by Adele A Wilby
As the first African American president of the United States (US), Barack Obama is a uniquely historical personality. Each of us has our opinions, or will formulate opinions, as to the success or limitations of his eight years in office as a Democratic president from 2009-2017, and as to the person who is Obama. Helping us in the formulation of our views on Obama and his presidency, is Ben Rhodes book, The World As It Is: Inside the Obama White House.
Rhodes autobiography operates on two levels of analysis. On the one hand, Rhodes tells the story of his journey to becoming Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor and speech writer, amongst other positions, and the impact this experience had on his personal development. Plucked from relative obscurity while working in the offices of the Woodrow Wilson International Centre in 2007, Rhodes narrates the challenges, and indeed sacrifices, required of the individual who assumes such an important position in a president’s trusted inner circle. In particular, Rhodes’ story of his work with Obama highlights how, as a speech writer, he was an important figure in communicating Obama’s thoughts and policies to a national and global audience, and his book can be seen as a continuation of that role.
Arguably however, the more significant aspect of Rhodes’ experience was the opportunity his position afforded him to observe the workings, thinking and character of the decision-maker of US foreign and domestic policy, Barack Obama. Consequently, Rhodes provides us with deeper insights into the nuanced thinking and administrative style of Obama. Thus, his book makes an important contribution to many academic disciplines, and furthers our understanding of the personal and political dynamics that underpinned US foreign and domestic decision-making when Obama was at the helm of the US political establishment.
Rhodes accepts it was an honor for him to have had access and the experience of working for Obama throughout the two terms of his presidency, but once we get past his obvious respect for the president,it becomes clear Rhodes is narrating the history of an extra-ordinary presidency. Assuming the office of President of the United States automatically guarantees the occupier of the office a place in American history, but as the first African American president in US history, it is a tragedy for a man of the calibre of Obama and a disgraceful blight on the US political system that his presidency was tainted by the ignorance of racism, and was an issue for him throughout his presidency.
With Barack Obama’s assumption to office as the first African American and the forty-fourth president of the United States in 2008, a sense of an historical moment swept through wide sections of the American populace, and indeed throughout the global population. ‘Hope’ was the word widely used to describe what Obama’s assumption to office meant for so many people; ‘hope’ of an improvement in inter-racial relations within the US, and indeed across the globe, and that race and skin color could be relegated as secondary issues to the qualities of an individual. But as we learn from Rhodes, some of this ‘hope’ was dissipated from within the highest levels of US politics. As Rhodes (2018:257) says: ‘racism was a constant presence and absence in the Obama White House. We didn’t talk about it much. We didn’t need to – it was always there, everywhere, like a white noise’. He then proceeds to narrate the various examples of subtle and explicit expressions of racism to which Obama was subjected to through the media, in personal slights, in challenging the origin of his birth, and probably many as yet unpublished incidents.
While racism at the individual level is damaging and offensive enough to the subject of the abuse, it assumes a different dimension when it underpins an obstructionist strategy to prevent the passage of legislation aimed at the social well-being of US citizens and the functioning of government, and the implementation of US foreign policy, as was the case with the Republican representatives in Congress throughout Obama’s presidency. Although Obama never talked about the issue, and was above making himself a victim, in moments of dark humor and practicing answers to a topic, Rhodes (2018: 258) tells us, Obama, when asked if he thought the opposition he faced was about race, shot back, ‘yes!! Of course…’
It is to the credit and calibre of Obama that he never revealed and refused to be distracted by racist comments and behaviour, and got on with his job of being President of the United States, and leader of the ‘free’ world. There were, however, windows of opportunity within the wall of racism he confronted when he was able to push through his policies and get legislated Bills that benefitted large sections of the US population. Thus, for example, the Affordable Care Act of 2010 provided millions of low income Americans with medical insurance, and this was made possible in the early years of his Presidency when he had a majority Democratic Congress to work with. Likewise, his economic strategy laid the foundations to kick start the US economy consequent to the 2008 global economic crisis, and, ultimately, in the longer term, contributed to a fall in US unemployment figures.
In terms of international relations, Rhodes makes clear that Obama pursued US national interests on foreign policy issues, while at the same time being committed to the international order. But we also learn from Rhodes that in the process of handling foreign policy issues such as Iran, Bin Laden, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and the Middle East, Obama had become more reflective on the potential of US military intervention to effect real change in conflict contexts in regions throughout the world, particularly the Middle East, and this was present in his thinking during the Syrian crisis of 2012.
Reports that the Syrian regime was preparing to use chemical weapons against the opposition became a cause of serious global concern, prompting Obama to issue a warning to the regime that the world and the US were watching, and the Syrian leaders would be held accountable by the international community and the US if they were found to be using chemical weapons. In response to a question on what would lead to US military intervention in Syria, Obama responded that the ‘red line’ for the US would be knowledge that chemical weapons had been utilized. Thus, in late 2012 the reports of a small scale chemical weapons usage by the Syrian regime, and in view of Obama’s ‘red line’ the international community expected a robust US military retaliation. Obama, as leader of the western liberal world, came under considerable pressure to respond to Syria’s clear violation of international law on the use of chemical weapons. However, as Rhodes reveals, mobilizing a consensus on military strikes against Syria was fraught with difficulties both from within the Republican Congress, and from allies such as the United Kingdom.
