Barack Obama was not a great president, nor a terrible president, just a mediocre one.
The trouble is that we had expected better – much, much better. We had hoped for a revolution of sorts, an apotheosis of the better days of John F. Kennedy’s brief and shining Camelot.
As it is, Obama’ legacy, covering two full terms, not unlike Kennedy’s, which lasted only half a term, is our bitter disappointment.
In the words of the Irish song: “Barack, we hardly knew ye!”
Barack Obama’s only saving grace may be – and if this doesn’t qualify as damning with faint praise, then nothing does – that what follows him into the White House may turn out to be much, much worse.
“Yes, we can!” was Obama’s election slogan in his first presidential campaign. And we believed it, on the grounds that, if America could elect a black president – and with nary a shot fired or a church burned – then anything was possible. Anything was possible, of course, but it just didn’t happen.
Obama did not close the Guantanamo base. He did not go after crooked Wall Street fat cats. He did not take action against, and rarely even criticised racist cops. He did nothing to keep guns under control other than calling plaintively for remedial action after every slaughter. He did not reduce or reform a bloated federal government. He did not try hard enough to get to grips with an uncooperative Republican Congress, preferring instead to blame its recalcitrance on extremism. The Congress was indeed to blame most of the time, having set out unabashedly to neutralise the administration on all fronts, but Obama seemed always too ready to cave in.
He admitted as much. “I have no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divided, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.” That was said in his last year in office, when trying was no more than a futile gesture. It certainly doesn’t have the smack of a chief executive with confidence in his brief and his ability to impose it. And that, I think, lies at the root of Obama’s problem: at no time during his term of office did he come across as an imposing figure. A nice man, yes, and an intelligent and reasonable one, without doubt, but a ruthlessly efficient one, determined to force through his agenda, palpably not.
In the plus column, he did introduce a universal health-care system, albeit a flawed one; he did wind down the American military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, places where many argued there shouldn’t have been a presence in the first place; he did preside over a recovery in the American economy, a bounce that seemed by no means assured after the crash of 2008; he and his wife Michelle did grace the White House with style and grace.
But neither the pluses nor the minuses amount to a great deal, one way or the other.
Obama’s sad legacy is that, while we would have anticipated no more from a Republican president wedded to maintenance of the status quo, from a supposedly reformist wing of the Democratic Party we were entitled to hope for a revolution of sorts. We didn’t even get evolution.
Obama once wrote: “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views. As such I am bound to disappoint some, if not all of them.” The statement falls well short of inspirational rhetoric; it is, rather, the voice of a man so unsure of himself, or so respectably middle-of-the-road, that it calls into question why he even considered running for office.
Damning with faint praise that may be, but I venture to predict that within months we will be yearning for the calm, reasonable, articulate presence of Barack Obama.