Barack Obama’s meteoric rise to become the first African-American president of the United States after capturing the hearts and imagination of an American public starving for hop,e steadily fell back to earth over the next eight years as his star dimmed due to bad choices, an intransigent Republican opposition, and a sharp divide between his lofty campaign rhetoric and the oftentimes hollow reality of how much he was willing to fight to change the politics of the possible in Washington.
As he ran for office for the first time in 2008, the 46-year-old freshman senator from Illinois rallied for hope and change as the administration of President George W. Bush foolishly led the country into two unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, oversaw the country’s biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression, and left the U.S.’s international status tarnished due, in part, to ongoing torture scandals and the destruction of a major U.S. city, New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina, among other debacles and war crimes.
“Out of work? Tough luck. No healthcare? The market will fix it. Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps – even if you don't have boots. You're on your own,” he said of the culture of politics in the United States when he accepted the Democratic nomination for president in August 2008. “Well, it's time for them to own their failure. It's time for us to change America.”
He vowed to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he promised to bring universal health care and to take a tough stance on Wall Street.
But one of the most notable promises Obama failed to deliver on is shutting down Guantanamo, a modern-day dungeon set up by his predecessor where hundreds of people have been kept without charges or trials, facing torture and mistreatment by U.S. military and intelligence interrogators.
Closing the notorious prison received opposition from both Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Congress early on in Obama’s first term.
In May 2009, Democratic House Appropriations Committee Chairman Dave Obey refused to grant the White House the US$80 million that Obama had requested to close the prison from an emergency funding bill.
The move was a rejection of Obama’s plan to transfer the Guantanamo prisoners to U.S. prisons.
Republican lawmakers then seized on the row between the Democratic president and his allies in congress to further clampdown on any plans for closing the Cuban prison.
However, Obama managed to bypass lawmakers by striking deals with several countries to transfer hundreds of prisoners cleared for release. Just 45 detainees remain at the naval base, down from 242 when Obama took office.
He did end the war in Iraq and pulled out most U.S. combat troops from there, in part under pressure from Baghdad to realize their 2007 Status of Forces Agreement with Bush, which called for complete withdrawal by December 2011.
But the legacy of the 2003 Iraq invasion came back to haunt Obama as the security vacuum left by U.S. troops and the war in Syria gave rise to the Islamic State group.
Some say the Iraqi government was never ready to take full control of the country, an argument backed by the senses of Iraqi soldiers leaving their posts and taking off their uniforms as Islamic State group fighters stormed Mosul, the second biggest city in the country.
In recent years, however, Obama sent military advisers to Iraq for the publicly declared reason of “training and advising” the Iraqi army and giving other limited support, especially in the fight against the extremist group.
In Afghanistan, too, the U.S. did pull a significant number of its troops from the country, but Obama failed to keep his promise of a full withdrawal due to, according to his administration, the threat of the Taliban insurgency, again fueled by the security vacuum in the country and the weakness of the post-invasion government.
In Syria, Obama did keep troops away from the six-year conflict. However, U.S. Special Forces occasionally conduct limited operations in the country, often alongside the Kurdish guerrilla YPG forces in the north who have proven to be the strongest and most effective allies in the fight against the Islamic State group.
However, the Obama administration has been for years calling for regime change in Syria and its Arab allies, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as Turkey, have been actively supporting moderate and extremist anti-government groups in Syria.
Washington also spent millions of dollars on a program for training rebel forces fighting against President Bashar Assad. However, after years of vetting and training, the program proved to be a failure and produced only 35 fighters.
But Obama’s foreign policy legacy will be marked by the drone war, his unique approach toward the so-called "war on terror" as he fought the troops-on-the-ground policy tooth and nail, even if it meant killing innocent civilians.
In fact, the Obama administration has launched nine times more strikes with unmanned flying bombers in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia than his predecessors, a detail that might make his more liberal supporters uncomfortable. In May 2013, Obama defended U.S. drone strikes and claimed responsibility for overseeing the program.
He claimed that targets were limited to terrorists that posed a “continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons,” and that strikes were executed only when there was “near certainty that the target is present,” “near certainty that noncombatants will not be injured or killed” and “capture is not feasible at the time of the operation.”
