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Yes, He Can. No, He Couldn’t. Obama is a Failed President

Seen by many as weak both at home and abroad, has Obama failed as leader of the free world? Or should the nuclear deal with Iran, Obamacare, and the economic recovery ensure his place in history as a great president?

Eight years ago the banners said ‘Behold the new Kennedy!’ Tears flowed and expectations were sky-high as Obama spoke on election night surrounded by his young family. Here was America’s saviour, the man who could overcome the legacy of slavery, heal a divided nation, even reclaim its moral leadership.

In fact, Obama’s record has been one of failure. Once the world’s policeman, today America is seen as weak. Tyrants know that Obama rarely exercises power and they have taken full advantage of that fact. Putin has rolled the tanks into part of Ukraine while China flexes its muscles in the South China Sea. Islamic State rose to ugly prominence on his watch, and Obama did little to stop it. He also let Assad get away with gassing his people even though he had warned such action would be crossing his ‘red line’. Traditional Middle East allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia are rightly dismayed. At home, the president has been just as limp. Some critics go so far as to say that he prepared the ground for Donald Trump, by failing to reassure Republican voters who feel vulnerable to terrorist attacks and not doing enough about uncontrolled immigration. Equally he has disappointed Democrats by his failure to counter the gun crime epidemic, and African Americans have gained little stature or pride from his time in the White House. Who would have imagined #BlackLivesMatter taking off under the first black president of the United States? Far from being an inspiring leader, Obama has turned out to be a sensitive loner, temperamentally unsuited to the hustle and bustle of power.

To Obama’s supporters, such charges are ludicrous. Despite the many crises that have afflicted his time in office, he has pulled off a significant number of his promises. Through Obamacare, he has enabled 20 million uninsured adults to have health insurance – something seven previous presidents were unable to achieve. He agreed a climate change accord unthinkable under his predecessors. He negotiated a groundbreaking deal with Iran, stopping its dash to nuclear weapons. Far from being weak and passive in his foreign policy, he has been tough when needed. Bin Laden was killed and so were other terrorist leaders. Yet he has refused to continue hopeless wars that cost lives, tarnish America’s reputation and squander money. Instead, he has concentrated on reviving the economy. Millions of new jobs have been created in the past eight years. Obama’s stewardship has been calm and assured, generating no personal scandals. His real crime, in the eyes of his opponents, was his rejection of ideology. Partisans on all sides despise his willingness to compromise.

So how should we assess Obama’s legacy, given that Guantanamo Bay is still open while American minds grow ever more closed?


For the motion

Christopher Caldwell

Senior editor at the Weekly Standard

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard and the author of Reflections on the Revolution in Europe. His essays, columns and reviews appear in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times Book Review and other publications in the US and Europe. He is at work on a book about post-1960s America.

David Frum

Political commentator and former speechwriter for George W. Bush

Senior editor at The Atlantic. From 2014 through 2017 he was chairman of the board of trustees of the leading UK center-right think tank, Policy Exchange. From 2001 to 2002 he served as speechwriter and special assistant to President George W. Bush, and in 2007 to 2008 as senior adviser to the Rudy Giuliani presidential campaigns. Frum is the author of nine books, including Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic. His memoir of his service in the George W. Bush administration, The Right Man, was a No 1 New York Times bestseller. His new book is Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy.
Against the motion

Bernard-Henri Lévy

French philosopher and bestselling author

French philosopher and one of Europe’s best selling writers. He is the author of over 30 books, including works of philosophy, fiction, and biography, as well as several documentary films. His books in English include American Vertigo: Travelling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville, a New York Times bestseller, and Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism. His latest film, ‘Peshmerga’, which won outstanding reviews at Cannes, recounts Lévy’s three-month long journey along the front lines of Isis.

Neera Tanden

President and CEO, Center for American Progress

President and CEO of the Center for American Progress. She was the domestic policy director for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and served as senior adviser on President Barack Obama’s health reform team in the White House. Tanden was recently included on Elle magazine’s ‘Women in Washington Power List’ and recognised as one of Fortune magazine’s ‘Most Powerful Women in Politics.’

Nik Gowing

Presenter, BBC World News

Nik Gowing has been a main presenter for the BBC’s international 24-hour news channel BBC World News, since 1996, where he presents The Hub with Nik Gowing, BBC World Debates, Dateline London and location coverage. For 18 years he worked at ITN where he was bureau chief in Rome and Warsaw, and Diplomatic Editor for Channel Four News (1988-1996).