President Barack Hussein Obama, the 44th President of the United States of America would be leaving office in a couple of days. The first African-American to be elected president often spoke of bending the arc of history toward justice. After eight years in office, he did so in many ways, indeed by his mere presence. I can still vividly recall the historic election of 2008 that made it possible for the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas to be elected to the highest office in the US.
That defining moment in history was filled with incredibility, jubilation and cries of joy within the US and around the world. Who would have expected to see a black man be given the reign of affairs and leading arguably the most powerful nation on earth? That remarkable day in 2008 when the poll results of his victory were announced was bitter sweet for me. Sweet in the sense that a black man had finally become President and bitter because the likes of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and all others who fought for black emancipation and died in the process weren’t able to witness such a glorious and memorable day.
Sadly, his fairytale ascension and tenure in the Oval Office has come to an end. However, the popular feeling in the US is that more than half of Americans view him favorably as he leaves office. More than half (57 per cent) of Americans say they’re better off eight years after his election. Audaciously, he tried to transform the nation – and why not, after his transcendent 2008 campaign of “hope and change” galvanized so many people in America and around the world.
A gifted orator, history would eternally remember him for governing with grace, calm and dignity. With his distinctive and stylish elegance, he brought a kind of exuberant flair to the White House. As President, he can claim many successes, kept most of his campaign promises and is leaving office with his highest approval ratings in at least four years, approaching the outgoing popularity of Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan and putting him way ahead of his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Obama would be leaving behind a lasting and difficult to surpass legacy. His accomplishments while in office are all the more remarkable because some people, Donald Trump among them, questioned his legitimacy from the very start and Republicans in Congress consistently plotted to block his every move. Nevertheless, the former Illinois Senator and Harvard Law School alumni showed commendable prowess while in office.
Obama took office four months after the infamous Wall Street crash and during the worst downturn since the Great Depression. He saved the auto industry and helped nurse the US economy back to vibrancy. The unemployment rate, which hit 10 per cent in 2009, has been the lowest since the recession. The number of private-sector jobs has also grown and the economy has added more than 15 million jobs since 2010.
Obama’s ambitious domestic agenda went beyond preventing economic collapse. He reduced the secrecy given to presidential records. He vastly expanded health care coverage through the Affordable Care Act and signed the reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) to cover an additional four million uninsured children. While the act is far from perfect and as President elect – Trump and his Republicans counterparts try to repeal Obamacare, it will become clearer how much good it did and how difficult it will be to replace it with something better.
Obama also steered the US towards clean energy and away from fossil fuels. He put the US on course to get serious about global climate change, requiring cars to get 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, and signing the historic Paris accords that were adopted in December 2015. In fighting terror, Obama returned America to its values by banning torture and trying to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay. But the US Congress consistently prevented the closure by refusing to appropriate the required funds. Apart from homegrown attacks in Boston, Fort Hood, Orlando and San Bernardino while in office, the US has not had a large-scale attack on their homeland by a foreign terrorist group. How many Americans would have bet on that eight years ago?
In his foreign policy stance and first few days in office after his inauguration in January 2009, Obama issued executive orders and presidential memoranda directing the US military to develop plans to withdraw troops from Iraq. He also promoted better relations between the Islamic world and the US. In March 2009, he released a New Year’s video message to the people and government of Iran. The following month, Obama gave a speech in Ankara, Turkey, which was well received by many Arab governments. Two months later, he delivered a speech at Cairo University in Egypt calling for “A New Beginning” in relations between the Islamic world and the US and promoting Middle East peace.
Obama supports the two-state solution to the Arab–Israeli conflict based on the 1967 borders with land swaps. In 2010, he apparently irked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after taking a public stance against Israel which planned to continue building Jewish housing projects in predominantly Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. In 2011, the US vetoed a Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements, with the US being the only nation to do so. In December of last year, the US also abstained from UN Security Council Resolution 2334, effectively allowing it to pass and drawing condemnation from Netanyahu.
In November 2013, Obama’s administration opened negotiations with Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons, which included an interim agreement. Two years later a deal, titled the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” saw the removal of sanctions in exchange for measures that would prevent Iran from producing nuclear weapons. While Obama hailed the agreement as being a step towards a more hopeful world, the deal drew strong criticism from Republican and conservative quarters, especially from Trump and Netanyahu.
In December 2014, Obama announced that he intended to normalise relations between Cuba and the US. After secret meetings, it was announced that Obama, with Pope Francis as an intermediary, had negotiated a restoration of relations with Cuba, after nearly 60 years of détente. Obama subsequently visited Cuba for two days last year, becoming the first sitting US President to do so since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.
One of his lasting legacies while in office was over the Osama Bin Laden saga. Meeting with his national security advisers Obama rejected a plan to bomb the compound the US most wanted terrorist was in. He instead authorised a “surgical raid” to be conducted by US Navy Seals. The operation resulted in the death of Bin Laden and the seizure of papers, computer drives and disks from the compound. Within minutes of Obama’s announcement of the operation, spontaneous celebrations around the country erupted as crowds gathered outside the White House, WTC Ground Zero and Times Square. Reaction to the announcement was positive across party lines, including from former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and from many countries around the world.
An incredible human being; A President of firsts, as well as being the first African American to be elected to the US presidency and the first one born outside the contiguous United States, Obama also became the first sitting US President to speak in front of the African Union in 2015. In 2009, he also became the first US president to preside over a meeting of the UN Security Council. While Trump has consistently vowed to repeal and revert most of his policies, Obama’s legacy will continue to live on regardless. Obama is a president whose tenure will look better and better as time passes especially when compared to Trump’s. Smart and thoughtful, he was able to calmly brush off criticism and he inspired a lot of people, especially the young. Articulate and confident, he brought poise to the White House and gave Uncle Sam a humane face in world affairs. Indeed, Americans will learn soon enough how good they had it under Obama.
I shall miss him and his amazing family as he bids his final farewell. I know that, in that I will not be alone as millions around the world will feel the same sense of loss. ”Obama out…. Adieu oh great one.”