How will Barack Obama be remembered? As America’s 44th president prepares to leave office today, his approval ratings are around 60 per cent, suggesting that here was a popular leader who achieved many or most of the objectives that he set for himself eight years ago. Yet this is evidently not the case. The very fact that he is being succeeded by Donald Trump, who tapped into a deep well of disaffection in America, indicates that Mr Obama failed in his one, overarching, ambition, which was to heal his country’s divisions, racial, economic and political.
As the first black occupant of the White House he was the personification of diversity; yet he leaves behind a country still riven with ethnic tensions and entrenched poverty. Realistically, such deep-seated problems could never be extirpated in eight years, but Mr Obama gave the impression, somewhat naively, that they could be.
He came to office on a wave of goodwill probably unmatched in recent American history. In his first inauguration speech, he warned of “gathering clouds and raging storms” and proclaimed an end to the “petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas” of Washington politics.
He was to find this easier to say than to deliver. Indeed, rarely in modern politics has there been such a gap between orotund rhetoric and prosaic attainment. He talked of healing, and of hope and change, but was too timid and too unfocused to live up to his own hype. To be fair, Mr Obama’s domestic policy was partly thwarted by Republicans in Congress and his health service reforms look certain to be dismantled by his successor. But he can always point to a successful economy as a legacy, albeit one that relied on a massive injection of central bank cash at the height of the financial crisis.