What Trump means for Obama’s legacy?

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - VIEWS -

US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s eight-year term will end in Jan­uary. He has rewrit­ten his­tory by be­com­ing the first African Amer­i­can pres­i­dent of the United States, but he will leave be­hind a mixed legacy.

The pos­i­tives first. Obama led the US through the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis, cre­at­ing new jobs and help­ing re­vive the coun­try’s econ­omy. Un­der his lead­er­ship, the US agreed with China to re­duce their re­spec­tive car­bon emis­sions. The two coun­tries also worked to­gether to clinch the Paris Agree­ment on cli­mate change last year. And with the “Clean Power Plan”, the US raised its en­ergy ef­fi­ciency lev­els, re­duced oil im­ports, and started de­vel­op­ing clean en­ergy rapidly.

As a na­tion­wide health­care re­form, his Pa­tient Pro­tec­tion and Af­ford­able Care Act (or Oba­macare) has con­sid­er­ably re­duced the num­ber of peo­ple with­out med­i­cal in­sur­ance cover. High on the agenda of Obama’s sec­ond term were le­gal­iz­ing same-sex mar­riage, pro­mot­ing equal­ity in ed­u­ca­tion, and immigration re­form. He has suc­ceeded on one front, as gay mar­riage has been le­gal­ized in 50 states. And he has tried to de­lay repa­tri­at­ing 5 mil­lion il­le­gal im­mi­grants and grant them work per­mits.

To give mean­ing to his diplo­matic and counter-ter­ror­ism moves, Obama with­drew US com­bat troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 and from Afghanistan by October 2014. And on May 2, 2011, US forces even­tu­ally shot dead Osama bin Laden, the mas­ter­mind of the Sept 11, 2001, attacks.

Thanks partly to Obama’s ef­forts, the ice was bro­ken be­tween the US and Cuba, with Wash­ing­ton and Ha­vana up­grad­ing their re­spec­tive “in­ter­ests sections” in each other’s cap­i­tals to em­bassies in July, 2015. And on March 20, 2016, Obama be­came the first US pres­i­dent to visit Cuba in 88 years.

In 2015, the US led suc­cess­ful ne­go­ti­a­tions for a nu­clear deal aimed at pre­vent­ing Iran from mak­ing nu­clear weapons, and when Iran com­plied this year, Wash­ing­ton lifted part of the sanc­tions on Te­heran, which breathed some life into the nearly four-decade-old frozen bi­lat­eral re­la­tions.

But Iran is the only sil­ver lin­ing in Obama’s Asia pol­icy. He shifted the fo­cus of US diplo­macy from the Mid­dle East to the Asia-Pa­cific, epit­o­mized by his “pivot” to Asia strategy. As part of its “smart power diplo­macy”, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion tac­itly fu­eled the “Arab Spring”, which has left many coun­tries, es­pe­cially Syria and Libya, in tat­ters and re­sulted in a mas­sive power vac­uum in the Mid­dle East and played a key role in the emer­gence of the Is­lamic State group.

In the Asia-Pa­cific, Obama’s “pivot” strategy, in­stead of bring­ing about sta­bil­ity and pros­per­ity, has in­ten­si­fied dif­fer­ences among the re­gion’s coun­tries and height­ened ten­sions. To al­low the US to dic­tate trade and eco­nomic terms in the Asia-Pa­cific, Obama pro­posed the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship Agree­ment, which now is all but dead as US pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump has vowed to scrap it on his first day in of­fice.

Eight years ago, Obama en­tered the White House with the prom­ise of change. But he has man­aged to change lit­tle in the US, as attacks on blacks have in­creased, with many blacks fall­ing vic­tims to po­lice bul­lets. He has failed to change the coun­try’s gun cul­ture, too. And al­though he raised the min­i­mum wage and took ini­tia­tives to help the poor and needy, the gap be­tween the rich and poor in the US has widened.

His health­care re­form is in­deed a wel­come move, but given the loop­holes in and eco­nomic bur­den of Oba­macare and, more im­por­tantly pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump’s aver­sion to it, the fu­ture of the scheme looks un­cer­tain.

It is dif­fi­cult to guess the fate of even the good poli­cies Obama has im­ple­mented once Trump is sworn in as US pres­i­dent next month. Trump has al­ready said he wants to “Make Amer­ica Great Again” and put “Amer­ica First” by re­vers­ing Obama’s do­mes­tic and for­eign poli­cies. And with bil­lion­aires and re­tired gen­er­als in his team, it is dif­fi­cult to say what kind of change Trump will bring to the US and the world.

The au­thor is a se­nior fel­low at the In­sti­tute of Amer­i­can Stud­ies of the Chi­nese Academy of So­cial Sci­ences, and manag­ing editor of The Chi­nese Jour­nal of Amer­i­can Stud­ies.

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