As Barack Obama heads into the final full day of his mixed bag of a presidency, he finds himself defending a decision that is emblematic of all that he got wrong. Bradley Manning, who let it be known that he wanted to be called Chelsea on the grounds that he now considers himself a woman, had his admittedly draconian sentence for his treachery commuted by Obama as one of his last acts before handing over to Donald Trump. Perhaps one of the reasons that Obama finds himself handing over to Donald Trump is precisely because he made wrong headed decisions like this one. One cannot help wondering if he would have made a different decision had Bradley stayed as Bradley. By becoming Chelsea he seemed to win more support and sympathy from a certain constituency, the president included. It's not clear why.
Manning is a traitor. He deserved to be punished and punished severely. 35 years was certainly excessive but 10 years does not seem unreasonable given the lives he put at risk simply because he decided that he knew best and that his principles trumped all others.
Was this the kind of hope and change the world expected when Barack Obama swept to power 8 years ago? Certainly back then nobody imagined, not even the terribly right on, politically correct Obama White House, that transgender rights would be the buzz subject that people who like to think of themselves as progressives would consider a matter of pressing importance. There were other matters that were important, especially from America's first black president. Yet over the last few years the issue of gun crime and of police violence against black people has been an issue with which Obama has grappled and largely failed to do much about other than to famously sing Amazing Grace to a grieving congregation in Charleston.
Yet domestically Obama has been a transformative president in many ways, albeit in ways that may well now be reversed by the Trump administration in league with a Republican Congress. His Obamacare reform was the first successful attempt to solve the intractable problem of the uninsured in the US system that so shames the largest economy in the world. Economists are largely agreed now that Obama's stimulus package when he first came to power after the banking implosion and resultant calamity that happened under George W Bush dragged America out of the mire. At the time it was criticised by many, this blog included, for its pork barrel approach to investment. That remains a fair description. I would argue that Obama's economic legacy is decidedly mixed even if he is credited with ending the great recession, something that might well have happened anyway given the robustness of the American economy. What he did undeniably do was double the national debt to an eye watering $9.1 trillion.
In truth though many of the reforms and policies of the Obama regime have been technocratic in nature and little understood by most American voters let alone by foreigners watching from a distance. In education amongst many there have been complex reforms that have been lauded by those in the know. But it is Obamacare that defined his presidency and which remains his lasting legacy for good or ill. It may have contributed to Clinton's defeat in the end, probably more than anything Russia did, especially as higher dividends were announced in the dying days of the campaign.
Obama was frequently frustrated, as many presidents are, by their powerlessness in the face of Congressional opposition. His attempts to advance the minimum wage, to bring in free community college education or paid parental leave were all stymied. Most notably his attempts at gun control, despite a long list of terrible massacres on his watch, will be a huge regret, one now compounded by conservative control of the Supreme Court for many years to come.
But it will be his foreign policy that will likely be his lasting legacy and the most ignominious one. Early on in his presidency, ludicrously, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This was based on a speech. The man is a great public speaker, but that good?
It was the triumph of hope over experience. Obama came to power and immediately sought to test the old lefty notion that being nice to people will result in peace and love and kumbaya in perpetuity. In reality it was just seen as weakness and naivety by the likes of Assad and Putin in particular. Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered Russia a reset. Putin couldn't believe his luck. 8 years on, though both Obama and Clinton saw the light, Russia has invaded foreign territory and thus expanded his country. He continues to menace and occupy illegally other territory of Ukraine and to threaten the Baltic states with a build up of forces in western Russia. It is building up tactical nuclear weapons in the same area, weapons whose use would make the defence of NATO members dangerous, possibly existentially so. His behaviour in Syria has enabled effective genocide, he has been complicit in the downing of a passenger airliner and has been interfering in the elections of several western nations including the United States itself.
Throughout all of this Obama has looked away, even when Assad crossed the supposed red line by using chemical weapons. Russia was caught red handed with sleeper agent spies in the comely form of Anna Chapman. Obama made light of this to the fury of the CIA because he wanted a successful summit with then Russian president Medvedev.
Across the rest of the world too the world looks more dangerous and unstable than it did when Obama came to power. North Korea is looking ever more irrational and uncontrollable. China has become ever more assertive and aggressive as it builds up its forces and tries to expand its territory by building bases in the South China Sea. Obama has ignored the transgressions of his enemies in what he imagined was a kind of benign neglect. He has been equally lackadaisical about staying close to his friends. Britain was not the only country that felt relations cool. Israel too. Much of Europe, Egypt, Turkey. Middle eastern allies have felt abandoned and Russia has been allowed to once more park its tanks on that lawn.
The Obama administration boasted about the CIA success with its Stuxnet virus deployed against Iran with stunning success meaning that the hard work was wasted.
The Bradley Manning commutation added insult to the injury of other failures during the Obama years, the loss of the thousands of files to foreign powers and terrorists thanks to the Edward Snowden scandal so celebrated by lefties on this side of the channel. There was also the less well known loss of millions of US government employees personal financial details in a Chinese hack.
Obama came to power promising change and new hope for his country. 8 years later Donald Trump is the inevitable reaction to his perceived failures. Trump, in his less lyrical, less articulate way, is offering much the same as Obama promised in 2008. It is likely that, if and when he is seen to fail, the democratic scales will tip back again.
But for all that Obama will leave a mixed legacy and an appalling one in foreign policy, he has been a classy, intelligent, witty and dignified president. There has not been a whisper of scandal. The Obama family have clearly enjoyed their time in the goldfish bowl of the presidency: Sasha and Malia have been a breath of fresh air and Michelle has been a graceful, gracious and beautiful first lady who has been such a success that many Democrats hope that she can be persuaded to launch a political career herself and be rather more successful than the last political spouse who attempted the same.
Barack Obama made oratory fashionable again such was the excellence of his speech making. But for me he was at his best at the less formal events and when speaking off the cuff. His addresses to the Correspondents Dinner were an annual highlight and I for one will miss the annual Thanksgiving turkey pardon comic tour de force he so enjoyed every year with his daughters. The man has the comic timing of Bob Hope and the good looks of a Hollywood star. Maybe that is a clue for his next career step. Some actors end up going into politics, often with great success. Maybe Obama can go the other way.
Whatever though, as we transition from a president who has been grace personified to one who angrily tweets in the middle of the night about every perceived slight and throws out insults like a saloon bar bore, Barack Obama is very soon going to be missed. His legacy is going to be a mixed one. But he always looked the part. This is unlikely to be true of Donald Trump.