President Obama’s “Legacy of Absences”

January 22, 2015

By Robert Van Egghen

With the 2015 State of the Union address showing a rejuvenated and confident Barack Obama, a panel of experts met at the Frontline Club on Wednesday 21 January to debate his legacy, the partisan nature of US politics and whether racial divides have been healed by the nation’s first black president.

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l-r: Robert Carolina, Xenia Wickett, Matt Frei, Kim Ghattas, Michael Goldfarb

Chair Matt Frei, former Washington correspondent and current Europe editor for Channel 4 News, began by asking the panel what they thought Obama’s legacy would be.

Xenia Wickett, formerly of the US State Department and now at Chatham House, replied: “His legacy is going to be economic. President Obama came in in 2009 after the great recession, and if you listened to his state of the union, [now] America is strong, the economy is strong.”

Kim Ghattas, BBC correspondent based in Washington, offered her view of Obama as “the president who always struggled to convince people in the US and abroad that he was a good president, that he did a good job, because the narrative of him being a reluctant president stuck, no matter what he achieved.”

The panel also discussed the difficult situations Obama has found himself in throughout his presidency. Veteran journalist and broadcaster Michael Goldfarb said: “He was a president at a time when no-one was really in charge, the world was in a terrible state of drift.”

Frei questioned whether “Obama’s legacy is a legacy of absences – the absence of a war that he started, the absence of an economic calamity. Preventing economic calamity is more difficult to get brownie points for than actually causing a great economic success.”

However, as chair of Democrats Abroad UK Robert Carolina pointed out: “Coming back from economic collapse was by no means assured.”

One of the biggest difficulties that Obama has faced as president has been a deeply partisan Republican congress. The panel wondered whether America’s finely-tuned system of checks and balances is unable to cope with such partisan politics. “If it’s trench warfare, it’s not checks and balances,” said Frei.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Democrat Robert Carolina laid the blame with the Republican party for this state of affairs. He said: “They have become a party whose governing philosophy is almost nihilistic. A failure to achieve anything is almost a victory.”

A member of the audience highlighted Obama’s historic status as the first African-American President of the United States. Xenia Wickett commented:

“The greatest achievement in that respect is that you have five people here and that isn’t what we’d put as his legacy. In terms of a statement about where America is today, I think that’s a huge statement.”

With recent events in Ferguson exposing the ongoing deep racial divides that exist in the United States, Ghattas said: “the only people who talk about America as a post-racial society are white.”

Goldfarb added: “He decided, as many successful African-Americans do, ‘I’m not going to make a thing of my race, I’m not going to play that card’. He chose to downplay it.”

The panel also debated whether Obama had gained or lost international respect for his handling of US foreign policy. “What you get from world leaders today is that there is a failure of leadership and Obama is missing in action,” said Ghattas.

Wickett closed the discussion with a comment on the factors that have most hindered Obama’s presidency:

“He’s in a fundamental dilemma. Everybody wants American leadership, everybody wants America to use its leadership to keep sea lanes open, Middle Eastern energy flowing, the Chinese in their box, Europe safe through NATO. But the trouble is they only want it when it’s their way and they all want something slightly different. He cannot win!”

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