Obama: the big hitter who lost a legacy

In full swing: Barack Obama wrote about his childhood in his memoir Dreams from My Father.

Eight years ago, Barack Obama became the 44th president of the United States. His motto was Yes We Can; his message was hope. As the 45th is elected, people are asking: did Obama deliver?

Thirty years ago in a New York park, Genevieve Cook watched as a child ran around in costume. Turning to her then-boyfriend, she mused that he too acted like a superhero sometimes. The boyfriend said nothing.

Decades later his grinning face adorned the cover of the latest Spider-Man comic. Mocked-up pictures showing him using superpowers circled the internet. Barack Obama had just become the first black president of the USA: to many, he truly was a hero.

That was eight years ago, when Obama’s backstory – his rise from humble immigrant’s son to world’s most powerful person – was what mattered. Today, as he prepares to leave office, all eyes are on his legacy. He was elected on a promise of hope and change. Has he delivered?

From day one, the odds were against him. Obama became president just as the financial crisis was knocking the economy. He responded with a bold stimulus package that led the country into a relatively good recovery: employment and wages have risen. But so has inequality.

But the package set Obama on a collision course with Republicans, who took control of the House of Representatives in 2010. Opposed to what they see as wasteful spending, they have since blocked or undermined most of his attempts at legislation. Obama has described his failure to reach more compromises as one of his ‘few regrets’.

Similarly, many hoped that the president would be able to soothe the country’s racial strife. Yet police continue to shoot black men, and civil unrest is growing. Obama has passed no gun control laws.

On the world stage, things have been no easier. Obama inherited the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; keen to avoid similar mistakes, he has acted carefully. Some praise his cautious deals with Iran and Cuba as diplomatic masterstrokes. Others blame his passivity for the rise of Russia, China and Islamic State (Daesh or ISIS).

Even his fans confess that Obama did not bring about huge change. Yet he leaves almost as popular as when he arrived. Did he, after all, make the best of a bad situation?

Yes we did?

Obama is some talker, admit critics. But not a doer. He has been too stubborn at home and too timid abroad. The result: nothing much happened, except that the country’s divides widened. As one journalist put it, ‘as a British king, he would have been terrific.’ But not as the chief executive of the world’s greatest power.

A president is not a superhero, reply admirers. Their job is not to change the world, but to manage specific problems. Obama faced major challenges – the financial crisis, chaos in the Middle East – mostly beyond his control. But he stayed the course, avoiding scandal and scoring a few successes. That is impressive.

You Decide

  1. Would you have voted for Obama?
  2. British politician Enoch Powell once said that ‘all political lives end in failure’. Is he right?


  1. Draw a timeline of Obama’s presidency, marking on the 15 most important events.
  2. Imagine you are Obama, and Donald Trump asks you for advice on being president. Write him a letter of reply.

Some People Say...

“You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.”

Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York.

What do you think?

Q & A

No matter what Obama did, I find his story inspiring.
There’s no denying the symbolic importance of the first black president. And Obama has done plenty for racial equality, from appointing black judges to releasing thousands of nonviolent drug offenders. Yet black Americans are in many ways worse off now than in 2008. Some accuse the president of dodging the issue (see Become An Expert).
What will Obama do next?
Unclear, but he’s still young. The Obamas will continue to live in Washington, which could mean the ex-president stays in politics. Last year, he said that he’d like to go back to local politics, helping out with education and employment policy. It’s also been rumoured that he will campaign to change election district maps. One thing is for sure, however: there will be more golf.

Word Watch

Genevieve Cook
Obama’s ex entered the limelight in 2012, when she gave an interview for a biography of the president. See Become An Expert.
Immigrant’s son
Obama’s father, Barack Obama Sr., was a Kenyan economist. He met the future president’s mother, Ann Dunham, while studying at the University of Hawaii.
House of Representatives
The lower house of the US Congress. The party with a majority has considerable power over laws.
Notoriously, Republicans have tried to overturn Obamacare, a law that obliges citizens to buy health insurance. They argue that it is costly and violates certain constitutional freedoms.
Gun control
Despite talking tough on the issue, Obama has only passed two gun laws, and both expanded the rights of gun owners. That has not stopped the National Rifle Association from claiming that ‘President Obama’s obsession with gun control knows no boundaries.’
A Gallup poll puts Obama’s approval rating at 56% – higher than Clinton’s. At the start of his presidency, it was over 60%.
Max Hastings, writing in The Daily Mail. See Become An Expert.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.