This article was originally published on February 13, 2016. It has been republished in light of the course of the US election.
The morning after Barack Obama was elected, in November 2008, I put the television on in my hotel room in New York to watch the reaction. Fox News was putting on a brave face, though the sourness and anger were barely contained: but MSNBC, an avowedly liberal network, was in a state of almost convulsive ecstasy.
As dawn broke a woman, interviewed outside her run-down house somewhere upstate, shed tears while telling an interviewer what the victory meant for her. “I now know,” she sobbed, “that my house won’t be foreclosed on.” I hope she was right: but the evidence of the seven years since Obama the miracle-worker took office suggests she may have been disappointed.
America was angry after two terms of George W Bush. Though he could not stand, his party’s candidate would be punished for how Mr Bush and the lunatics around him had made America an international pariah. The financial crisis of 2008 – the collapse of Lehmann Brothers came between the conventions and polling day – was the last straw.
I had seen Obama at the primaries, and at the Democrat Convention. I had waited for him to speak intelligently and practically about the state of America and how he would put it right, but I waited in vain. The cliché at the time, which became more relevant later, was about how he campaigned in poetry but would govern in prose. Some prose can be magnificent: but not his.
His stump oratory – especially his convention speech, delivered from a preposterous mock-Grecian stage set in Denver – was vacuous. He is clever and has a way with words: but his words contained little. He entranced audiences, first in his own party – which is why he beat Hillary Clinton, arrogant and boring then as now, for the nomination – and then in the wider electorate. John McCain – old, white, Republican and with the media’s hate figure, Sarah Palin, as his running mate – didn’t have a prayer.
As Lehmann’s sank, political leaders, including potential presidents, met to discuss what to do. Mr Obama said nothing: and the liberal media praised him for his silence, suggesting it showed his wisdom by reserving judgment on so complex a matter. Perhaps it did. Or perhaps it showed he didn’t have a clue. America’s slow, stumbling path to recovery, and its awesome level of debt – just under $19 trillion, or 104 per cent of GDP – suggest the latter. The great stimulus the Democrats then engineered disappeared and achieved nothing.
The sobbing woman in upstate New York was white and middle-aged. To glimpse how little Mr Obama has done for his own constituency – the poor blacks – it is worth reading an instructive article in the latest New Yorker. It is about evictions in Milwaukee, a city that is 40 per cent black. An industry exists to service evictions – courts, lawyers, removal men, bailiffs – and operates full-time, dealing with masses who cannot pay their rent, or their mortgages.
Mr Obama was elected promising to end such misery, but he hasn’t, and he never would. America has astonishing wealth; it also has astonishing deprivation and squalor, because there isn’t enough well-paid work to go round. I don’t know Milwaukee, but am familiar with cities such as Baltimore, Newark and Trenton on the east coast, which have square miles of squalor on a scale unknown in Britain. Detroit teeters on the verge of extinction: in thriving cities such as Los Angeles and Washington DC pockets of affluence sit cheek-by-jowl with areas of appalling poverty and crime.
Racial tensions, which a black president was supposed to heal, seem worse than ever – remember Ferguson – and Mr Obama’s interventions have often been clumsy and grandstanding. He has failed to control immigration, even though (unlike in Britain) he has the sovereign power to do so. And America has largely rejected Obamacare, which displays all that can go wrong with massive state intervention.
But if Mr Obama’s economic legacy is poor, his other achievements – or failings – are alarming. He has largely removed America from international conversations. After the disastrous interventions in the Islamic world after 2001 it is quite right it should think more deeply about such expeditions: but that does not mean the superpower’s global responsibility can be abdicated completely. The Kerry intervention in Syria in February was typically, and tragically, late. Mr Obama’s international legacy is the repulsive sight of Vladimir Putin, whom he underestimated, ruling the roost, the barbarians of Isil (for dealing with whom he had no strategy) and a Europe mired in introspection.
It was interesting, after Donald Trump triumphed in the New Hampshire primary, how many of his voters complained of feeling that America was being kicked around in the world. A great nation that is being forced to confront its global impotence is one for whom the bombastic Mr Trump holds inevitable appeal, and an America with such deep-seated social and economic problems is one that will look also to Bernie Sanders. After all, everything else has been tried, so why not what he calls “democratic socialism”?
Barack Obama created neither the poverty, nor the suspicion and loathing with which America was regarded in the world after George W Bush. However, he promised to cure the first, and has been found wanting; and he has used the second as an excuse to do nothing except withdraw. His role as President is now little more than as a spokesman for the bleeding heart and the bleeding obvious. When he is gone no one will miss him, least of all the one-time allies who feel he has spurned them. He has made America much less relevant.
Since George H.W. Bush left office in 1993 America has been ruled by a spin-obsessed sex addict, a dangerous halfwit and a clever incompetent. They all bore the imprimatur of their respective party machines. For much of America, Barack Obama is the last straw. He is the creator of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. If one of them becomes president and the world doesn’t like it, they know whom to blame.