Barack Obama: Building a Legacy
Barack Obama has done it all. He spoke his way up the Democratic hierarchy, won the nomination against Hillary Clinton, became the first African American to occupy the White House, won the Nobel Peace Prize, secured a second term with ease and made no great mistakes as President. Now is the time for him to start thinking of building the Obama Library and molding his legacy and his possible role in his post-White House years.
Obama’s obvious choice is the image of a fighter for justice for the black population rather than as a man of change, a man of peace, a conciliator or a nation builder. He can claim a little bit of the legacy of each, but he realizes that nothing is more enduring than the image of a liberator a la Martin Luther King. Many Presidents have come and gone, but King remains a beacon of hope not just for the black people of America, but also for the under privileged around the globe. History might judge his Presidency harshly, but might readily accept a black messiah image, if carefully cultivated. The death of a young black man in Florida gave him an opening to start the process.
“Trayvon Martin could have been me, thirty-five years ago,” said Obama last Friday in an unscheduled appearance at a press briefing on the acquittal of a white man, who shot an African-American boy in Florida. “There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.”
He had spoken earlier about the Florida events in “presidential” mode, how unfortunate the shooting was, how the justice system had dealt with the case fairly and how Martin’s kin had reacted to the tragedy with courage. But his tone and tenor were entirely different this time. He spoke reflectively and forcefully with more than a touch of anger. He said, “that all contributes, I think, to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.” The frustration and bitterness in the words of a black President in his second term were striking, particularly a day before some prominent black leaders had announced protests against the Florida developments.
Obama is literally an African-American, unlike others in the US who use the term as a euphemism, with no recent links to Africa. But it was by a biological accident that he was born looking more like his father than his white mother. His identification with the black community was a masterstroke that brought him to the White House, breaking the glass ceiling. His incessant call for change went beyond his race and the expectation around the globe was that he would be a very different President, who would change the world. Some visualized Air Force One flying to Teheran and Havana, not to speak of Beijing and Moscow to usher in a new world of friendship and cooperation. But it became clear that the most powerful man on earth had no power to change even the most glaring inequities in the US itself. It did not take long for Obama to realize this truth and to abandon his slogan of change. He found himself entangled in the multiplicity of checks and balances, which constrained him in every direction.
The other choice he had was of building the image of a man of peace. The Nobel Committee literally embarrassed him by the Peace Award very early in his Presidency, when he had not accomplished anything concrete. The explanation given by the Committee was that the prize was given for raising expectations rather than for accomplishing anything. The Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee said, “We cannot get the world on a safer track without political leadership. And time is short. Many have argued that the prize comes too early. But history can tell us a great deal about lost opportunities. It is now, today, that we have the opportunity to support President Obama's ideas. This year's prize is indeed a call to action to all of us.”
Obama was on the point of apology when he referred to the controversy about the prize and the fact that it came at the beginning and not at the end of his labours on the world stage. He said, “Perhaps the most profound issue surrounding my receipt of this prize is the fact that I am the Commander-in-Chief of a nation in the midst of two wars. One of these wars is winding down. The other is a conflict that America did not seek; one in which we are joined by forty three other countries - including Norway - in an effort to defend ourselves and all nations from further attacks. Still, we are at war, and I am responsible for the deployment of thousands of young Americans to battle in a distant land. Some will kill. Some will be killed. And so I come here with an acute sense of the cost of armed conflict - filled with difficult questions about the relationship between war and peace, and our effort to replace one with the other.” The wars are far from over and Obama has been as steadfast in the wars as his predecessor was. He has no hope of being known as a great peacemaker.
Obama’s third option was to be the builder of reconciliation among his people, not only between the Democrats and the Republicans, but also between the races and the rich and the poor. No one grasped the hand of reconciliation he extended and the economic problems persisted well into his second term. His economic formula, which helped him to win the first election proved elusive and he was elected a second time, not as a saviour, but as one who muddled through the crises the country faced. The European economic crisis and the looming Chinese rise do not augur well for him to turn the situation to earn the legacy of an economic wizard.
No wonder, then, that Obama, or his image-makers, are veering towards building his legacy as an African American hero, who not only captured power, but also fought relentlessly for the downtrodden. That will enable him to escape the criticism that he did not end racism as President and to fight racism and racial discrimination till the end of his life. Obama’s remarks on Trayvon Martin echoed King’s dream speech and the promise he held out to overcome oppression. Obama may well be on his way to inherit the mantle of King and to claim kinship with Gandhi.