[SCMP Column] Lasting Legacy of Obama

January 16, 2017

In the teeth of Donald Trump’s all-devouring megalomania, in which he will take credit others’ successes if he can, and blame others for his failures if he can get away with it, there is an urgent need to audit the Obama legacy as meticulously as possible.

This is important not just because of Trump’s hard-wired habit of grabbing credit from others wherever he can, but because the danger of Obama getting a bad rap is high. As a non-American with no party prejudice, my own verdict is simple: he will go down in history as one of the US’s greater presidents.

He inherited as disastrous an economic challenge as any president since Roosevelt in the 1930s, and despite tooth-and-nail obstruction from a vindictively opposed Republican-controlled Congress and Senate, has delivered to the undeserving Donald Trump an economy in a better state than anyone would have dared to forecast eight years ago.

On November 8 2008, just days after Obama became the US’s first black President, I wrote in the Chinese-language Ming Pao: “Obama is an extraordinary politician – eloquent, intelligent, likeable and open-minded. He has seemed constantly calm, consultative, pragmatic and in search of consensus. He may lean to the left, but he has surrounded himself with as impressive a political and economic team as any electorate could hope for.”

As I last week watched his farewell address to supporters in Chicago, this was the same man: modest, balanced, tolerant. Such a contrast to the man set to succeed him.

So much for the man. But what of his legacy? In some areas he has conspicuously failed. The trauma facing Syria and the region around it is in part due to disastrous indecision on the part of the Obama team. Inequality in the US is worse today than at any point in recent history, and racism (and social division more generally) has worsened alarmingly. Productivity continues to track downwards.

But the balance of the legacy seems remarkable. All the more so in view of the horrid crisis he inherited from George Bush Jnr. As the Economic Report of the President concluded last week in its audit of Obama’s eight years: “It is easy to forget how close the US economy came to an outright depression during the (2008) crisis.”

With remarkable disregard for Democratic-Republic partisanship, Obama endorsed and built upon the extraordinary emergency measures put in place by Republican predecessors. There is no doubt that the “tyranny of the urgent” focused on tackling the crisis stymied Obama’s ambitions to pursue a number of Democratic causes. But  this “tyranny of the urgent” did not prevent him from pressing through his Obamacare programme – as a result of which 20m adults and 3m children today have health care insurance that otherwise would be uninsured. And the importance of his commitment to the global climate accord cannot be underestimated.

Paradoxically, his achievements in the economic domain would have done credit to the most dyed-in-the-wool Republican: the GDP has grown by 16% over the course of his presidency, and unemployment has been reduced from an alarming 10% to less than 5%. Despite the upheaval of the financial crisis, average wages have risen by almost 6.5% - faster than at any point since the early 1970s. Extraordinarily for any democratic presidency, corporate profits have jumped by 57%, and federal spending has fallen by 16%. Perhaps more predictably, public debt has jumped by 36%, but that has more to do with QE than with any Democrat agenda.

In short, whatever Donald Trump says about making American great again, Obama can reasonably claim to have steadied a society facing in acute crisis in 2008, and laid strong foundations for a resumption of strong growth. That is more than can be said for most of the economies of Europe.

It is noteworthy to recall that back in November 2008, John McCain, the republican candidate roundly defeated by Obama, warned that we should be afraid of Obama, who he said was going to raise taxes, throw up tariff barriers to trade, and thrown money at health care reform. In the end, Obama did no such thing. And while his Obamacare package was controversial – and is in serious jeopardy if Donald Trump gets his way – it absolutely did not lead to a blow-out in health care spending. On the contrary, spending on health care grew more slowly under Obama than at any point in decades.

Of course, John McCain continues to rail today – but now his alarums are focused on Donald Trump, and reflect deep and dangerous divisions within the Republican ranks. Heaven knows where these will lead.

But this perhaps alerts us to an as-yet undiscussed part of Obama’s legacy: how he leaves the state of the Democratic Party. Perhaps even more grievously than the Republicans, Democrats appear dreadfully divided after their reluctance to gather around Hillary Clinton. Arguably, the improbable and deeply divisive Donald Trump would never have won had so many Democrats so viscerally disliked Clinton. Could or should Obama have done more to pre-empt this electoral train-wreck?

I have no answer to this, but one can only hope that as he leaves office he is able to deploy his calm eloquence and open-mindedness to restore some Democratic calm, and build foundations for a better focused “loyal opposition” over the coming four years. All we can say with confidence at this point is that the Clinton era is emphatically over.

As we move from this audit of the Obama legacy, I find it difficult not to look at the coming four years with deep foreboding. Some say Trump is gathering around him a team of talented and experienced office-bearers. I am not yet convinced, but even if this is true, it is truly difficult to listen with equanimity to the extraordinary, eccentric, sometimes profane and always bellicose Twitter-based outbursts that so unpredictably erupt from the president-elect’s smart-phone. There can be no greater contrast than the gracious, modest and generous-hearted farewells from Obama last week. Obama’s considerate open-mindedness will quickly be missed.
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