In the National Museum of American History, not far from Capitol Hill where President Obama made his inauguration speech yesterday, there is an exhibition titled “The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden.” I had the privilege of walking through that exhibition last July, fascinated by some of the defining examples of presidential leadership in America’s history – be it George Washington’s generalship in the Revolution, Abraham Lincoln’s courage during the Civil War, or Franklin D. Roosevelt’s governance in the midst of the Great Depression. While watching the inauguration ceremony yesterday, my mind kept going back to that exhibition, wondering, how will history remember Barack Hussein Obama? What will be his legacy? How will those living on the African continent evaluate his Africa policies?
Themed as ‘Faith in America’s Future’, the inauguration ceremony drew on the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the completion of the Capitol dome in 1863. This was a fitting theme considering in recent years many scholars wrote about America’s inevitable decline. In this gloomy climate produced by two costly wars and a struggling economy, such predictions have political currency. That is why it is not enough for the Obama Presidency to be considered historic merely because of his African-American origin. In a constantly changing and unpredictable world, he will have to lead his country to reclaim her greatness “as one nation, and one people.” His speech encouraged Americans “answer the call of history and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.”
In his first term, the successes have been moderate. He inherited an economy deeply ravaged by recession. Although the $787 billion stimulus package did not resolve all the problems and an unemployment rate of 7.8% remains a major concern, the economy is slowly recovering. His signature piece of legislation was the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. On the largely successful foreign policy front, the killing of Osama Bin Laden will be the highlight despite the Benghazi blemish. The US troops have returned from Iraq while the Afghanistan war will wind down by 2014.
The second term, undoubtedly, will be a lot more challenging. On the campaign trail, we have seen the Nobel laureate, a messenger of hope and change, transform into a consummate politician. His convincing electoral victory over Governor Romney gave him a popular mandate to tax the wealthiest, tackle climate change, fix public education and seek comprehensive immigration reform. His actions following the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, shows gun control will also be high on the agenda. To implement any of these policies successfully, he will need the support of Congress, especially the Republican controlled House of Representatives. If the recent Fiscal Cliff negotiations are anything to go by, President Obama is in for a rough ride.
His administration’s Africa policy, unfortunately, leaves a lot to be desired. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, recently wrote: “With this rather modest record of accomplishments, rendered all the more so when set next to the activist Africa agendas of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, some Africa watchers have set fairly low expectations for the U.S. policy during the next four years of the Obama presidency.” Since his visits to Egypt and Ghana 2009, President Obama is yet to set foot on the continent. But Pham also lauded Secretary Clinton’s regular travels to Africa, and expects her possible successor, Senator John Kerry, to be more engaged in security and trade policy concerning Africa.
The curse of second term, although far from a scientific phenomenon, is something several political pundits raised in recent weeks. Whether it’s Lyndon B. Johnson’s Vietnam War, Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal or Bill Clinton’s Lewinsky affair, the second term can be a messy business. President Obama will have to find the perfect balance between bravery and caution, idealism and realism, to stake a claim as one of America’s greatest Presidents. Most importantly, he will have to build a more perfect consensus in Congress. That will not only help America but also push through progressive Africa policies.
Saif Islam (SAWIP Alumnus 2012)