States relations

Obama is a strong critic of the government of Zimbabwe led by PresidentRobert Mugabe.[citation needed] Although Obama congratulated longtime opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai on becoming Prime Minister of Zimbabwe under a power-sharing agreement, U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood warned, "We need to see evidence of good governance and particularly real, true power sharing on the part of Robert Mugabe before we are going to make any kind of commitment" to lifting economic sanctions on the impoverished Southern African country, which has been ruled by Mugabe since independence in 1980.[39]

After the death of Susan Tsvangirai, the prime minister's wife, in an automobile collision in central Zimbabwe on March 6, 2009, the U.S. State Department expressed condolences to Tsvangirai, who also received minor injuries in the wreck.[40]

Prime Minister Tsvangirai met with President Obama on June 12, 2009 at the White House.[41]

After Morgan Tsvangirai, Mugabe's rival and leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, became Prime Minister of Zimbabwe under a power-sharing agreement, the Obama administration extended its congratulations to Tsvangirai, but said that the U.S. would wait for evidence of Mugabe's cooperation with the MDC before it would consider lifting its sanctions.[39] In early March 2009, Obama proclaimed that US sanctions would be provisionally extended for another year, because Zimbabwe's political crisis as yet unresolved.[42]

War in Mali[edit]

Under Obama, the U.S. government supported in Malian government in the Northern Mali conflict, aiding Mali in its fight against Tuareg rebels and their Islamist extremist allies, including Ansar Dine, which the U.S. designed as a foreign terrorist organization in 2013.[43] The U.S. provided counterterrorism, intelligence-sharing and other aid to the French military, which led an effort "to drive out insurgents and protect a civilian Malian government."[43] The U.S. also provided logistical support,[43] specifically by providing aerial refueling to the French Air Force.[43]

The Obama administration had pledged not to put "boots on the ground" in Mali, but in April 2013, the U.S. Department of Defense disclosed that it had deployed 22 U.S. military personnel to the country.[44][45] Of these, ten were liaison support staff to French and African forces, while the others were assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Bamako; the U.S. troops did not engage in combat operations in Mali.[44]


Further information: Arctic Policy of the United States

During Obama’s presidency, there was increased global attention paid to the Arctic, and the challenges and opportunities present in the region. The Obama administration responded accordingly by placing significantly greater focus on the Arctic and Arctic issues than the Bush administration, achieving a notable first in September 2015 by becoming the first sitting President ever to visit the Arctic Circle.

The Arctic is divided between 8 Arctic states that serve as permanent members of the Arctic Council. The primary policy of the Obama administration within the region had been to facilitate cooperation among these states on regional issues.[46] Upon assuming office, Obama had looked to reset relations with Russia across the board; however, as US–Russian relations deteriorated in other matters of mutual interest, the Arctic remained a site of cooperation between the two states.

In 2011, the Arctic states created the Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement, which established the search parameters for Arctic states. Search and Rescue collaboration between states has since strengthened further with the creation of the Coast Guard Forum in 2015.

During Obama’s presidency, the United States assumed chairmanship of the Arctic Council 2015-2017 and looked to launch major collaborative projects while in that office.[47] With the United States at the helm, the Arctic Council had focused on improving economic and living conditions for Arctic communities; improving Arctic Ocean safety, security and stewardship; and also addressing the impacts of climate change. The last Arctic Council meeting of Obama’s Presidency was in Maine in 4–6 October 2016 where the agenda focused on Arctic sustainable development and the climate.

Countering the regional effects of climate change had been a major focus of the Obama presidency’s Arctic policy, particularly during his final two years in office. Obama agreed in March 2016 to protect at least 17% of its Arctic territory from development during a joint event with President Trudeau of Canada.

Within the Arctic Council, an expert group was created in 2015 investigating the threat posed by black carbon to the region which concluded its findings and recommendations in 2016. The administration had also looked to increase data sharing—a major agenda item at the inaugural White House Arctic Science Ministerial in September 2016.[48]

While regional co-operation to counter joint challenges had been the primary commitment of the Obama administration, US Arctic military capabilities have also increased under Obama. In 2016, the ICEX exercise was carried out and was widely regarded to be a major success. President Obama had also commissioned two new US icebreakers in 2015.


