Barack Obama is eager to define his legacy before “turning over the keys” to Donald Trump. This week, in his final trip abroad as president, he was in Berlin to visit his close ally Angela Merkel. But what will remain of his tenure in the White House?
He loves Berlin, he says. And he would like to return again soon with Michelle and his daughters, but without all of the fuss that severely limits what a sitting US president can see and do. He was likely referring to the sniffer dogs, the security personnel and all of the other staff who make sure that overseas visits go according to plan.
Next time, he said, he’ll come in disguise, wearing a hat and glasses. “Maybe I’ll grow a beard or something.” Barack Obama laughed as he considered the possibility on Thursday morning in the US Embassy in Berlin while microphone was being affixed to his lapel. It was just seconds before the real interview was to begin.
Obama’s visit to Berlin this week was full of messages. First and foremost, he wanted to show his support for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, an intention that was clear throughout his Wednesday-to-Friday stopover. He also wanted to promote democracy in the form of open debate and political engagement. He wanted to express his concerns that Western societies are becoming increasingly unjust, leading populist political movements to gain in strength. And he of course wanted to promote his own legacy so that he doesn’t go down in history as a failure once he is replaced on January 20 by Donald Trump, who will likely revise signature pieces of Obama’s domestic legislation in addition to revisiting key foreign policy achievements such as the Iran deal and the rapprochement with Cuba.
But his greatest success as president, Obama said during his Thursday interviewwith German public broadcaster ARD and SPIEGEL, is that the global economy didn’t slide off the cliff in 2008. “I think people don’t fully appreciate how severe the economic crisis was.”
It has been an eventful eight years. Back in November 2008, on a cool, gray evening in Chicago, people in the crowd cried and even journalists shed tears when Obama took to the stage following his election victory. It was a touching moment, or perhaps kitschy, depending on how unemotionally you choose to view the world. A young Obama, with his campaign slogan “Yes We Can” and rousing speeches, managed to beat out the Democratic field, led by favorite Hillary Clinton, and then defeat Republican candidate John McCain. He came to the victory party in Hyde Park with his wife Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha in tow — and even cynics were aware at the time that it was an historic moment: the first black president of the United States.
His tenure did not begin with the same energy as his campaign and there have been several phases of weakness during his eight years in the White House. Climate policy, which had been a linchpin of his campaign, disappeared from his agenda for a few years only to make a late reappearance, just barely in time for the 2015 Paris Agreement. He announced his intention to close the Guantanamo prison, but then did little to deliver on that pledge. He also drew a red line in Syria, warning President Bashar Assad not to use chemical weapons against his own populace. But when Assad did just that, the US shied away from intervention, partly because Obama thought the rebels would topple Assad anyway. As such, the 2016 Aleppo disaster and the refugee crisis are also partly the results of Obama’s eight years at the helm.
The Better President
But he became more resolute after his re-election and knew that once his second term began, so too did the countdown. If he wanted to take action, he had to do it soon — and he made his move. The treaties with Iran and Cuba changed the geopolitical map. Obama also became tired of a Congress that sought to block his every move, and of the racism harbored by a significant group of Americans who never wanted to accept him as president. So he began issuing Executive Orders and stopped wasting time.
When the campaign for his successor began in 2015, Obama was asked if he would have liked to run again, barring term limitations, to complete his project. He hesitated, perhaps thinking that it might sound too vain, but after a brief pause he answered in the affirmative.
Did he really think that he would be able to win people over to support him for a third term? Again, his answer was yes.
He likely considers himself to be the better president. Better than Trump, to be sure, but also better than Hillary Clinton might have been. He doesn’t say so publicly, of course, but in smaller groups he hints at it. The mistakes, the weaknesses, they are always those of others. Those close to him say that Obama’s self-confidence hasn’t suffered. And it became clear early on in his first campaign that charisma and arrogance went hand-in-hand, presumably axiomatically. He knew he was a good speaker, a gifted writer and had an air of cool — one that became even cooler when he gazed into the middle-distance with eyes half closed. And if someone knows all that about himself — and one constantly reads and hears about it — then arrogance isn’t far away.
To take a more positive view, however, it is also true that aura is another outcome — the aura of an American president. It is a position that almost demands arrogance, as demonstrated by many of his predecessors, like Lincoln, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Clinton. The position demands leadership and not tenderness or kindness.
In Obama’s case, all of that comes together to create a strange sort of distance.
A Fighting Mood
Obama, of course, can be passionate, and even heated — as he was in Athens earlier this week just prior to his trip to Berlin. Once again, he delivered a speech that stayed in one’s thoughts even hours after it was over. But one has to wonder: Is he using the final weeks of his presidency to revisit the consequences of the decisions he made: the mistakes, the children killed by yet another imperfect drone strike? Or is this somehow all part of the movie called “Obama’s Presidency”?
It was certainly striking how quickly Obama was able to come to terms with Donald Trump’s election victory. Prior to the election, he had said that Trump was dangerous and “unfit” to be the president. “If somebody can’t handle a Twitter account, they can’t handle the nuclear codes,” he said. After the election, Obama received Trump in the White House and said the transition would be seamless — as though nothing had happened.
Trump a demagogue? A racist? Nope. It was business as usual. Just one president passing the baton to the next. All of which wouldn’t matter much if the questions at stake this year weren’t so fundamental: credibility, integrity, the elite versus the people. Is Obama interested in the consequences of his policies or is he only interested in his own legacy? Does he really want to improve the lives of his voters — or is he merely after the praise that comes along with doing so?
During this week’s brief visit to Europe, Obama was in a fighting mood. He fought for his legacy but also for democracy as such. He sees dark clouds on the horizon and believes that it is time for the battle to start — and that it can only be won with justice and equal opportunity.
But the fact that Trump became possible as his successor also has to do with Obama, and that is a thought that has to make him unhappy. Part of it has to do with racism: After a black president, conservative, white America has struck back and elected the only white man on the ballot. But it is also true that Obama advised Joe Biden and others against running because he wanted to clear the path for Hillary Clinton — partly because he wanted to help her fulfill her dream of becoming president. He ignored the fact that she had too many blemishes from the very beginning. The Democratic Party’s choice of a candidate was anything but democratic and Obama allowed it to be so. That was an enormous mistake.