With the Obama presidency coming to an end, much of the energy that might have been devoted to analyzing his legacy has been diverted by Donald Trump. But how can one make a fair analysis of a polarizing figure in American politics?
Speaking for myself, as someone of the left with libertarian tendencies, it’s difficult to have much sympathy to the man, however a lot of criticism coming from the GOP is sadly too partisan and unthoughtful. I think from the left the criticism is fairly more interesting, CounterPunch is an outlet that continuously had denounce Obama for his liberal interventionism, the bank bailout, the crony capitalism of the Export-Import Bank and even the corporatism of Obamacare. Recently progressive journalist Jeremy Scahill attacked Obama over drone killing. But one has to wonder where the progressive discontent with Obama comes from.
Allow me to suggest the hopes of the progressives were too high — but they were also misled. Back in 2008, Ralph Nader argued rightly that in a lot of issues John Edwards was actually more progressive than Obama, but the symbolism of the first black president trumped any real discussion of who Obama really was. Matt Gonzalez, a former Green Party councilman of San Francisco that was the vice presidential candidate for Ralph Nader argued that Obama was far from the pacifist some on both right and left try to portray.
On the right the thing is more complex. While some argue racism, the main reason is partisanship — liberals hated Bush every bit as much as conservatives hate Obama. Let me be clear, there were racists and white supremacists of different kinds that were against Obama from the get go but in general the reaction was more than just against Obama, it was against a country changing demographically — Obama was a symbol but not the cause.
While the radical left and average conservative were fierce critics of Obama, the world seemed to like him more than Bush. Obama recovered the image of America but was far from being the new JFK. The Kennedy years gave American liberalism an identity, the Obama years failed to do so. A government that supposedly signified the victory of the McGovern coalition was closer to the neocon foreign policy than the thoughtful realism of the late South Dakota Senator.
The foreign policy of Obama enabled a Cheney-lite candidate like Hillary to have an easy time becoming the next candidate for the Democratic Party. He was less hawkish than Hillary but was far from being a dove, liberal interventionists and other warmongers were very influential in his government and are going to be even more if Hillary gets elected. Even Sanders who calls himself a socialist is very much a military Keynesian and even supports drone killing.
The popularity of socialism among the young makes one wonder what these could mean for the American left. Without major socialist figures, the next leaders of the Democratic Party will probably identify themselves as FDR Democrats embracing New Deal liberalism — plus identity politics, but nothing revolutionary.
Obama would still be in high regard within the base of his party and is a useful tool for the party. A Hillary presidency would preserve his legacy in a better way, Trump would try to undo what he has done including his major foreign policy victory in the Iran deal. Sanders is still a mystery because if he is successful he would replace a lot of Obama’s major policies including Obamacare.
Back to the real question of what Obama means for liberalism: seems to be more a symbolic image than a revolutionary change, he represents the victory of identity politics. That being said Obama is by far one of the smartest politicians of the last time, a charismatic leader that gave hope to a generation. Liberalism after him could be more populist in the line of Sanders but at the same time more hawkish in the line of Hillary. I still wonder if Russ Feingold could run in the future for president, it seems like he will be re-elected to the Senate. His mix of civil libertarianism and foreign policy restraint seem to be ideal to form a broad coalition. Another thoughtful leader for the future could be Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard who bravely fought against the Clintonite establishment. Tim Canova who is running to unseat corporatist Debbie Wasserman Schultz represent the new generation of insurgents.
You can love him or hate him, Obama had marked a time of extreme polarization. He hasn’t shaped the Democratic Party in the way some thought he would and he had united the GOP against him. He knows that the future is unknown and that his legacy depends on the future, but he did his best. And while he didn’t exactly deliver the change people think he would bring, he changed the image of America in radical way.