The farewell addresses of United States presidents try to leave trenchant messages for that country, and vicariously for the rest of the world as well. Barack Obama has tried to follow in the footsteps of George Washington who inveigled against “permanent alliances”, Harry Truman who spoke of the threat of atomic war and Dwight D Eisenhower whose speech popularised the term “military-industrial complex” and its dangers. But it is always easier to speak at a higher level if one is a president who leaves office on a high note. US presidents like Richard Nixon or George W Bush gave goodbyes that were defensive and sought to explain the mistakes they made.
The Obama administration ends with a mixed record — and it may be best remembered in the history books by the fact it was led by the US’ first African-American president. While no doubt a major accomplishment, his father’s racial background is hardly what Obama wants as the leitmotif of his presidency. And, as the president himself noted, his election did not make his country into a “post-racial” society overnight. His policy record is what counts and Obama has far less to show for his eight years in office than many of his supporters had hoped. Notably, two of the accomplishments he touted the most — his healthcare reforms and climate change policies — were so weakly imbedded in the country’s legislative framework that they are threatened with reversal in the coming Donald Trump administration. The progress the US made in gay rights during his years are arguably the success of a grassroots legal activism to which Obama provided only rhetorical support.
However, it is in the global arena that Obama may face his severest criticism. Many of the foreign policy accomplishments Obama cited — the US-Iran nuclear deal and ending sanctions against Cuba, for example — are at best half-done given the continuing lack of legislative back-up. The so-called Obama doctrine held that the US had overreached globally, that its foreign policy had become too militaristic and that the rest of the world had to share the burden of policing the world. Obama was not incorrect in this view. But the naïve and amateurish manner in which he decided to put this into practice is a major reason the Taliban control a quarter of Afghanistan today and the South China Sea has almost ceased to be an international maritime body. Obama spoke stirringly of the rules and values-based international order that the US created after World War II. However, it was also an order that survived because of the strength and credibility of US power, both diplomatic and military. Obama undermined the hard base of the world order and has left a new era of geopolitical disorder as the most visible part of his external legacy.