The Obama legacy: transformative, yet typical

The Obama legacy: transformative, yet typical
Comment: Barack Obama's administration has pushed 'progressive' agenda points, but failed to change a culture of war and marginalisation of the vulnerable, writes Namira Islam and Khaled A Beydoun.
5 min read
Obama's presidency has been a very American presidency, in its celebration of 'American' values [Getty]

There is one United States of America. But there are many narratives as to its history and, specifically, as to President Obama's America.

From the conservative establishment and its base, "Obama's America" is one that radically departs from the America that existed prior to it. His presidency is characterised by darkness - from the xenophobic steadiness of the chants that he is a "foreign born Muslim" to the overtly racist calls to make the White House white again.

"Obama has ruined America," you may hear from individuals and Republican frontrunners, who label him one of the worst presidents in the country's history.

They reach this conclusion, despite the fact that right-wing neo-conservatives are supportive of many of Obama's policies, such as taking the lead on mass deportations and the widespread use of drone strikes.

In 2011, former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano noted that in the previous two years, Immigration and Customs Enforcement "removed more illegal immigrants from our country than ever before".  

In December 2015, the administration began mass deportation raids, intruding into homes and breaking up families.

And that's not all

On the issue of drones, in October 2015, leaked intelligence documents suggested that "drone strikes conducted by the United States during a five-month-long campaign in Afghanistan caused the deaths of unintended targets nearly nine out of ten times".

There is also the America that the president harkened to during his final State of the Union address last week.

This is an America in which his presidency picks up the baton from where past "progressive" presidencies left off.  Continuing the spirit of John F Kennedy's space programme, FDR's New Deal, and Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

This is the narrative of an America that believes in the working class, of innovation in technology, and of being the leader of the free world.

Obama's presidency has been a very American presidency

This is an enduring narrative that spans decades. These presidents are generally beloved over time by Americans for their stated commitments to economic prosperity, civil rights, and the best that America has to offer as "a nation of immigrants".  

Each of these presidents, while lionised in history, have also been responsible for human rights atrocities. President Lincoln ordered 38 Dakota men be put to death in the largest mass execution in US history. FDR, meanwhile, ordered the internment of Japanese Americans.

In this sense, President Obama's presidency has been a very American presidency: he has led on economic and technological progress, strongly stated a commitment to civil and human rights, and celebrated "American ideals" of resiliency, hard work, and self-determination.

He has also been making policy decisions that have resulted in death and hardship for innocent civilians bothh domestically and abroad.

For many, watching Barack Obama - the community organiser and lawyer - as President Barack Obama was coming to terms in real time with the role of the presidency vs liking the person who is president.  

The pervasive system of white supremacy, that, in many ways, defines America, is one that is not instantly extinguished, or even significantly diminished, with the election of a black president.

American racism is a racism that fluidly mutates over time, from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration, and from one xenophobic target community to another. 

Reconciling this reality, while also observing for the first time how white supremacy deals with a black POTUS, has added nuance to the discussions on activism and government. His presidency has generated intense conversation on seeking allies within government, on working with government to bring about change, and on the role of government for those fighting for radical change in a system in white supremacy. 

Certainly, the election of a black president - to two terms - is of great symbolic significance. Yet, it did not mark the beginning of a "post-race America", as many on the right declared. 

Nor did it slow the systematic racism endured by black Americans, and other communities of colour. 

The president has not closed Guantanamo Bay, or said the words, "Black Lives Matter". He also bailed out Wall Street.

This American presidency has echoed the presidencies before it

However, he has engaged Native leaders on indigenous issues. He voiced support for equal pay for equal work, passed gay marriage and the Affordable Care Act, ensured funding for legal services for low-income individuals, and is the first president to visit a prison during his term.

Like the progressive presidents before him, for many, President Obama has had their back in words and often in action, small or large. This is more than can be said for the vast majority of presidents that came before him - including the candidates that ran against him, and for those currently campaigning on xenophobic, bigoted, and fact-averse platforms for the next election.  

However, for so many globally and domestically, the "progressive" label does little where lives have been irreparably harmed or lost forever. The statements and actions have not been big enough, bold enough, and ultimately, humane enough.

In so many ways, this American presidency has echoed the presidencies before it, showcasing again, the deep, irreversible damage that systems like those that shape the United States - and its leaders - can inflict upon the most marginalised. 

It was transformative in many regards. And so very typical in others.

Khaled A Beydoun is an assistant professor of law at the Barry University Dwayne O Andreas School of Law. He is also Affiliated Faculty with the UC-Berkeley Islamophobia Project. He tweets at @KhaledBeydoun

Namira Islam is the Executive Director of the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative (ARC). Follow her on Twitter @namirari

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.