Foreign Policy, History

How Will History Remember Obama?

Ta-Nehisi Coates started the revisionism over the most divisive and controversial President in post Cold war history, as Ta-Nehisi Coates is wont to do. Which is unfortunate, because Obama, for good or for bad, deserves a fair, objective, non-linear analysis of his record, and a certainly more nuanced look than the partisan hagiographies that are currently emerging.

President Obama, the first biracial leader of the free world, and one of the most gifted extemporaneous speakers of our time, is a textbook example of a young, professorially cynical, cautious, but overall idealistic young leader who was eventually chastened by time. Coates’ essay is a start in what will be the repeated partisan glossing of the legacy of an interesting character, but one who was eventually defeated by personal naiveté and the structural forces that resided outside of his control. He deserves a more thorough scrutiny than terribly worded think pieces focusing on nothing other than one single defining factor, his race.

I remember when Obama stood as a smooth-talking Senator against Hillary Clinton in 2008. My rookie journalism career pretty much coincided with the last year of Bush 43 and Obama’s election campaign. One of the earliest indications of how divisive and tribalistic Obama’s reign would turn out to be was evident when Oprah betrayed her “empowered” feminist sorority and endorsed Obama over Hillary. Even Oprah, the ultimate women’s liberation activist, couldn’t get over her race, for the ideals she had promoted all her life.

Obama continued to cynically play on that, at least in domestic policies. Obama had a golden opportunity to improve race relations in the US, being biracial himself. But he focused solely on his black identity. It started during the Travyon Martin incident with Obama weeping, and continued with Ferguson and with every police shooting. While there is no denying that American police forces in deep inner cities have racist cops, there is little evidence of structural racism, and a lot of black police officers also have had trigger happy hands due to the inherent training problems and the omnipresence of guns in America. More importantly, there was no need for the US President to go on deep existential rants about the character of his nation every time someone, even those with criminal track records, was shot during a police encounter.

He was repeatedly reminded that he need not meddle in police matters in inner cities, because of the potential to embolden radical groups and delegitimise police authority, so much so, that he was accused of having a “War on police” and was forced to apologise. As Heather Mac Donald has documented, crime increased significantly under Obama. Liberal media and blogs like MTVNews, Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, and Teenvogue, emboldened by direct Presidential intervention regarding race matters, and mostly (wo)manned by young urban humanities graduates, started spewing unadulterated hate towards “angry white men,” polarising society even further. In Universities, it was under Obama that Title X madness spread, resulting in snowballing victimhood, no-platforming and minority grievances.

Did Obama do all of this because he hated America? Unlikely. The world is not as conspiratorial as some would like to think. But he definitely believed in the inevitability of the new cosmopolitan coalition of race and ethnic politics being the support base of the Democrats, and played on it.

He never understood, that the forces of tribalism he was helping unleash would inevitably turn majoritarian. In a way, he had an opportunity to move beyond “hyphenated Americans” but he quietly reinforced it. In his final days, he perhaps realised what he had done and tried to temper it. With the revolution devouring her children yet again, mushrooming campus politics of race, safe spaces, BLM and The Chalkening, riled a veteran community organiser like him. After all, Obama himself was a product of the 1960s free speech culture. The illiberal anti-freedom forces he helped unleash shocked him too, and he repeatedly complained about it, calling college students “coddled” and slamming “Political Correctness”. But by then, in perhaps the greatest twist of irony, the proverbial excreta had already impacted the rotary cooling device. The social fabric of America was and continues to be broken, and this happened under Obama and his legacy of toxic identity politics. His racial legacy will therefore remain as complicated as the man himself.


On foreign policy, however, Obama’s record is more straight forward, and here, his cynicism was a relative boon for the republic. In fact, arguably, the shift we’re seeing in Donald Trump’s government was started by Obama, who despite his optimism, was perhaps the most cautious President of the union since Senior Bush left in 1992. Donald Trump and Trumpian grand-strategy (and I use the term grand-strategy loosely) is, in a way, a manifestation of a trend that started under Obama. Obama’s foreign policy provided a necessary course correction and recalibration from the liberal hegemony of post Cold war America. Rhetorically, he was, of course, committed to global freedom through liberal democracy and the “Islam is not an enemy” nonsense of Bush 43. But, by comparison, he was far more circumspect and amoral with regards to using force.

For better or for worse, of which history will be the sole judge, Obama realised a fundamental truth of geopolitics: that there are zones of interests for Great powers, and the Middle East ceased to be one of them for America. He was blinded by emotive value crusaders like Samantha Power and Hillary Clinton into going into Libya and toppling Gaddafi, which he has regretted to this day.

He had zero reverence for the conventional foreign policy wisdom of the DC blob. He loathed European free riders spending more and more cash on benefits for drug addicts and economic migrants at the cost of American taxpayers paying for Euro security. And he understood, cynical that he was, that it is difficult to continuously justify to American people that America needs to constantly promote values in a region beset with medieval cultural feuds, while being antagonistic to Russia. After all, Russia as a nation state may be a geopolitical adversary returning to Cold war form, but average Russians are not pouring into Europe to mow down 8-year-old kids at a Christmas market.

This strategic vision is consistent with American public mood about the Middle East, and is something Donald Trump has also tapped into. Obama broke with American foreign policy elite, and his reliance on drones for targeted decapitation strikes, and his dogged resistance to using American blood and treasure for solving cultural sectarian conflicts is, again, a product of his hard nosed and conservative realism. And realism, i.e. having a sense of proportion, is a historically good quality in diplomacy.