Within a political context of both friends and enemies within and outside government, it is not surprising that Obama pursued wide-ranging opinions before making a final decision to commit the US to another theatre of war in Syria. Thus, we learn from Rhodes that Obama resorted to his practice of wide consultation with advisors and experts on the issues involved, and personally reflected, prior to announcing the nature of the US response. ‘Obama’, Rhodes comments, ‘has a trait that I would witness thousands of times in the years to come. He likes to call on just about everyone in the room’. A comforting thought to know that crucial decisions were not made in haste, but after much consideration, and deliberation, quite a contrast to the ‘rogue’ Twitter tweets tapped out by the incumbent president Trump. However, an Obama process is not without its problems; it can result in delays in decision-making, giving rise to allegations of Obama as being ‘weak’, a view that Obama categorically rejected. Responding to a journalist’s criticisms that Obama should get on and decide on expanding the number of troops in Afghanistan, Obama says, ‘why is this whole thing framed around whether I have balls.’ (Rhodes 2018:76) But Rhodes reveals that there was, in the case of deciding on the response to the Syrian crisis, another consideration at play in Obama’s thinking at this stage of his presidency: an aspiration to break the cycle of US military intervention in areas of conflict as the solution to intractable and complex problems, when in his view, the US had achieved little impact on shaping the politics of the region. Thus, with the failure of US intervention to achieve outright success in Iraq and Afghanistan, intervention in Libya, and in other areas of the Middle East, a reflective Obama was aware of the potential for the US to become deeply embroiled in another theatre of military conflict in Syria. However, the delay in decision-making in this instance worked in Obama’s favor and opened up the possibility for diplomatic measures to resolve the crisis. Hence, with his consultative style, personal reflection, diplomatic tactics, and with a longer-term vision concerning US military involvement in the Middle East, he was able to achieve a reduction in Syria’s chemical weapons, while keeping the US out of the conflict.
Obama’s decisions on Syria came in the early stages of his second term of office, and it is during those last years of his presidency that we observe more explicit examples of the calibre of Obama, particularly in the final two years. Obama’s longer term vision of US foreign policy, his promotion of US national interests, a multilateral actor committed to the international order and welfare of the global community are at work when he accedes the US to the 2015 Paris Agreement, a universal and legally binding agreement signed up to by 195 countries on climate. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)of 2015, aimed at constraining Iran’s aspirations to become a nuclear power, and a step towards the international objective of denuclearization, became another piece in his presidential legacy. His decision to establish deeper relations with Cuba after decades of tension and hostility between the two states, was also a major foreign relations achievement for Obama, and the US.
However, as Obama’s term of office drew to a close, and during the 2016 presidential election, the vitriol against his presidency and his foreign and domestic policies became the focal point for presidential candidate Trump. Since assuming office, Trump has relentlessly criticized and sought to undermine and reverse the political legacy of Obama with such single-mindedness we can only conclude that his racism spills over to an intolerance of a relatively successful and popular African American president at home, and a widely respected leader on the international stage. Consequently, legislation aimed at the social welfare of American citizens such as the Affordable Care Act has come under assault, as opposed to Trump seeking to remedy its flaws; he has withdrawn the US from the globally agreed Paris Agreement, and refused to sign up the US to the JCPOA, dismantling the policy pillars upon which Obama’s political legacy was built.
Rhodes raises the question of how, given the revival of the domestic economy and the social policy Obama introduced whilst in office, the election of Trump as president of the US could have come into being. When reflecting on Trump’s electoral victory and the emergence of nationalism within the US, Obama too began to question whether he was wrong on many issues during his presidency, or if in fact, the election of Trump was another racist expression of opposition to an African American president. He comments to Rhodes (2018: xvii), ‘sometimes I wonder whether I was ten or twenty years too early.’ However, while Trump’s global reputation is sullied by his economic nationalism, isolationist policies, divisive racist politics, his style of communication, and his personal and moral integrity open to doubt, Obama’s calibre and character remains unblemished, and he continues to enjoy widespread popular support, and is warmly welcomed to which ever country he travels throughout the world.
Negotiating the politics of the White House, as Rhodes reveals, requires considerable political acumen; negotiating the politics of the White House with the addition of racism to contend with requires even greater political sagacity, and indeed, for the ability to survive such an atmosphere requires even greater calibre and character. But, it is in the final years of his presidency when, unburdened of the fear of being a one-term president and without future presidential elections to be concerned with, we see the calibre of Obama flourish, and this was most poignantly exemplified in his presence and delivery of the eulogy at the Charleston Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June 2015, for the victims of a white supremacist racist attack at Charleston nine days earlier, killing nine people. At that event Obama was able to be both an African American as he spoke to the friends and relatives of the deceased, and, as the president of the US, appeal for national unity. The eulogy included direct reference to the issues of racism, discrimination, gun control, religion, and poverty, issues many of us would have liked to have heard more about from him in his earlier years in office. Nevertheless, listening and watching that event there was no need for Obama to trouble himself by pondering his relevance as to whether in fact he had made a difference to the world and people’s lives, if in fact he ‘was ten or twenty years too early’. As Rhodes book clarifies, for millions in the US and throughout the world, Obama was the right man, at the right place, at the right time, but then that was the world as it was, in the world as it is.