Former U.S President Barack Obama. Picture: Laura Leon, AP
Former U.S President Barack Obama. Picture: Laura Leon, AP

What we can learn from the Obama presidency

Time of article published Jan 13, 2021

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By Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg

Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize for no apparent reason; he was a phenomenon with little substance to deserve the prize, usually reserved for those with clear track records in resolving the problems of war and hunger in troubled corners of the globe.

In physics, there is a concept called the dual nature of light. One nature of light is that it is particle; the other that it is a wave. It depends on what you do with light, then it reveals its nature.

This seems very philosophical, but this dual nature describes Obama, the former US president. The two natures of Obama are of him as the phenomenon and the politician. In 2020 I read Obama’s book, A Promised Land.

Obama the phenomenon chanted “yes we can”. Obama the phenomenon won the Nobel Prize for no apparent reason except he was a phenomenon.

The other Obama is the politician. He increased troops in Afganistan instead of reducing them, as promised. Obama the politician killed Osama Bin Laden and Muammar Gaddafi.

Obama the politician did far less for Africa, the continent of his descent, than George W Bush. Bush expanded the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) and invested in dealing with HIV/Aids in Africa through the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, still in operation today. The Agoa gave qualifying African countries duty-free access to the American market. Despite all these, Obama is much loved in Africa – ethnic solidarity plays a significant part in this.

But what is the legacy of Obama?

Donald Trump. When Obama was elected president of the US, former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke wrote this was “the day he lost his country”. This had nothing to do with Obama’s ideas but with his ethnicity.

Duke was so extreme that when he ran for Senate and governorship in Louisiana as a Republican, then-president George HW Bush denounced him. When Trump ran for presidency he received Duke’s endorsement. This had more to do with the reversal of Obama represented, and who he was than what Trump represented. Duke, an unrepentant anti-Semite and racist, overlooked the 100% support Trump had for Israel because in Duke’s mind, to paraphrase Franz Fanon, Obama represented “the wretched of the Earth”.

Which Obama succeeded and which failed? His achievements are impressive. He came up with Obamacare. He prevented the economy from plunging into a great depression in the aftermath of the housing bubble. He ended the Iraqi war. He supported the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. He saved the US auto industry and opened up Cuba. He regulated the financial sector, a difficult task given the Wall Street lobby’s strength.

How would we characterise Obama? Obama the phenomenon loses and Obama the politician wins.

Many people, especially outside the US, were disappointed by how the Obama phenomenon fizzled out to be replaced by a compromiser who did not significantly push for a much more inclusive, progressive global agenda.

What lessons can we draw from the Obama presidency? First, no matter how difficult the situation, there’s always hope for success. That a black man who is not a typical African-American ascended to arguably the most influential position in the world is not something to be taken lightly.

As we Africans face 1.3 billion people and growing, failed political projects ravaged by wars and warlordism in the Congo, the Central African Republic, Sudan and Somalia, we can draw from the Obama phenomenon that irrespective of the grim reality that confronts us, we shall overcome.

Regardless of religious intolerance in Nigeria, we can create a better Africa. Despite the pillaging of state resources, as seen in many countries – including in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Nigeria – we can succeed.

Obama the politician says none of this will come without a fight. Obama the politician confronted the hostile Republican congress and won a second term. In many ways, Obama had stringent expectations for himself and his community. He drew the ire of civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, who complained that Obama was “talking down to black people”.

Talking to African leaders, Obama severely criticised them for desiring to be presidents for life. He challenged the African elite for amassing wealth while living among a sea of poverty. At the Nelson Mandela Annual Memorial Lecture, Obama said we have to reach a point when amassing wealth becomes “enough”.

But the promised land that Obama talks about is no longer a model of democracy. Its politics are full of misinformation about election fraud that cannot be proven. Obama’s successor, Trump, even considered a rerun in the battleground states, where he had lost so he could win. Trump also tried to force the Republican governor of Georgia to overturn the election.

The very practice that Obama was criticising African leaders for seems to have taken root in the US.

The promised land Obama talks about does not seem to be a beacon of democracy, and in many ways it makes democracy looks terrible. But democracy is too important to be discarded based on the practices of individual leaders or countries. If we have to build a new form of democracy, independent of the US-style, let’s do so rather than dismantle democracy itself.

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg.

The Star

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