Barack Obama: Comeback kid 2015

A Hertie School jury picked Barack Obama as the Handelsblatt Person of the Year 2015. A laudation by Helmut K. Anheier. 

“Yes, we can!” – On the evening of November 4, 2008, countless US citizens celebrated the newly-elected 44th president of the United States. Europe also eagerly awaited his first term full of great hope and even greater expectations. Eighty-five percent of Germans would have voted for him at the time, not least out of a desire to finally be rid of the Bush administration and its undesirable policies. Advance praise was abundant; after just barely a year in office, President Obama was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize – too early and ultimately ill-timed.

For a mood of despair soon spread in the shadow of the continuing financial crisis and the malaise of the post-Bush era foreign policy. Reforms were hit with opposition. Domestic policy promises shattered upon the hard ground of facts and all attempts at success on the international level failed miserably. But then came re-election 2012, more easily achieved than expected thanks to a weak opponent and a confused Republican Party. However, following the midterm elections in November 2014, critics regarded Barack Obama as hitting a new low after Republicans not only added to their majority in the House of Representatives but also seized control of the Senate. He was gleefully portrayed as a “lame duck president”, one incapable of acting.

In 2015, President Obama has increasingly made clear that condemned men live longer. His endurance and political perseverance have paid off this year.

It was a year of social-political debate and also of progress in the USA. After Ferguson and other bloody acts of violence against Blacks, the first Afro-American president could no longer keep silent in the racism debates being held across the country: “I am very proud that my presidency can help to galvanize and mobilize America on behalf of issues of racial disparity and racial injustice”, he proclaimed, and his powerful eulogy following the murder of nine Afro-Americans in Charleston stirred the nation. On the same day, the American Supreme Court also legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. Obama had worked consistently toward this goal since his first term in office and was now elated about a “victory for all of America“.

The Supreme Court also supported another main project of the Obama administration, one that stemmed from his first term in office: Obamacare. In May the Court upheld the health care reform which, after an almost disastrous start and against massive protest by Republicans, now appears destined to become a real success. With the introduction of the reform, approximately ten million people now have access to affordable primary health care. The percentage of the population without access to health care services has never been lower than it is today.

It seems as if Obama’s persistence will also become the decisive factor in climate change policy. Although the United States is the second largest emitter of harmful greenhouse gases behind China, the president is still calling for the strictest climate protection rules ever in the country. At the UN Climate Change Conference, he also intends to take on internationally a long-awaited and vacant leadership role: “This year, in Paris, has to be the year that the world finally reaches an agreement to protect the one planet that we’ve got while we still can“. Even though the outcome of the conference is still uncertain, the serious will alone to lead the United States out of the role as climate change policy blocker it has played for decades is remarkable.

Obama achieved further – maybe even historical – successes on the international stage. Despite some very critical voices at home and abroad, he promoted a groundbreaking nuclear deal in tough negotiations with Iran – and in good cooperation with Europe. Following the motto of cooperation instead of confrontation, he put an end to Cuba’s political isolation by resuming diplomatic relations in July. Even though it is still a long way to normal political and economic relations, the development initiated by Obama seems to be irreversible. The US president has also proved his perseverance in international economic policy: After seven years of haggling, the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations have been successfully concluded, an important guideline for the complicated TTIP proceedings.

Since the Paris attacks at the latest, Obama’s foreign policy has been massively questioned. He is criticized for his hesitation, with international partners urging him to take more drastic measures in Syria. According to a CNN survey, two thirds of Americans criticize him for not having a solid strategy against the IS. It is too early to take stock here. However, critics should not forget that Bush‘s invasion and the following occupation of Iraq from 2003 to 2011 cast a long and dark shadow on American foreign policy, a burden for any successor to the presidential office.

Obama is starting his eighth and last year of office. He will not be able to overcome the deep division of his country into two political camps. But we may perhaps see few more successes. A breakthrough against the gun lobby, especially now just after San Bernardino? A sustainable concept for immigration? A viable international coalition against terror? Even if some goals cannot be achieved – the year 2015 gave us some clues regarding Barack Obama’s political heritage: His imperturbable commitment to a forward-looking domestic policy and his diplomatic self-assertion in foreign policy. “Yes, he can”– sometimes.

This text was first published in German in the printed editon of Handelsblatt on 11 December 2015.

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