Obama was here briefly. The 44th President of the United States (POTUS), Barack Hussein Obama’s eight years in office seems condensed and related events so complex and compacted, yet seemingly uncomplicated. The sojourn seems to have ended, just as it started. Obama’s reign was far from nondescript. While the Obama years may not have been epochal, much was accomplished. The various global challenges and the scourge of international terrorism though not solved entirely were tampered extensively. He tried to end the whimsical wars his predecessor started. There were pitfalls, many from an inherited past. And there were fault lines and red lines, including Benghazi Libya and Aleppo, Syria both being part of the intractable Middle East mosaic.
Obama was president, but his thought process was primarily, that of a lawyer, a professor, a diplomat and a grassroots proselytizer combined. He understood the president’s power to be the power of persuasion, at home and abroad. He understood also that successful president’s must convey confidence, strength, compassion and the ability to speak rather bluntly. Soft power was always key — hence speaking softly but wielding a big stick often paid off on a world stage where finding a balance required carrot and sticks.
For eight years, there were many who could not grasp Obama’s enigma. They formed a bandwagon of critics and traducers. Many, in the end, accepted reluctantly that Obama was an American, a smart politician who happened to be black and who served two full terms as president without and major scandal or crisis of note. Yet, Obama came, served and departed, leaving a deep and pragmatic footprint in different facets of governance, including job creation, growing the manufacturing base and the economic bucket, but no scandals. Consequently, he gained acceptance based on his audacity of hope philosophy and telling the world and America that ‘yes we can’ and proving that an intractable problem like affordable healthcare for all Americans was possible.
Obama always looked serious, oftentimes stern, but retained the capacity to be easily affable. He was flexible. He spoke the mainstream establishment lingo, but could also drift comfortably to the lingo of the neighborhood with a touch of compassion and lithe shock and jive. The world’s people related well to Obama. They appreciated his calmness and related assurances; but perhaps less so the enormous pressures of the office, which he faced with such equanimity. The only betraying evidence were the incremental grey hair; not the absent worry burrows engraved on the face or eye bags. He had neither. All through, he stayed fit and trim and added vim to the presidency with his sartorial elegance. Obama presented to America and the world, a vintage first family: three gracious ladies who complimented his persona and office.
Obama also portrayed candor, decency, humility, integrity, compassion, warmth, and gravitas and at all times, genuine bonhomie. He could do the bump shake with a janitor, a senator or a grassroots mobilizer. When he was on the road campaigning or talking to working folks, he rolled up his sleeves, conveying a sense of readiness to do business and dirty his hands in service, if that was what was required to get America moving. He embraced friendly nations; confronted rogue nations and ignored and bypassed unserious and unfocused countries, such as Nigeria. Obama stood up to bullies and to U.S. long-term ally, Israel a nation that refused to give peace and a two-state solution a chance. On the strategic sphere, Obama ensured a global balance, despite China’s economic expansionism that borders on economic irredentism and growing right wing political extremism in Europe. He literally looked Russia and Vladimir Putin in the face – eye-ball-to-eye-ball- without blinking first. Using soft power and the treats of agonizing reprisals, he pushed Iran to toe the line of the Six-plus Talks.
His strategic, military, and economic policies were predicated on American interest, but not necessary the mantra of “America First”. Obama arrived on stage when globalization and climate change were trending. When the world oil cartel had a stranglehold on the world, he advocated alternative energy as a means of reducing the carbon footprint, and in the end, promoted shale oil and crashed the global oil prices in the common interest. He may not have liked outsourcing American jobs, but realized that the world had become so interconnected. He eschewed demagoguery and rejected collectivized criminalization of nations, races or religion, even when it would have been convenient and politically corrected to do so. For that, he was labeled a Muslim sympathizer. In all, Obama proved that political, economic and strategic adjustments were acts of pragmatism, not weakness.
Obama is no longer U.S. president. But he will be known as an American president in perpetuity. Obama left the political stage, when the ovation and popularity decibel were resoundingly high. And he left office with a very high popularity rating, despite failing to put in place a successor that will build on his legacies. History will be his ally, but the greatest impetus of his presidency will emerge and resonate from the conduct, and enunciations of his successor. If Obama is ever deemed to not be at par with great presidents, then Donald Trump would be more so, given his trajectory. Paradoxically, as Trump’s presidency progresses and Obama’s tenure recedes into twilight, Obama’s legacy will gain vim and any setbacks he might have encountered while in office, will be burnished by broad nostalgia.
Overall, Obama served exceedingly well. Henceforth, history will underpin the rich heritage of his presidency. We therefore, applaud the 44th POTUS for teaching the youths of the world to say “yes, we can”, regardless of any odds they confront. I suspect strongly that he will wield moral vast influence as a private citizen and ex-president, since age is on his side. Ultimately, Obama’s legacy and hence his enigma, will intrude into the minds of those who were not Obama aficionados, even if subliminally.
- Mr. Obaze, a retired UN top diplomat and a former SSG of Anambra State is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of The New Diplomat.