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Obama's last SOTU address: typically long on rhetoric, short on substance

Wajahat Qazi | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 5:16 IST

Looking back

  • Barack Obama took over as President amid a lot of hope
  • He was expected to deliver on several fronts

More in the story

  • What has Obama\'s legacy been?
  • Has America changed for the better?

A big African American man lay sprawled on an Oakland (California) street. My 'desi' sensibility got aroused and I stretched out my hand to help him stand and regain composure. The man looked at me intensely and said "Thanks". As I was about to say good bye , I asked the man what he wanted and expected from the United States' new president, Barack Obama. The man, still half-dazed said: "an aahfiss jawb" (office job).

This was the end of 2008. I was in the United States and was witness to the expectations and 'hope' that the presidency of Barack Obama generated. The overall atmosphere was rather surreal. Almost all ethnic and racial groups that form the cultural, social and political firmament of the United States were exuberant about the election of Obama - an African American - to the highest office of the then world's most powerful and influential country.

Read: 10 takeaways from Barack Obama's final State of the Union address

Here was a country where Blacks were viewed as anathema or even 'untouchable' only a few decades ago and where 'civil rights' to its black minority only years ago and where the power political super- and sub-structure was 'white', but this country's head of state was now a black man.

While many attributed this feat to Obama's grit and determination of his "audacity of hope", some dissenters (including myself) described it a peculiarity of the United States. That is, the country had evolved so much that, by and large, most of its citizens were comfortable with a black president.

Given that I am Kashmiri, with cynicism coming rather naturally to me, I stated to my friends and colleagues that Obama's election to the highest office of the United States was 'engineered'. What I meant was his candidature was an exercise in social engineering wherein a message was sought to be sent to African-Americans that they too could aspire for anything.

The "American Dream" was sought to be made real to the black underclass of the country - all in all a noble motive and endeavour.

After eight years in office, what has Obama achieved?

Indubitably, Obama became President when the world and the United States were reeling under the 2008 financial crisis. The crisis' magnitude, due to the forces of globalisation and systemic risk, was profound and acute.

Obama and the best of advisors could not do much about it. But Obama also went to the White House as the president of a country that still enjoyed pre-eminence in a somewhat uni-polar world, despite the Iraq and Afghan wars.

Obama has been a disappointment and will go as the man who oversaw US decline

Yes, there were legacy issues - overseeing the exit from Iraq and Afghanistan - to contend with but those were largely tactical issues; not something that required a grand strategic vision for the United States.

What was expected from Obama was precisely a grand strategic, overarching vision for the country within and without.

But what did Obama actually do?

The man presided over a retrenchment of the United States' 'hard' and 'soft power'. In terms of hard power, Obama did not have the boldness and appetite for military intervention. This became salient in the Syrian saga and the botched exit from Iraq. The United States' omission here led to the creation and consolidation of the Islamic State.

The United States under Obama also botched the Ukrainian invasion and along with its errors of omission in Syria, inadvertently created space for Russian revisionism.

Also read: Obama takes gun control into his own hands. Will it change anything? Not likely

In Asia, the pivot strategy never really materialised: India has been left wondering what the United States really wants and expects from it and China has made great strides in its 'near abroad'- expanding both its power and presence in the region. The United States' security commitments to Asian nations - especially south-east and east Asian ones - are now under a cloud.

If there is a domain or area, where Obama could claim credit, it is the nuclear deal with Iran? But, the deal and its future, given the latest developments in the region, are an 'unknown unknown'.

Domestically, Obama did not have a credible plan to deal with the influx of illegal immigrants, nor did he say or do anything substantive about gun laws in the country. A victory that Obama can claim (but only half a victory) may perhaps be in the domain of health care in the country.

sotu embed

Last, but not the least, his presidency has not ameliorated the condition of Blacks in the United States. While incidents of police brutality have hogged the headlines, it is also a fact that Blacks have not risen on the socio-economic ladder in the country. They, unfortunately, continue to languish.

Amid all this, Obama had the temerity to state in his last State of the Union address that America remained the most powerful country in the world and Americans had nothing to be fearful about.

Obama's presidency has not ameliorated the condition of Blacks in the United States

This outlandish claim or assertion can either be made by someone who is out of touch with reality or by someone for who rhetorical excess and extravagance comes naturally. I would put my money on the latter.

Obama, in the final analysis, has been a disappointment and he will go down in history as the man who oversaw the United States' decline.

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First published: 14 January 2016, 4:27 IST