Barack Obama, a hard act to follow

With Obama's accomplishments having indeed changed the face of the America, he may yet prove a very tough act to follow

9 November 2016, 9:15am
Barack Obama: his accomplishments changed the face of America, but did they go far enough?
Barack Obama: his accomplishments changed the face of America, but did they go far enough?
By today, the result of the US election will be known. Either way, history will have been made: Democrat hopeful Hillary Clinton could be elected the first-ever female US President; Republican candidate Donald trump would represent the first time an outsider to the traditional politics ‘took on the system’, and won.

One thing is however certain. Today also brings to a close another chapter in history, which was every bit as seminal and consequential as the choice being made in this election.

Despite his shortcomings, President Barack Obama will surely be missed. Even though hampered at every step by resilient opposition – both internal and external – his accomplishments have indeed changed the face of the America. The question remains whether they went far enough. 

In his eight years in office, Obama expanded health insurance to help low-income Americans receive basic healthcare. Though this may seem normal government behaviour by European political standards, one must not underestimate how radical such an initiative was in the United States. Some 20 million people have so far gained coverage through Obama’s Affordable Care Act; but it still does not provide universal healthcare, and millions more remain at the mercy of private health insurance companies.

Nonetheless, by forcing the act through – watered-down though it may have been in the face of such odds – Obama has also forced a national policy rethink on such issues as public health. He did the spadework for what may prove crucial social reforms in future.

Having taken over an ailing economy, Obama’s administration also created over 9 million jobs and reduced unemployment by half. But it is mostly for civil rights advances that his Presidency will be remembered. Under his watch same sex marriage was legalised and legislation on violence against women was strengthened.

Obama will also go down in history as the US president who signed the Paris climate change deal, a nuclear deal with Iran, and normalised US relationship with Cuba. 

Unfortunately, there is more to be said. Under Obama’s watch, racial tensions have increased drastically, and gun violence appears to have soared. Obama got nowhere near introducing gun control measures, and arguably exacerbated matters by controversially militarising the police: giving civic law enforcement almost the same capability as the US Army.

This situation is unlikely to change much as a result of this election. Gun control legislation would require an amendment to the Constitution, for which the required consensus is still miles away. And while Donald Trump has clearly no intention to do so, Clinton’s proposals arguably do not go far enough. 

Ultimately, as President Obama vacates the White House, the United States remains as deeply divided as before. This in itself is unlikely to change after the election... though the outcome does imply vastly different scenarios.

Donald Trump is the most controversial candidate in living memory, and if he takes office then America – and possibly the rest of the world – may well be in for unpredictable and bumpy ride.

Clinton appears the safer pair of hands, and has the experience and ability to ensure stability. Though hawkish in foreign policy, and having close links to Wall Street and the banking system which brought the US to its knees, her victory will spare America and the world Trump’s racism, bigotry, sexism and class hate.

But the deep divisions exposed in this election will not go away and need to be addressed. Again, this seems unlikely, regardless of the outcome 

Despite Trump’s attempts to court the anti-establishment vote, both are establishment candidates who will in all likelihood be a continuation of Obama in many policy areas.

As indicated by the ongoing Sanding Rock controversy in Dakota, neither Clinton nor Trump (nor even Obama, for that matter) will stand up to the fossil fuels lobbyists who control Washington and end the huge subsidies that benefit fossil fuel companies to the detriment of clean energy and local populations.

On the economy, both Trump and Clinton have no concrete plan to tackle inequality and ensure that the wealthiest Americans and large corporations pay their fair share in taxes. Moreover, the US loses over $100 billion a year in revenue because large corporations stash their cash in offshore tax havens. So far neither candidate has presented clear plans to curb this.

It is perhaps on foreign policy that the two candidates differ the most. Will Donald Trump move away from a policy of unilateral military action, and toward a policy of emphasising diplomacy, and ensuring the decision to go to war is a last resort? 

Will either abolish the use of torture? Will they promote fair trade and provide humanitarian relief and economic assistance, instead of selling weapons to regimes and rebels with whom the US strikes short-term strategic partnerships? Other questions that remain unanswered concern education, healthcare, and social justice issues decent paying jobs and living wages. 

Elsewhere, Trump embodies a hard-line approach to the question of immigration; but it is unclear whether Clinton will dismantle inhumane deportation programs and detention centres, and pave the way for fair access to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants.

As things stand, Obama may yet prove a very tough act to follow.