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced in 2011 a rebalancing of foreign policy to give more emphasis to Asia, especially in response to the rapidly growing Chinese role in the region. She called for "a substantially increased investment – diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise – in the Asia-Pacific region."[49] As of 2014, many analysts did not find significant changes and some argued that the U.S. is again neglecting the region.[50] Obama's support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership was motivated in large part by his goal to "pivot" the US to East Asia.[51]

East Asia[edit]

Further information: East Asian Foreign Policy of the Barack Obama administration

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton left on her first foreign policy tour (to Asia) on February 15, 2009 with stops in Japan, China, South Korea, Philippines, and Indonesia.[52] The Secretary had travelled to the region extensively, including at least three trips to various countries in the region in 2009, 2010 and 2011[53] In July 2012, Secretary Clinton traveled Mongolia, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.[54] The visit to Laos was the first by a Secretary of State in 57 years.[55]

On April 1, 2009, Obama and Hu Jintao announced the establishment of the high-level U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue co-chaired by Hillary Clinton and Timothy Geithner on the U.S. side and Dai Bingguo and Wang Qishan on the Chinese side and on May 16, 2009 Obama personally announced the nomination of Jon Huntsman, Jr., the RepublicanGovernor of Utah to fill the position of Ambassador to China. Huntsman was the only ambassador in the Administration to be personally announced by the President[56] times. Later that year, President Obama and Secretary Clinton made a high-profile trip to China on November 15–18, 2009 marking Obama's first visit to China. It was Obama's first presidential Asia trip since he was inducted. He also went to Japan, Singapore for the APEC summit and South Korea for the first U.S.-ASEAN summit. The United States Pacific Command had also been at the forefront of efforts to strengthen military relationships in the region.[57] The United States and China often clashed over China's claims in the South China Sea, parts of which are also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.[58]

In 2014, President Obama stated that the United States recognized Tibet as part of China but also encouraged the Chinese authorities to take steps to preserve the unique cultural, religious and linguistic identity of the Tibetan people.[59]

In 2016, Obama became the first sitting American president to visit Laos, which the United States had bombed during the Vietnam War.[60] Obama also increased funding to clean up unexploded ordnance in Laos.[60]

North Korea[edit]

North Korea is a major trouble area, especially regarding nuclear weapons and threats of military action.[61] Not long after Obama took office North Korea elbowed its way back onto the international stage after a period of relative quiet,[62] drawing accusations of planning a new long-range intercontinental ballistic missile test weeks after Obama was sworn in[63][64] and performing an unannounced nuclear warhead and missile testing in late May 2009 to the disapproval of the State Department.[65] Relations were further strained with the imprisonment of American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling for their alleged illegal entry into North Korean territory on assignment for a media organization.[66] although both women were later released on August 5, 2009.[67] Later that year, Pyongyang announced its intention to terminate the 1953 armistice ending hostilities in the Korean War on May 28, 2009 effectively restarting the nearly 60-year-old conflict, and prompting the South Korea-United States Combined Forces Command to Watchcon II, the second-highest alert level possible.[68] In 2010, two more major incidents with North Korea occurred: the sinking of a South Korean Navy Ship that actuated new rounds of military exercises with South Korea as a direct military response to sinking[69] and the Bombardment of Yeonpyeong prompting the USaircraft carrierUSS George Washington to depart for joint exercises in the Yellow Sea with the Republic of Korea Navy, to deter further North Korean military action.[70][71] In light of the geopolitical developments with North Korea, the Obama Administration had called the U.S.–South Korean alliance as a "cornerstone of US security in the Pacific Region."[68] During Obama's presidency North Korea's nuclear-weapons and missile programme had become "steadily more alarming", with his failure to stifle it being described as "glaring."[72]


Japan, a major ally of the United States, has been engaged in a diplomatic disputed with China over control of the South China Sea. In then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's inaugural tour of East Asia, she reassured Japanese officials of Japan's centrality in the network of American alliances.[73] In response to the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, the United States initiated Operation Tomodachi to support Japan in disaster relief following the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami[74] earning gratitude from Japan's minister of defense, Toshimi Kitazawa who, while visiting the Ronald Reagan, thanked its crew for its assistance as part of Operation Tomodachi saying, "I have never been more encouraged by and proud of the fact that the United States is our ally."[75]

