Watching President Obama make his exit speech in a chilly dawn on Wednesday morning it was hard not to feel a sense of loss. It has been 2,989 days since election night in 2008, and there will have been few of those days when I have not heard his name or read of his Presidency online or in hard copy. He had become a part of the mental wallpaper; and his leaving of the White House will be with as much grace and dignity that he has displayed throughout every one of those days. He was very much a family man, and his wife, Michelle, and youngest daughter were present in the front row, and all three of them shed a tear or two as he spoke — and it was what I have come to expect as a signature Obama address.
He has a measured speaking style, with the slightest of lisps on the s’s. It rarely stumbles or falters and whether long or short there is always eloquence, an elegance to his words. He had said prior to the speech that it was not going to be political, and observers of the inner workings at the White House said that he had been working on it since before the election that will see his successor assume the mantle on 20th January. But inevitably politics crept in, how could it not, and he delivered what amounted to an extended homily on the state of democracy in America. He spoke of it as being ‘under siege’ a not-so-coded reference to the loss of the election by Hilary Clinton and the victory of Donald Trump. The President-elect was mentioned just once by name. Obama also noted that the result came about via democratic process, and that it was a duty of every citizen — a word that featured large — to get out there and vote. And if they were dissatisfied with those that came to power ‘to go out there with a clipboard’ and make an attempt to change things.
The waning days of his Presidency can hardly have been happy ones. Beleaguered and hamstrung in both the Upper and Lower houses of the American version of parliament he watched the threats to his legacy grow by the day. The rolling back of Obamacare in prospect which was the legislation that brought many millions into the healthcare safety net. Sustained and entirely justified criticism of his handling of events in the Middle East and specifically the failure to intervene more effectively in the Syrian civil war. Few are going to forgive him for that, at least not for a very long time. The failure to close Guantanamo — that is likely to get a new lease of life under a Trump administration. The unholy mess in the aftermath of the toppling of President Gaddafi that released a wave of infection in the states of the Maghrib and the Levant which shows no sign of abatement. A messy disengagement from Afghanistan having by and large failed — as did his predecessor — to use the tool of war to bring about peace. Pakistan is going to be feeling the cold draught from that one for a generation. At least.
There is little shortage of material for his detractors to mine in years to come. Some on the right wing of US politics are talking of the Obama years as ‘a failed Presidency’ — but whilst it was certainly flawed it cannot be said to have failed. Obama inherited an America that was in economic freefall that it certainly is not today. Unemployment is at a ten-year low. There was nothing he could do to re-energise the Rust Belt or get the coalmines back in full production — and arguably not much that Trump can do either — because the world has moved on. The New Industries are ascendant, industries that have no need of the skills of a miner or a steelworker, neither of which have the education or experience to give them a paypacket. They are a generation lost but it was not lost by Obama — and it was lost long before he set foot in the White House.
I’ll miss him, and soon so will a lot of others.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 12th, 2017.