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Minhaz Merchant

Minhaz Merchant is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla and author of The New Clash of Civilizations (Rupa, 2014). He is founder of Sterling Newspapers Pvt. Ltd. which was acquired by the Indian Express group

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Obama’s Failed Dream

In the latest real clear politics poll of polls, Obama’s “approval” rating is 45 per cent. Not many us presidents have had such low popularity ratings with the exception of the reviled Richard Nixon and the bumbling George W. Bush

Photo Credit : Shutterstock

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When President Barack Obama took office seven years ago, hopes soared. The clean-cut young Democratic senator from Chicago was America’s first black president. He promised a racial entente cordiale, liberal social values and tough economic policies.

Few though realise that Obama would not have become president had one seminal event not occurred: the collapse on 15 September 2008 of Lehman Brothers — the leading US investment bank.

A couple of months before that Obama had unexpectedly beaten favourite Hillary Clinton to win the Democratic party nomination. Not many, however, gave him a chance against Republican nominee John McCain — a decorated war veteran and longtime senator — in the November 2008 presidential election.

They would have been proved right but for the financial meltdown that caused mayhem in the US and Europe, and spread like a contagion to Asia. Storied American mortgage lenders like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had to be bailed out by the US government. Dozens of banks and brokerages went bankrupt.

The New York Stock Exchange plunged 7 per cent on 29 September 2008, wiping off several hundred billion dollars of investors’ wealth. The financial crisis spooked Americans. By October, Obama — the charismatic attorney from Illinois who was brought up by a white mother after his Kenyan father abandoned the family — had become the favourite to win the election. Battered by the financial crisis that led to mortgaged homes being repossessed and employees retrenched, middle-class Americans voted for change. The rest is history.

Cut to the present. Having served just over seven years of his two terms, Obama demits office in January 2017. But he is already a lame duck president. His popularity ratings have fallen steadily. In the latest Real Clear Politics poll of polls, Obama’s “approval” rating is 45 per cent. Not many US presidents have had such low popularity ratings with the exception of the reviled Richard Nixon and the bumbling George W. Bush.
So what went wrong? On the economy, Obama actually has a good record: he has nursed it back to health. Unemployment has fallen to 4.9 per cent, annual GDP growth has climbed to 2.5 per cent and the dollar is strong.

And yet, most Americans are angry. Unemployment remains high among young people. Obamacare — the president’s controversial health insurance scheme that helps the poor (mostly African-Americans and Hispanics) and taxes the rich (mostly whites) — is deeply unpopular.

But what has also hurt Obama are his missteps on foreign policy. President Bush had erred by invading Iraq and destablilising the Middle East. That created space for the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS). President Obama compounded the error with three of his own:

First, he began withdrawing US troops from Iraq in 2011 before the sectarian insurgency in the country was contained. That allowed the Sunni terrorist group ISIS to gain strength in Shia-majority Iraq. By 2014, Iraq was engulfed in a Sunni-Shia conflict. ISIS made rapid territorial advances.

Obama’s second foreign policy error was in neighbouring Syria. In an attempt to drive president Bashar al-Assad from power, the US began funding and arming anti-Assad insurgent groups. The ensuing Syrian civil war has not only killed a quarter million Syrians but has caused an unprecedented refugee crisis that has spilled over to Europe and finds resonance in the 2016 US presidential election. It has also allowed ISIS to seize nearly 25 per cent of Syria’s territory.
Obama’s third mistake is currently playing out in Libya. By allowing the country’s dysfunctional post-Gadaffi government to fester for over a year, American inaction could mark Libya as the next territorial conquest for ISIS. As The Economist recently pointed out: “Barack Obama is far from achieving his declared aim to ‘degrade and ultimately destroy’ Islamic State — the self-styled caliphate that straddles parts of Iraq and Syria. But at least it is being rolled back in some places. Ramadi in Iraq was retaken in December. Oil installations controlled by ISIS have been bombed, sapping the economic and fighting power of the jihadists. In Libya, though, the picture is more alarming: the caliphate is building a sprawling new ‘province’ on the southern shore of the Mediterranean, just a few hundred miles from Europe. This is the new front in the war against jihadism.

“Unchallenged by Western forces, and exploiting the absence of a functioning state as rival national governments in Tripoli and Tobruk bicker and skirmish, ISIS has taken control of the city of Sirte and controls roughly 180 miles (290 km) of coastline. It already counts 5,000 or so fighters, threatens not just Libya’s duelling governments but also neighbours such as Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt. It has attacked Libyan oil terminals and ports, and raided towns ever closer to Tripoli. The expansion of ISIS could prompt another flood of refugees from Libya to Europe, with the obvious potential of terrorist infiltration.”

It is this threat of terror attacks against the West that has given Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump an electoral boost. Trump promises tougher action on terrorism and illegal migrants. His anti-Muslim position may be politically inflammatory but is welcomed in an America fed up with seven years of Obama’s political correctness. Anti-Islamism sentiment is strong across even liberal demographic groups in the US: women, professionals and college graduates.
Hillary Clinton is likely to be the Democratic party’s nominee. Her chances though could be hit by sheer association with Obama as his Secretary of State in his first presidential term. It was during that period that she unwisely used a private server to send classified emails, now a subject of a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe. The outcome could significantly damage her presidential bid.

Obama rode to victory in a nation traumatised by economic meltdown. The next US president may be carried into the White House on a wave of anger against the Washington establishment that has failed to deliver on the young Chicago attorney’s promise of a revitalised American dream.

A visibly greying and ageing Obama could ironically have set the stage for an American president who is another outsider — but coloured in a very different hue.