Wed | Mar 21, 2018

Editorial | Obama: Already absolved

Published:Sunday | January 22, 2017 | 12:00 AM

There is a mission by Barack Obama's successor, Donald Trump, and the Republicans in Congress to deny the United States' first African-American president a legacy. So, even before Mr Trump's inauguration last Friday, the Republicans used their majorities in both Houses to strip away at legislation that underpins Mr Obama's hallmark programmes. Mr Trump has signalled his intention to do the same in areas where executive authority will have similar outcomes.

Ultimately, historians, in the absence of the emotive immediacy and hurly-burly of partisan politics, will pronounce on Mr Obama's achievements after eight years in the White House. Nonetheless, the attempts to diminish it notwithstanding, Mr Obama's was a substantial presidency, conducted with decency and decorum.

The often-underplayed achievement of the Obama years is the economy. When Mr Obama took office in January 2009, the Great Recession, triggered by the subprime crisis of the previous year, was heading towards its zenith. The economy was shedding around 800,000 jobs a month, banks were tanking, and the Detroit motor industry was on the verge of collapse. That year, the economy declined by more than three per cent and unemployment reached 10 per cent.

The Obama administration engineered the temporary takeover of Chrysler, encouraged mergers and acquisitions among banks, and provided consumers with some protection from the worst excesses of mortgage companies in the housing crisis. Mr Obama left office with the American economy in relatively good health, with better growth rates than those of other advanced nations.

Indeed, from its lowest point in 2010, it has created more than 15 million private-sector jobs, and unemployment has declined from 10 per cent to 4.2 per cent. From 9.8 per cent of GDP in 2009, America's fiscal deficit is now 3.3 per cent.




It is fashionable for Mr Trump and the Republicans to ridicule Mr Obama's foreign policy, especially his supposed failure to impose his "red line" on Syria. This newspaper disagreed with elements of Mr Obama's execution of foreign policy, including America's insertion of itself in Libya, at a time when Muammar Gaddafi was finding common ground with the West.

But even as we recognise Washington's inclination to pursue its superpower interests, America's foreign policy under Mr Obama was largely nuanced and sophisticated. He helped to rebuild America's prestige and moral authority in many countries, especially in emerging economies where the USA had lost its way.

In the event, the upshot from failing to enforce the Syrian "red line" was Bashar al-Assad's agreement to give up his chemical weapons. Further, despite the fulminations of Israel and the Republicans, and Mr Trump's threat to tear it up, the nuclear deal with Iran is a signature development in halting that country's bid at proliferation, short of bombing Tehran.

At home, the move to rescind the Affordable Care Act, which has provided more than 20 million Americans with health insurance, seems to be driven more by ideological hubris, and more likely spite, than logic, as much as Mr Trump's insistence on overturning Mr Obama's programme for a path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants, and Mr Trump's plans to build a wall along America's border with Mexico, appear to be the stuff of xenophobic nativism.

Barack Obama may not have been successful in having America fully appreciating its better self. But then, leaving office with a 60 per cent approval rating says something. History will say he was good for America.