Five years on from his historic victory, Barack Obama’s promise of hope and change is beginning to look rather hollow.
On the night of November 4, 2008, president elect Barack Obama delivered his triumphant speech in Chicago, marvelling at how America’s strength comes “not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope”.
He concluded his victory celebrations by proclaiming, “change has come to America”. It was indeed an historic night. An excited nation, itching for change and overcome with the hysteria of a momentous election, was inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
It seems like a lifetime ago. Obama is nearly a year into his second term, yet there are few discernable signs of the change he promised. His supporters would dispute such criticism, pointing out that circumstances have improved during his administration. To a certain extent they have. ‘Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive’, but at what cost? Fear of another terrorist attack has fuelled an alarming culture of suspicion and mistrust the like of which has not been seen since the darkest days of Bush and Cheney. Economic growth could only be described as sluggish in its most euphemistic terms.
Obama will always have admirers because he talks a good game, yet the growing suspicion is that his promise of change was nothing more than empty rhetoric, a campaign slogan not worth the banners and bumper stickers it was scrawled upon. Managing to avoid the ignominy of being a one-term president was more the cause of relief than celebration, given that his re-election last year was not so much recognition of his enduring popularity, but the rejection of an unsatisfactory alternative in Mitt Romney and an antiquated Republican Party.
Having promised to transform America, it is remarkable how little has actually changed. The greatest condemnation of the Obama administration is that it increasingly feels like an extension of the Bush years. Granted, Obama undoubtedly represents the more acceptable face of America abroad, but his use of drones as a means of eliminating suspected targets has done little to improve the perception of the US overseas, or justify his receiving a Nobel Peace Prize.
A tendency to break promises has become a recurring theme of this presidency. Obama vowed to close Guantanamo Bay, yet he has simply not honoured an important pledge made to the American people. Having posed as the great libertarian, how foolish Obama must feel that prisoners whose guilt has never been established remain incarcerated at an illegitimate prison. It doesn’t quite fit with the ideals of liberty and opportunity which he espouses, nor the constitution which he swore to uphold.
More recently, the NSA scandal has proved highly embarrassing for a president who expressed his outrage about the manner in which his predecessor went about securing unprecedented executive powers in the aftermath of 9/11. Edward Snowden’s revelations not only unmasked the malpractice of a security agency which flagrantly abused its position, but exposed Obama’s obsession with protecting Americans from terrorism at the expense of preserving their civil liberties. The scandal has threatened Obama’s credibility, damaging, perhaps irrevocably, his reputation as a man of integrity. Rather than representing a beacon of hope and change, Obama has become the ultimate security president.
With hindsight it was always going to be tough for Obama to measure up favourably against his own standards; expectations could not be higher, and resources were limited. He presented himself as an above party figure, almost in the George Washington mould, perhaps arrogantly assuming that he would somehow be immune from the partisanship that grips American politics. His first term was spent mired in the gridlock of Washington, rigorously attempting to pass a healthcare bill which was heavily watered down, and continues to hamper his presidency. Should the Democrats regain control of the House of Representatives next autumn, Obama may find his job a little bit easier, but he failed to seize the initiative the last time he had control of both Houses, so there is no guarantee that he would make the most of his advantage this time around. Last month’s government shutdown was evidence, as if any was needed, that Obama is currently the lamest of lame duck presidents.
In some respects, Obama was right to talk about change, but far from his grand ideals some aspects of America have actually changed for the worse and declined during his five years in office. Increasing questions have been asked around the world about the competence of American global leadership, particularly given Obama’s indecisiveness on key foreign policy issues such as Egypt and Syria. Equally, the economy has improved slightly, but things got worse before they got better, and many of America’s poorest are still counting the cost of a financial crisis caused by the rich. Unemployment is falling slowly, although at 7.3%, it is still higher than at any point during the previous administration.
With little over three years remaining in the White House, Obama needs to start securing his legacy, or risk others dictating it for him. It would be a crying shame if his contribution to history were merely a footnote as the first African-American president, given that he galvanised support among the masses in a way that few others have in modern politics. For those of us who willed him to succeed, there is a serious danger that he will not go down simply as an unremarkable president, but instead be considered a monumental disappointment.