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Why Trump has left Obama's legacy in ashes

By Ambassador B S Prakash
August 06, 2018 11:54 IST

'Trump's desecration of all that Obama represented can be seen at different levels: Personal, political, systemic and structural,' explains Ambassador B S Prakash.

Former US President Barack Obama addresses players at the basketball court during the launch of the Sauti Kuu resource centre near his ancestral home in Nyangoma Kogelo village in Siaya county, western Kenya, July 16, 2018. Photograph: Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

IMAGE: Former US president Barack Obama -- who turned 57 on Saturday, August 4 -- addresses players at the basketball court during the launch of the Sauti Kuu resource centre near his ancestral home in Nyangoma Kogelo village in Siaya county, western Kenya, July 16, 2018. Photograph: Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

The phrase 'Legacy of Ashes' had come to be associated in the United States to chronicle the failures of the CIA. The title of a best seller, it detailed the serial misadventures of an intelligence agency that America had prided itself on -- its dismal record in Cuba in 1962, Hungary in 1956, Prague in 1967, and so on, each a case that went up in smoke from the American point of view.

Currently, the phrase is being invoked to chronicle Barack Obama's legacy, another legacy of ashes.

Be it domestic policy -- race relations, health care, immigration, gun control, progressive taxation or external relations -- agreement with Iran, engagement with Cuba, bonds with Europe, convention on climate change -- every achievement or aspiration of Obama has been already destroyed or is being dismantled.

There are critics of Obama who during his ascent and presidency regarded him as effete or even a phony.

They saw him Hamlet-like, indecisive and too detached for an effective leader.

Obama was all lofty talk and not much real action in their assessment.

Then there are others, and I am certainly one of them, who were (and are) Obama fans, seeing in his personality and policies a sense of idealism and even nobility.

The Platonic concept of the philosopher-king, a ruler with great intellect, a calm temperament, a degree of detachment from power, and the wisdom to discern public good is an abstract ideal.

Obama seemed to proximate the Idee. Am I a hopeless romantic, a naïve bleeding heart? Maybe.

But to reiterate, for me, he seemed to validate the belief that politics can be combined with 'good' even as he struggled with the realities and complexities of American national and at times narrow interests vis-à-vis larger ideals.

Obama ended his eight years in office with a sense of satisfaction despite the frustrations of implacable opposition from the Republicans.


Recalling the mood in the White House, on the eve of the 2016 elections, a journalist writes: 'Long before Election Day, books were being published about its legacy: An economy steered clear of a beckoning Depression, the rescue of the automobile industry, Wall Street reform, the passage of Obamacare, marriage equality, the end of the war in Iraq, heavy investment in renewable-energy technologies, the killing of Osama bin Laden, the Iran nuclear deal, the opening of Cuba, the Paris agreement on climate change, two terms long on dignity and short on scandal. Obama' approval ratings reached a new high.'

However, today very little remains of his efforts.

Why and how has this come about?

Over the last year, a spate of memoirs and reflective articles by Obama's close associates in the White House offers some answers.

A very readable memoir by Ben Rhodes, one of Obama's young key aides and also his major speechwriter, titled The World As It Is yields some clues; as also the writings of David Remnick, the famous editor of the New Yorker.

Trump's desecration of all that Obama represented can be seen at different levels: Personal, political, systemic and structural.

First, let us remember that it was not inevitable that Obama's work would be undone.

Had Hillary Clinton won, most of his approach and agenda would have continued with possible differences in priorities.

On the other hand, it is by now clear from his own public and private articulations that Trump came to the White House with a visceral hatred for Obama.

It requires a detailed psychological study to see why it must be so, but it is clear that blatant racism, contempt for a well-educated 'black aristocrat', and latent hostility for the disdain that Obama had shown to the TV-celebrity Trump goes into this mix.

Obama had openly made fun of Trump on occasion and these memoirs show that to be anti-Obama was clearly a priority for Trump as America's president.

Trump's determination to end healthcare, to annul the agreement with Iran are the clearest examples of the personality driven destruction.

Turning to the political, the antagonism between the two parties in the US, between the Republicans and the Democrats, is no less than what we see between the BJP and the Congress in our country.

But in America's presidential system such hostility can paralyse the government, when the legislature and the executive are controlled by different parties. This was the case in Obama's later years of the presidency and the staunch Republican opposition nullified many of his plans, including the critical task of filling a vacancy in the US supreme court.

Currently, the Republicans control both branches enabling them to reverse Obama's agenda.

Underlying the divisive politics is a deeply polarised society.

Sociologists record the schism between two Americas: One, the college-educated, globalised, privileged elite, or the satisfied middle class, largely resident near the two coasts with a liberal set of beliefs and attitudes, and the other, a relatively undereducated, disadvantaged, frustrated and angry ('trashy', to use a highly pejorative word) white-American majority, resident in the middle.

It is ironical that Trump, a super wealthy New Yorker, managed to tap into the anger and resentment of this class who constitute his base.

One classic image of a Trump supporter is of a beefy redneck driving a humongous truck in rural America, having lost his job as an auto-worker with his factory shut down, resenting the Mexican immigrants pouring into his state, and deeply suspicious of his female boss.

Contrast the picture with a hip New York banker or a Silicon Valley techie, possibly an immigrant, getting ready for the next wave of technology that may displace workers, but confident that he can cope.

Thus, the deep systemic divide is between Americans who believe that their future will be better (which includes immigrants, particularly Asian immigrants) and those who feel angry and afraid for the future, a fault line that Trump exploited.

What does Obama think, now? He is famously self-reflective and has the capacity to be a detached observer of his own predicaments, strengths and weaknesses.

We await his memoirs that may have that quality and if we are lucky, his portrayals of Hillary and Trump. In the meanwhile, those close to him reveal in their memoirs his feelings in the aftermath of the elections.

Even when deeply disappointed, in public he adopted a philosophical and long-term approach consistent with his personality.

Among his favorite sayings is a line by Dr Martin Luther King Jr etched on the White House carpet: 'The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.'

Another oft quoted belief was that history, zigs and zags, but the trendlines move in the direction of progress.

As we watch Obama disappear in the rear-view mirror and the zig-zags of Trump are we that optimistic?

Ambassador B S Prakash is a long-standing columnist whose earlier columns can be read here.

Ambassador B S Prakash