Imagine if Donald Trump had directly followed a George W. Bush presidency in the United States. It is hard to remember now, eight years later, but Bush was possibly one of the most reviled American presidents abroad. Indian attitudes remained anomalous towards the end, thanks to Bush’s role in approving the civil nuclear deal, but he was still viewed as something of a bumbler who managed to achieve his position thanks to his father and vested business interests. As Britain’s The Daily Mirror put it on the day after Bush was re-elected in 2004, “How Can 59,054,087 People Be So Dumb?”
Trump is, in many ways only a few steps removed from Bush, from corruption allegations to questions about nepotism and even whether has the basic capabilities needed to run the world’s largest economy. People are also looking at Trump as if he might preside over something catastrophic that would truly signal the end of the unipolar American moment, but Bush already did that: the Iraq War, a criminal boondoggle costing trillions of dollars and untold lives that only helped create the Islamic State while undermining confidence in any sort of Pax Americana, will go down as a catastrophe possibly even more significant than the September 11 attacks. Trump might make things worse, but Bush was there first.
So why does Trump feel like so unusual, like such an outlier, despite Bush? Because of the president who came in between. There is no denying how, within the structures of American politics, Trump is a singular phenomenon. And the man’s uninhibited nature suggests that his presidency will be so much of a sideshow that it will overshadow the one that came before him. But it is possible, looking back at the 2000s from outside the United States, that Barack Obama’s tenure will be the one that seems like a misfit, oddly shoehorned into the space between the Bush and Trump years.
There are good arguments to suggest that this should not be the case. Obama was as imperial a president as Bush, many have argued. And certainly, under him the national security state thrived, expanding drone bombings in a way his predecessors could only dream of and continuing to intervene in conflicts across the globe, albeit with much less bluster compared to his George “Mission Accomplished” W Bush. And while it is easy to applaud Obama’s pardon to Chelsea Manning, the whistleblower who leaked millions of sensitive documents, he was also responsible for jailing her and similarly bringing charges against Edward Snowden, another whistleblower who revealed the extent of America’s secret surveillance programs.
Suffice it to say Obama was no saint, and the Nobel committee surely cringes when they look back at the Peace Prize they awarded him in 2009, just a year after his stunning victory in the 2008 election.
But there is also no denying the progress made in his time, even if much of it will be undone by Trump and the Republicans in the US Congress. Outside of his domestic achievements, Obama – if his efforts are not undone – will be remembered as the US president who helped end the (American-enforced) global ostracism of Cuba and Iran, and questioned America’s ties to Saudi Arabia and later, Israel.
Obama was also the most LGBTQ-friendly American president of all time, and his tenure saw unprecedented advances against discrimination that matter because of the message it sends to the rest of the world. He was clear that climate change was a man-made problem that poses a massive threat to humanity, an opinion that cannot be taken for granted in American politics, and made efforts to save the environment both at home and internationally through the Paris Agreement.
Americans may debate for some time now over Obama’s economic policies, and it might be fair to argue that a US president doesn’t deserve too much credit for helping right the ship after an economic crisis that the American financial system and poor oversight helped create. But Obama came in right after the worst crash since the Great Depression and managed to steer out of it, setting an example for a Europe that was reliant on questionably austerity moves.
At a time when Republicans had an eye trained on his every move, Obama managed to run the White House with almost no hint of a personal ethical scandal. The same cannot be said of the two presidents that preceded him and Trump, uniquely, will walk into the White House with sexual harassment allegations against him, questions of conflict of interest over his businesses and intelligence agencies probing his staff for connections to Russia.
That might seem crazy, particularly to non-Americans, but it is only really unusual because of Obama’s tenure. Think about it: A rabble-rousing strongman with shady business connections and a willingness to promote his family through state politics? That is a pretty good definition for politicians the world over and wouldn’t have seemed out of place even in the America of the 1980s or the 1990s, not long after Richard Nixon.
Obama, despite all his faults, was a progressive darling not only because (or despite) his policies, but because of who he was: The book-reading, speech-making, Michelle-loving dad who understood his place in history, but seemed to operate with a disdain for actual politics.
Former President Obama
He will probably make for an exemplary former President, even in the time of Donald Trump, since he will no longer have to do the actual politicking or handle the compromises that come with residing in the White House. And there’s already a claimant to the progressive-darling throne that he leaves behind, in the form of Canada’s Justin Trudeau.
To those for whom the Bush-Obama years were formative, it’s hard to even comprehend the rise of someone like Trump. But looking across the sweep of history, what sort of politician seems more likely to triumph? The bookish professorial geek from a minority community, or the rich strongman promising everything without any of the details?
Yes, we can, Obama told America, while promising all of that “hopey changey stuff.” In the end the real surprise might have come from the American people over eight years: Yes, they actually did.
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