But, in October 2015, Obama’s claims were ripped to shreds when a whistleblower leaked to The Intercept website documents revealing troubling details of the U.S. drone program. According to the documents, nearly 90 percent of people killed in recent drone strikes in Afghanistan "were not the intended targets" of the attacks.
Libya was another disturbing foreign policy aspect of the Obama administration. A U.S.-led NATO intervention into the country following Arab Spring-inspired protests unleashed some of the most troubling crises in the region, making the country a breeding ground for terrorist organizations while sending the country into political instability and record numbers poverty.
Declassified emails released in January and February of last year revealed that then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was one of the main instruments behind the so-called “humanitarian” intervention in 2011 by using false information of bloody crackdowns on protests by Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi.
Clinton’s emails reveal that she and her staff were aware that civilians they claimed to be protecting in order to pass a U.N. Security Council resolution on the NATO intervention, were not actually in danger from government forces.
But Obama made some major achievements on the international stage by securing the Iran nuclear deal after years of negotiations as well as restoring relations with Cuba after decades of almost total hostility.
The Iran nuclear deal, known formally as the "Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” was sealed in July 2016 and required Tehran to keep its nuclear program a civilian one in return for the removal of all economic and military sanctions against it by world leaders.
The deal resulted in Washington rolling back many of its sanctions against Iran, allowing Tehran to conduct business with many companies in Europe and the United States.
Obama visited Cuba last year and formally announced an opening of embassies in Washington and Havana, along with the signing of several economic agreements. But the Obama administration fell short from ending its harsh blockade on Cuba despite calls by the U.N. to end it.
Domestic affairs also saw Obama swinging between bad and good policies. On immigration, he managed to be the dubbed the “deporter-in-chief” by migrant justice advocates because he deported more immigrants than any other president in U.S. history. Between 2009 and 2015 his administration deported more than 2.5 million people through immigration orders. Nevertheless, Obama did make some positive changes in the U.S.’s flawed immigration system.
Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, protected hundreds of thousands of immigrants who had arrived in the U.S. as children from deportation, which they say allowed them to come out from the shadows and obtain work permits social security number.
Despite facing major opposition from the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress, Obama managed to pass the Affordable Healthcare Act, known as Obamacare, in 2010, which provided more than 22 million people with health insurance. However, the health care scheme fell short of his campaigning on single-payer and the most progressive aspect of the original legislation, the public option, was removed in an attempt to gain Republican support. Not a single Republican voted for it anyway.
Many across the political spectrum would agree that Obama successfully steered the country through a total economic crisis. Hundreds of thousands of jobs were added every year, the unemployment rate looms around 5 percent as he leaves office while it was at 10 percent just months before he took office in 2008.
Some, however, argue that the U.S.’s first Black president failed to better the lives of people of color and poor white workers, which they directly blame for the rise of Donald Trump and white nationalism.
Obama was a friendly president when it came to the environment and the impact of climate change. At home, he rejected the Keystone pipeline using an executive order in 2015 over environmental concerns.
Also after months of protests and pressure from Native Americans and water protectors in North Dakota, Obama’s federal government halted the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. And, just a few months before he leaves office, he used decades-old laws to protect and ban drilling in millions of acres in Antarctica.
Just days before he leaves office, Obama commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning, the transgender ex-U.S. soldier who leaked thousands of secret U.S. military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks, after months of calls from activists and rights groups for him to do so.
Obama also commuted the sentence of Oscar Lopez Rivera, who has been imprisoned in the U.S. for 36 years for his struggle to free Puerto Rico from U.S. colonial rule. Former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was one of the prominent voices calling for his release. Both Oscar and Manning will be released in May.
The celebrated clemency moves seem to be Obama’s last attempt to project his presidency as one of success and progressiveness rather than one that failed to realize its many of ambitions and promises.
Obama leaves a mixed legacy. Anyone, whether from the far right or far left, who can’t recognize some of the good things he leaves behind is just as blind as Obama's head-in-the-sand liberal supporters who refuse to recognize the more abundant dark blots on his legacy. But with a misogynistic, climate-denying, lying Twitter troll assuming office in a few days, history may be kinder to Obama’s legacy than the outgoing president deserves.