Bye, bye Barack: the worst president ever?

Saturday 22 October, 12.00 - 13.00 , Cinema 3 Battle for America
Listen to this session at the bottom of this page.

When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, he famously offered hope, change and a promise to usher in a new era of post-partisan politics based on uniting America after the culture wars. Yet he leaves office with the country seemingly more divided than ever on issues ranging from healthcare, same-sex marriage, foreign policy, gun ownership and race. When, at the height of his own popularity, Donald Trump denounced Obama as ‘the worst President in history’ it raised relatively little controversy; opinion polls in 2013-2015 regularly ranked him as the most unpopular post-war president. Most damningly, perhaps, the surprise breakthrough of Bernie Sanders seemed to confirm a perception, especially amongst younger Democrats, that Obama had offered continuity from the Bush years, rather than a radical change, with the intervention in Libya and the extension of drone strikes fuelling much disillusion.

Yet Obama’s defenders insist he achieved quiet successes amid a sclerotic political climate, not least in the face of a destructive Republican political strategy and the rise of the Tea Party. The 2008 headline in satirical website The Onion – ‘black man given nation’s worst job’ –almost became a 2012 re-election campaign slogan as the US navigated the financial crisis and more. Supporters point to hard-won victories over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the thawing of relations with Cuba and the Iranian nuclear deal as major achievements for the President. Indeed, Obama’s popularity soared during the primaries as voters found new outlets for general dissatisfaction with the Washington establishment. It is suggested by some that a Democrat victory followed by a strategic appointment to the Supreme Court (to replace deeply conservative Antonin Scalia) could mark a triumphant era of centre-left politics, bucking the trend in most Western nations since the crisis. Nonetheless, critics argue Obama’s own notorious dismissal of ‘rural voters’ who ‘cling to guns and religion’ has contributed as much to the divisive atmosphere as his opponents.

Given the vague promises of hope and change, could Obama realistically have been anything else than a disappointment? Does the seeming malaise among both parties represent the farce following the tragedy of his presidency? Will his popularity outside the US prove more defining to his legacy than domestic failures? Did he realise the hope that he could forge a post-racial America, or will his tenure be defined by the politics of division? Did Obama change America – if so, for better or worse?