The liberation of Barack Obama

The liberation of Barack Obama
Comment: The US president is riding high after a series of political victories, but more work remains in the months he has left in office, writes Said Arikat.
7 min read
01 Jul, 2015
Obama has the support of many Americans as he achieves milestones of his presidency [Getty]

No matter how you spin it, the last week of June 2015 will more than likely go down as Barack Obama's best week since he was elected.

While no one can predict what the remainder of his term might hold in store, it would be difficult to imagine a more perfect seven-day run for any American president; it has been a spectacularly seven days of victory, including triumphs in healthcare reform, a trade deal and the legalisation of gay marriage across the United States.

He brought it all together like a maestro does a concerto, with a grand finale on Friday.

He paused only to deliver a stirring eulogy to his close friend, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, one of nine victims gunned down on June 17 during a prayer meeting in an historic African American church in Charleston, South Carolina.

The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church, founded in 1816, has borne witness to numerous attacks by white supremacists over the past two centuries, and has come to symbolise the struggle of African Americans for civil rights and equality.

Profound struggle

Obama opened his 40-minute speech before 5,000 mourners at the College of Charleston's TD Arena by telling those gathered, and in the nation beyond, that the pain over the killings of a church pastor and his eight black parishioners cut much deeper because they were slain at a church - a place he described as the centre of African-American life.

Obama's eulogy touched upon gun violence, voter suppression and the fate of the Confederate flag.

To cap it off, Obama stunned everyone by singing the opening lines to Amazing Grace - prompting the entire congregation (and much of a watching nation) to join in, while his wife Michelle, daughters Malia and Sasha, and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton looked on.

It was a moment of considerable profoundness and significance: A black president leading a congregation in song at a place where nine black people were murdered by a man with the apparent goal of starting a race war.

Obama's passionate speech touched on a series of race-related issues and will be seen by many as an outline of the president's agenda for his remaining time in office, a theme he has been speaking more loudly about ever since the shooting of an unarmed teenage boy, Trayvon Martin, by the zealous white self-appointed neighbourhood watchman, George Zimmerman, in February 2012.

The theme has been developing throughout the past year, as attention turns to the shootings by white policemen of un-armed black men in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore.

Flag of division

The Confederate flag, long known to symbolise the dark chapter of slavery, then segregation in the American South, and as a hallmark of discrimination and bigotry, was defiantly raised on many a southern capital state building, including Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, to oppose the civil rights legislations of 1962.

     The events of this week call upon us to look at [the Confederate flag] in a different way
- Nikki Haley, SC governor

Until then, the flag was relegated as a "rebel" relic of a bygone era.

But it somehow regained prominence during the federal enforcement of desegregation and re-emerged from the shadowy gatherings of white supremacists, into the glaring flutter atop state domes.

Conservative Republican Nikki Haley, South Carolina Governor, called on her state to do what just a week earlier seemed politically impossible - to remove the Confederate battle flag from its perch in front of the State House building where she holds office.

She argued that a symbol long revered by many Southerners was, for some, especially after the church massacre in Charleston, a "deeply offensive symbol of a brutally offensive past".

The governor, the first woman belonging to an ethnic minority to serve as governor of any state, said: "The events of this week call upon us to look at this in a different way."

Trading places

Obama's victorious week comes as he enters his final year-and-a-half in office - with something akin to the start of a victory lap.

The week began with a victory on Pacific Rim trade, which was snatched from the jaws of defeat on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, opposed by the heavyweights of his own Democratic party, including the former house speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and Senate superstar Elizabeth Warren - a possible younger, more progressive rival to Clinton's ambitions.

The Senate gave Obama the green light to move forward in trade negotiations with 11 other countries, after the Democrats relented, ending a debate that has consumed much of Congress' time for almost two months.

On the Thursday, the Supreme Court validated his signature healthcare law, guaranteeing he would accomplish a central second-term goal, to protect the 2010 Affordable Care Act from being dismantled by Republicans.

The court, which in June 2012 upheld Obama's "healthcare overhaul" by a majority of five to four, broke ranks once again with the Republicans on the Affordable Care Act - dubbed "Obamacare" - this time six to three.

It was a critical victory for Obama, as his legacy hinged on the court upholding the law he shepherded through Congress, and a policy on which he expended considerable presidential capital during his first term.

"After multiple challenges to this law before the Supreme Court, the Affordable Care Act is here to stay," a visibly exuberant Obama told the press.

He decried what he called a "partisan push to undercut the law and strip millions of American of their health insurance plans".

Rainbow nation

On Friday, the Supreme Court struck again for Obama.

It legalised same-sex marriage in all fifty states. After the decision was announced, Obama took on a Rose Garden press conference.

"Progress on this journey often comes in small increments, sometimes two steps forward, one step back.

"Then sometimes, there are days like this when that slow, steady effort is rewarded with justice that arrives like a thunderbolt.

"Today we can say, in no uncertain terms, that we have made our union a little more perfect."

     there are days like this when that slow, steady effort is rewarded with justice that arrives like a thunderbolt
- President Obama

Obama, long accused of being too deliberative, and too cautious, suddenly seems more daring, more willing to take a risk; more liberated somehow. Why the change in style?

He has more experience now, the president said in a podcast interview last week with comedian Marc Maron: "Part of that fearlessness is because you've screwed up enough times that it's all happened."

He added: "I've been through this, I've screwed up. I've been in the barrel tumbling down Niagara Falls and I emerged and I lived; That's such a liberating feeling."

It served as the coda to Obama's single best week as president - a week filled with developments, both practical and symbolic, that will reverberate well beyond not only this week or month but his entire presidency.

Nuclear summer

In foreign policy, the best may be yet to come for Obama and his indomitable secretary of state, John Kerry, who has laboriously and painstakingly worked over the past 20 months to conclude a deal that will guarantee Iran will never be able to develop a nuclear bomb.

The deal deadline of July 1 was always unlikely, and both sides appear to need some more time to iron out some stubborn issues. But it could happen very soon.

If an agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme is reached, it still will not yet be time for a sigh of relief. Turmoil will continue in the Middle East. Indeed, it's likely to get even worse.

But either way, this fight has been most hard fought against Binyamin Netanyahu, with the Israeli prime minister inciting against the president in the US Congress. What's more, Obama is winning the bout. Netanyahu is the loser.

Finally, Obama is not likely to persuade Netanyahu to stop settlements and aggression in the occupied West Bank and end the occupation of the Palestinians.

Nor is he likely to leverage US power and influence to allow for the realisation of Palestinians' national and civil rights in their own homeland, but one never knows; a newly liberated Obama might just take on Netanyahu and the Israeli lobby a little more boldly.

Said Arikat is the Washington Bureau Chief for the Jerusalem-based Palestinian newspaper al-Quds.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.