How will Obama be remembered by history? His legacy is, for lack of better word, mixed. The death of Bin Laden was one of the transforming moments.

A stoic Obama sits over in a far corner transfixed to the screen. I frankly thought that the man looked different compared to slick Billy C or an overly idealistic, almost Messianic W; Obama was more like a symbol of prudent, unflappable sangfroid. I went on to theoretically align with his policy of getting out of the Middle East, on his Hunter Killers decimating Al Qaeda along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and his overall realignment of the strategy of mindless, interest-free global primacy aspiration.

Mostly, however, it was just disappointment. In both race relations and foreign relations, Obama unleashed forces, either deliberately or carelessly, which were beyond his control. And that is how history will also remember him. A man, cynical, and prudent, who could’ve changed America if he wanted to, but was incapable of moving beyond his self-imposed limitations, and who was ultimately broken by the structural forces of time.


Sumantra Maitra is a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, UK. His research is in Great power politics and Neorealism. You can find him on Twitter @MrMaitra.





  1. bobby says

    Obama lost me when, after a jihadi terrorist attack, he started talking about the crusades. That sums up the problem not just with him, but the liberal establishment in the West.

  2. Alvaro Fernandez says

    This was Obama’s foreign policy: First, anti Israel, Second pro Iran’s mullahs and third Arab spring. He never supported Iran’s Green movement in 2009.

  3. Excellent read. Spot on. Fucking loved it. He will go down as the progressive who set the world on fire with his stupid naive idealism.

  4. Mack says

    It’s disheartening to see the at times excellent Quillete take it’s place in the right-wing confirmation bias bubble. It’s painfully obvious just from a quick look at the first comments on this article. The author begins by making largely unfounded red-meat accusations about Obama fueling racial tensions and goes on to say he was largely a pragmatic realist on foreign policy. Followed by comments about how disastrous his foreign policy has been. So the formula – rile people up by reminding them that Obama’s black and then watch them foam at the mouth about how he’s been a weakling and a failure on the world stage.

    Quillete – please raise your editorial standards and have a mind for just what kind of company you wish to keep.

  5. John Tayler says

    @Mack “have a mind for just what kind of company you wish to keep.” What is that supposed to mean, exactly? I didn’t agree with all the points raised by the author in the article, but i thought it was an interesting perspective.

    Your own PC authoritarian rhetoric is off-putting, to be honest, and invalidates the points you wish to make.

  6. Mack says

    Dear John~

    Opinions other than your own are not simply dismissible as be “PC”. That’s lazy and furthers my point. If you have a specific quibble then by all means lay it out. But I’ll try and be helpful in this instance, and add a little detail to what I wrote initially. Unfortunately, the Internet is now collectively well aware that appealing to alt-rightists is potentially a click-bonanza – this fact is tempting when you’re a fledgling online outlet. I counsel caution and discretion when weighing the costs and benefits – especially if an outlet wants to be taken seriously. And John, can you please enlighten me about what lapse in logic might invalidate my point. Think of it this way – 1+1=2 and my favorite color is green. You like red, so now 1+1≠2 ? I think what you mean is that something that makes you angry makes it less likely that you’ll take other following points seriously. That is exactly how confirmation bias works!

  7. Mr Mark O Fabian says

    This is pretty good. But at times it really steps into the Presidential Fallacy – the idea that the President directly controls a whole host of outcomes. An explanation of it in the context of economic outcomes is available here:
    I can appreciate that causal analysis in these kinds of things is impossible, but claiming that, for example, Huffpo et al. reignited the SJW movement *because of Obama* is a stretch even of intuition. We always say that correlation != causation. In this case it’s one worse: coincidence != causation.

  8. John Tayler says

    @Mack. My quibble was with the comment “just what kind of company you wish to keep” to the editors. It struck me as an example of the guilt-by-association fallacy.

  9. mcirvin14 says

    Dear John,

    I think you’ll appreciate that I don’t commit a guilt-by-association fallacy. I didn’t tar the editors of Quillette with that brush myself. But fallacy or no, it’s a fair warning. Those that lie with dogs and all. Good day.

  10. Anyone who doesn’t love Obama is a Nazi.

    Great argument guys.

  11. John Tayler says

    @Mack. “Fallacy or no, it’s a fair warning”.


    Warning of what exactly? Is that a threat?

  12. Dear John~

    First let me apologize for any confusion due to my being logged into a WordPress account when I made my last comment.

    But to address your concern – “Fair Warning,” besides being an underrated Van Halen album, refers not to an implied threat but is construed as due notice of a potential problem. So please sir, try not to become hyperbolic about semantic turns about an isolated word.

    But maybe it’ll be more intelligible to simply state that I hope that Quillette isn’t spiraling down the drain towards becoming a high-brow alt-right rag and is diligent in maintaining the viewpoint diversity that got me interested to begin with. The latest crop of articles strains my optimism.

  13. The only reasonable interpretation of this statement: “crime increased significantly under Obama” is false. Despite a recent uptick (2014-2016), the violent crime rate in all major categories was lower in 2015 than in 2008 (and all previous years at least in recent history ( Even if the 2016 numbers do show a small increase from 2008 in some categories (which I would put money against), there is no way they will constitute a “significant increase” in any reasonable way. Your source doesn’t even try to argue this point so it seems like we should just use raw numbers. Disappointing to see in a generally trustworthy publication.

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