Northern Advocate Column

Obama’s legacy: a missed opportunity


So Barack Obama has dropped by to play some golf and make a little post-presidency money ($550,000) speaking to 1,000 exclusive guests of the NZ-US Council. He’ll be treated with great deference. John Key, with his I’m-so-lucky-to-play-with-the-big-boys smile, will have nothing but praise for the man. Jacinda Ardern will be fawning too, I’m sure.

And don’t get me wrong, next to Trump, who grows more odious by the day, Obama has a likeability rating comparable to Kermit the Frog. He’s charming, intelligent, seemingly honest, and with great empathetic skill. He has opinions on social issues that wouldn’t get him ostracised at a dinner party in most well-to-do suburbs in New Zealand. If, on the other hand, Trump turned up at a dinner party in Saint Helliers, Karori or Fendalton he would probably cop some heat. Not Obama though.

And yet, if we’re to speak honestly of Obama’s legacy, it’s got to be more than him being the first black president, and that he’s a classy and likeable individual.

He was elected on a wave of optimism, having run a grassroots campaign involving hundreds of thousands of young activists hungry for change. In the first two years of his presidency, the Democrats controlled all the levers of power in America. The Republican Party was in disarray and the Wall Street banking class, following the Global Financial Crisis, feared having their powers curbed. This could have been a pivotal moment in history.

Except Obama didn’t act against Wall Street or put a stop to bankers paying themselves obscene bonuses from the bailout money. Instead, he adopted many policies of austerity that saw living standards fall for Americans of all races. He reneged on his promise to pursue a public health system and instead sided with the insurance and drug companies to rehash the same inequitable system dependant on insurance premiums that many still couldn’t afford.

As Democrat supporters became steadily disillusioned and apathetic, the Tea Party movement, and then Trump, were able to successfully play on people’s fears and anger. Many working-class white Americans who had supported Obama and the Democrats now voted for Trump, willing to believe that he did have their interests at heart. They were deceived of course.  

And now America has become an even scarier place. Trump has empowered every petty racist to think they can express their vile views.

Someone like Trump, or indeed any of the odious figures of history, don’t land in power and create all the evil themselves. So often the seeds are sown by the actions of political figures in the past.  For me, Obama is that guy. He was in a position of power with massive popular support and a desire for change. Yet he chose to steer the ship in the direction of the status quo, that is, around in circles without doing very much at all. 

How different the world today might have been.