Dr. Walter Greason
President Obama has less than 400 days left in office. As the beginning of his eighth and final year approaches, it is important to take stock of his failures, accomplishments, contexts, and timelines as a way of framing American politics in the twenty-first century. The impossibility of the success of his candidacy in 2007 still informs much of the political discourse as the current presidential candidates in both parties try to capture a sense of insurgent optimism about their visions for the nation. By this standard alone, none of the candidates can hope to succeed. It will be multiple generations before we can truly assess the social significance of the audacious campaign Senator Barack Obama led.
The most immediately contentious terrain for evaluation is the standing of the United States in the world community and President Obama’s explicit stance as an anti-war commander in chief. On this ground, critics and opponents have been the most vocal and numerous. Conservatives attack the lack of strident militarism in the Obama foreign policy, seeking to expand on the global military state the George W. Bush administration attempted to establish. Liberals lament the failure to close Guantanamo Bay, the expansion of state surveillance, and the constant use of drone warfare to attack Al Qaeda and ISIL. Both perspectives underestimate the complexity of the conflict and showcase unrealistic expectations for easy resolutions. The effort to contain and eliminate global terrorism is a process much more intricate than even the Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union. Terrorist networks are granular organizations with tiny footprints, despite their capacity to wreak mass casualty events. Only sustained coalitions on a global scale, especially in the creation of unprecedented special forces capacity across Africa and Asia, has any real hope of containing terrorist networks. Yet, this concept would still fail to eliminate the root causes of violent extremism.
The only real, long-term solution to the dispossession and disillusionment that leads people down the path of extreme violence comes from a source often reviled in western media – the Black Lives Matter movement and its related organizations. Citizen engagement and empowerment to radically transform local and regional governance and finance is the only permanent answer to radical terrorism. Isolated individuals must feel a sense of safety and belonging in order to believe that their lives have value and, in turn, that others’ lives matter. President Obama’s image, language, and actions allowed a longstanding element of American society to raise its voice in response to police killings over the last five years. Indeed, his example built a coalition of the LGBTQ community, feminists, civil rights advocates, and union organizers back to the center of federal policy for the first time since 1979. Most importantly, his administration built a new federal infrastructure to analyze and dismantle racial and economic segregation across the country. This movement for equal justice, empowered through both state and federal government initiatives, has a chance over the next year to re-write the standards of private finance and small enterprise creation. It is an opportunity to exceed the ambitions of the War on Poverty and to fundamentally lift the poor around the world into a global, middle class. Imagine a Freedman’s Bureau to oversee fair contracting and procurement. Imagine an Underground Railroad that promotes the free movement of labor everywhere.
The only audacity of hope that came from the successes of Barack Obama’s two terms in office is the determination of his voters to seize the reins of government. Local activists must become the new judges, politicians, and entrepreneurs to transform state legislatures, school boards, and town councils. The standard of an informed leader who listens to multiple perspectives and makes decisive decisions in the interests of all people, especially the most marginalized, must become the legacy of the Obama presidency. The specific accomplishments of a stable economy, a climate change accord, stronger allies, and a healthier population only scratch the surface of the analysis. The greatest victory is the fulfillment of a promise too long denied – both at home and abroad. Where the United States often claimed an identity of “e pluribus unum” (from many, one), the emphasis was often on the “unum” at the expense of the “pluribus.” President Obama’s time in office began the first real effort to recognize the nation and the world’s diversity in an inclusive way. There are many more steps on the path to becoming a united family of human beings, but we have taken a few steps forward since 2009. This progress is valuable and important to recognize.