The conventional wisdom, at least in Britain, seems to be that Barack Obama’s presidency has been a desperate disappointment. That is partly a reflection of the extravagant – impossibly so – expectation that accompanied him to the White House and partly, of course, a simple reminder of political reality.
And yet it seems to me that you can make a persuasive case that he’s been a better President than his predecessor (a dismally low bar, granted) but also a better President than Bill Clinton. This, true, reflects the gravity of the times. Clinton complained in his autobiography that he’d been deprived the chance of tackling the kind of challenges that secure a place in the history books. His years in office were too sunny, too fat, for that.
Obama, by contrast, has been a firefighting president. He said he’d end two wars and he has, more or less, delivered that promise. Whether you reckon his judgement right or not he has, more or less, done what he said he would do. At least in terms of fighting troops on the ground. (The drone war and the expanding reach of the security state are different matters.)
And if the American middle-class has not enjoyed six years of untrammelled prosperity they have at least avoided the kind of misery endured in other parts of the developed world since 2008. Again, Obama’s economic stewardship is open to many valid criticisms – from both left and right – but in times such as these it is not such a small thing to observe that it could have been very much worse. The system worked. Just about.
Domestically, there have been other successes. Obamacare might not work (it’s healthcare, Jake, nothing works) but, Christ, pretty much every President since Nixon has tried to pass some kind of universal healthcare bill. Obama was the one who managed to do it. It counts as an achievement even if you disagree with its particulars. (Particulars, incidentally, that place it well to the right of the Clintons’ unsuccessful attempt.)
Now there are signs Obama intends to use the liberty the American constitution grants any President’s final two years in office and that he might use it in ways that might actually be useful.
Today, for instance, he’s announced that the United States will restore diplomatic relations with Cuba. Hurrah for that. It should have happened years ago. Certainly at some point after the Soviet Union’s collapse.
An embassy in Havana is just the start, of course. Full-scale normalisation requires more than that. It demands the foolish, counter-productive, plainly-failed embargo be binned too. At the very least this White House is more open to doing just that than any of its predecessors since relations were cut-off in 1961.
This is not – repeat not – going soft on Cuba. It’s getting tough with Cuba. The old approach has had half a century to work and yet, golly, the Castros are still there, still running their sunshine-soaked island gulag. By any reasonable measure the old approach has failed. Every sensible person knows this. Every reasonable person knows just about any alternative policy could hardly do worse. So why not try something different? If the embargo was going to topple the Castros’ nasty little regime it would have done so by now. Perhaps capitalism should be given a chance instead.
There are other benefits to this startling eruption of sanity. American relations with the rest of Latin America have long been complicated by the stupidity of its Cuban policy. A reset here allows – in theory at least – an improvement in this area too. It is hard to see how this opening can hurt the United States anywhere in the western hemisphere.
It is, of course, only a beginning and only one policy but it’s a good beginning and a much better policy than the one it replaces. It suggests – at least putatively – Obama intends to make the most of his final two years in office. And why not? That’s what the presidency is for.