South Asia[edit]

Further information: South Asian Foreign Policy of the Barack Obama administration

For purposes of U.S. foreign policy, South Asia consists of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The Obama administrations's South Asian foreign policy was outlined in "The Obama Administration's Policy on South Asia" by Robert O. Blake, Jr., Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, who wrote "[o]ur goal was and remains to support the development of sovereign, stable, democratic nations, integrated into the world economy and cooperating with one another, the United States, and our partners to advance regional security and stability.

At the start of the Obama administration there were several regional hot spots within South Asia including Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. Several conflicts exist within the region including an ongoing war in Afghanistan and an ongoing conflict in North-West Pakistan.

On February 18, 2009, Obama announced that the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan would be bolstered by 17,000 new troops by the summer.[76] Obama also ordered the expansion of airstrikes to include the organization of Baitullah Mehsud, the militant chief reportedly behind the 2007 assassination of Benazir Bhutto,[77] as priority targets.[78]

There is also tension between India and Pakistan who both possess nuclear weapons. This conflict has been ongoing since August 1947 after the Partition of India. Recent developments in this conflict involve the Kashmir region with Pakistan controlling the northwest portion, India controlling the central and southern portion and the People's Republic of China controlling the northeastern portion of Kashmir. Criticism had been leveled at the Obama administration for its apparent lack of an early response to U.S. foreign policy with India. The former director for South Asia in the National Security Council in the Bush administration, Xenia Dormandy claims that India is America's indispensable ally in the region and that the Obama administration should take steps to improve relations with India.[79][80][81][82][83]


Main article: European foreign policy of the Barack Obama administration

Fabbrini in 2011 identified a cycle in anti-Americanism in Europe: modest in the 1990s, it grew explosively between 2003–2008, then declined after 2008. He sees the current version as related to images of American foreign policy-making as unrestrained by international institutions or world opinion. Thus it is the unilateral policy process and the arrogance of policy makers, not the specific policy decisions, that are decisive.[84]

Ukraine crisis[edit]

Main article: 2014 pro-Russian unrest in Ukraine

In the wake of the Euromaidan protests the Obama administration had embraced the new government of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. After Russia began to occupy the Crimean peninsula Obama warned Russia of "severe consequences" if Russia annexes the region and attempted to negotiate a withdraw of Russian troops. To date, all negotiations have been unsuccessful.[85] On December 18, 2014 Obama signed into law Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014.[86]


See also: Russia–United States relations § Obama's tenure (2009–2017), and Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections

Tensions remained as Russia pushed back against attempts at further eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union into areas that had previously been part of the Russian Empire and the USSR. Georgia and Ukraine were the major flash points. Early on, Obama called for a "reset" of relations with Russia, and in 2009 the policy became known as the Russian reset; but critics debated whether or not it could improve bilateral relations or was about to concede too much to Russia.[87]

At the end of March 2014, president Obama dismissed Russia as a "regional power" that did not pose a major security threat to the U.S.[88] The statement was later sharply criticised by Putin as ″disrespectful″ and an attempt to prove America's exceptionalism[89][90] as well as by the president of the European CommissionJean-Claude Juncker who in November 2016 said, ″We have a lot to learn about the depths of Russia, we are very ignorant about it at the moment. ... Russia is not, as President Obama said, ′a regional power′. This was a big error in assessment.″[91]

After Russia′s military intervention in Syria in 2015 and the alleged interference[92] in the 2016 election campaign in the U.S., relations between the Russian government and Obama administration became more strained. In September 2016, the U.S. government publicly accused Russia of ″flagrant violations of international law″ in Syria.[93]Thomas Friedman

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrives at the State Department on her first day greeted by a standing room only crowd of Department employees.
Tsvangirai meets with Obama in the White House in June 2009
President Barack Obama addresses the opening session of the first U.S.–China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.
President Obama at the Vimean Santepheap (Peace Palace) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
United States President Barack Obama and Lee walking after a meeting at the Blue House in Seoul in November 2010.

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