It is hard to decouple the personal from the political when it comes to assessing a president’s reign. When we look back at the great presidents of old, it’s clear the rosy assessment we have of an administration is influenced by the quality of our life during their tenure. America faced significant challenges and existential threats in the 1950s, but if you had your first love and recall your first car from that time, you likely have some good things to say about Eisenhower. The 1960s was a tumultuous and violent decade, but if you embarked on new career and had lots of sex, JFK likely stands high in your esteem. Wanting to “Make America Great Again” has little to do with the quality of previous politicians; every single president made compromises that infuriated ideological purists in their day. MAGA is a desire to feel as one did when they came of age, regardless of the president in office at the time.
2008-2016 were some of the best years of my life; I traveled the world, completed my formal education, had children and settled into a career. If those milestones ran adjacent to a Trump presidency, I imagine it would be easy to see him in a more favorable light.
I was a reluctant Obama voter in the 2008 election. I was unsure that a junior senator with little actual political experience was the best bet to carry the country forward after the Bush years. Even while many rallied to him as a transformational figure that would move America forward racially and culturally, I remained unconvinced. It wasn’t until McCain picked Sarah Palin as his VP that I realized I had no choice but to go with the untested Democratic candidate.
That isn’t to say I wasn’t supportive of Obama’s professed goals. Like many Democrats, I was ready to see a major change to our health system and was supportive of measures intended to extend coverage to working Americans. On the foreign policy front, I remained weary of where the Democratic candidate was taking his party. Writing for Erik Kain’s precursor to Ordinary Times, I penned a piece called “The Obama Doctrine” that was critical of his foreign policy approach articulated throughout the primary. With the Iraq war still storming, I worried that the Democrats learned from this foreign policy travesty that the United States should retreat to its borders and let a new world order take root internationally absent our leadership. By the time Obama became the Democrat’s candidate, I had seen him move closer to my own personal vision for American foreign policy. In his debate with John McCain, he argued:
If we could have stopped Rwanda, surely if we had the ability that would be something that we would have to strongly consider and act. So you know, when genocide is happening, when ethnic cleansing is happening somewhere around the world, and we stand idly by, that diminishes us. And so I do believe that we have to consider as part of our interest, our national interest, in intervening where possible. But understand that there’s a lot of cruelty around the world. We’re not going to be able to be everywhere all the time. That’s why it’s so important for us to be able to work in concert with our allies.
With the Rwandan Genocide more than 10 years in the past, it seemed odd and off-putting for Obama to say we “would have to strongly consider and act” to help end it, especially since it is clear the US could have acted to end it. Nonetheless, the rest of his statement matched perfectly with my foreign policy vision: a US that worked with other nations and international agencies to help diminish disreputable forces while also putting our national interests center square in any military exercise.
This single statement during the 2008 election perfectly sums up what we saw from his presidency over the next 8 years: relative restraint in foreign affairs and letting international organizations and institutions carry a greater portion of the burden and responsibility. Even at my most hawkish, I never believed America should be the lone force “leading from the front” at every opportunity. Exercising smart power meant we understood the complexity of various situations and avoided jumping headlong into conflicts we could not solve. Famously, Obama articulated this in his off-hand “Don’t do stupid shit” comment.
The message Obama telegraphed in speeches and interviews was clear: He would not end up like the second President Bush—a president who became tragically overextended in the Middle East, whose decisions filled the wards of Walter Reed with grievously wounded soldiers, who was helpless to stop the obliteration of his reputation, even when he recalibrated his policies in his second term. Obama would say privately that the first task of an American president in the post-Bush international arena was “Don’t do stupid shit.”
I disagreed with some of my comrades on the left and right over intervening in Syria. The Syrian Civil War is one of the greatest catastrophes in recent world history; there may be ways to lessen the war’s international impact, but I agreed with Obama that America could not solve the Syrian conflict with air-raids in 2013 and would only push America to intervene more forcefully when the policy failed to achieve its aims. Like many, I wish he had never crafted a red line not to be crossed in Syria if he was inherently opposed to intervening even if it was infringed. Credibility matters, but some in the foreign policy establishment make too much of American military force being the sole shoring up of said integrity. Obama made similar points in his interview with Jeffery Goldberg:
Over the course of our conversations, I came to see Obama as a president who has grown steadily more fatalistic about the constraints on America’s ability to direct global events, even as he has, late in his presidency, accumulated a set of potentially historic foreign-policy achievements—controversial, provisional achievements, to be sure, but achievements nonetheless: the opening to Cuba, the Paris climate-change accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and, of course, the Iran nuclear deal. These he accomplished despite his growing sense that larger forces—the riptide of tribal feeling in a world that should have already shed its atavism; the resilience of small men who rule large countries in ways contrary to their own best interests; the persistence of fear as a governing human emotion—frequently conspire against the best of America’s intentions. But he also has come to learn, he told me, that very little is accomplished in international affairs without U.S. leadership.
That last line continues to reverberate in my mind as Trump takes office. Trump campaigned against the current recognized international order and has given every indication that he believes the current stability built on American hegemony is outdated and unnecessary.
I am uneasy about this change. It is easy for left-wing critics of US policy to say the world would be better off without US meddling in the affairs of others. It is easy to find examples of nefarious American action in recent history. Yet, many of the things we take for granted are a result of American efforts and muscle. The existing economic, political norms and institutions across the globe are a result of long-standing bipartisan American policies and efforts to maintain them. It may be cheaper for America to abandon these efforts in the short term, but there will be lasting repercussions to a change towards multipolarity on the world stage. Some on the right argue that Obama diminished America’s standing on the world stage, but the move away from US unipolarity has been happening for some time and for reasons outside of any president’s control. Obama may have not helped slow this process but he can’t be blamed for causing it.
As a statesman and representative of our nation on the world stage, he will surely be missed. When one considers the replacement following in his footsteps, it is hard not to lament the end of the Obama presidency.