Two thirds of Germans, according to a recent survey, regret that Barack Obama is not allowed to campaign for a third term as president of the USA. And a majority of Germans are still of the opinion that Obama should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize shortly after he leaves office (and despite the fact that he has yet to achieve anything positive or of substance). The view in the United States is quite different. A survey of US Americans last year revealed that approval ratings are higher for Obama’s unfortunate predecessor, George W. Bush, than they are for Obama. Admittedly, Obama’s approval rating has recovered somewhat since that survey was carried out.
More devastating is the recent survey revealing that two out of every three Americans agree with the statement: “My country is heading in the wrong direction.” Healthcare reforms (“Obamacare”), hailed as extremely positive in Europe, only receive the support of 40 percent of US Americans; 60 percent reject the reforms. Voters are also unhappy with the large numbers of illegal immigrants and the sustained squeeze on middle-class household incomes.
Everything was different when Obama entered the White House. At Obama’s inauguration, 1.8 million ecstatic Americans gathered to form the biggest crowd Washington D.C.had ever seen. And eleven million Germans followed the spectacle live on television.
The well-known journalist Chris Matthews of the news broadcaster MSNBC said at the time: “I’ve been following politics since about 5. I’ve never seen anything like this. This is bigger than Kennedy. Obama comes along, and seems to have the answers. This is New Testament.” Newsweek’s editor, Evan Thomas, even went as far as to declare Obama a new God: “In a way Obama is standing above the country, above the world. He’s sort of God. He’s going to bring all the different sides together.” And the film-maker Spike Lee even suggested that calendars would need to be reset: “You’ll have to measure time by ‘Before Obama’ and ‘After Obama’ […] Everything’s going to be affected by this seismic change of the universe.”
Germany’s media joined the euphoria, enthusiastically crowning Obama as the world’s saviour. In June 2008, Germany’s leading news magazine, DER SPIEGEL, trumpeted on its cover: “Germany meets the Super Star”. They were referring to Obama. The magazine’s extensive cover story continued: “Barack Obama is surrounded by a powerful expectation that it won’t just be America that he changes, but the entire world’s political landscape. Obama is the hope of the western world, a world beset by worries […] This is a time for leadership. And there is only one person ready to step forward and assume this leadership: Barack Obama.” Norbert Röttgen, parliamentary secretary of the governing CDU at the time, had the following to say: “Obama has generated a mood that makes it possible to believe in politics again.”
What has come of all of this? Geopolitically, Obama’s legacy is one of disaster. Of course his predecessor, George W. Bush, wasn’t exactly a foreign policy success. But in his eight years as president, Obama hasn’t done any better. His intervention in Libya was a massive mistake, the result of which – following Bush’s misguided Iraq war – is a second “failed state”. We are only just beginning to experience the consequences of this disastrous intervention. The full impact is yet to felt, and when it comes it will be felt most in Germany and Europe.
Putin’s annexation of the Crimean, accompanied by his repeated and aggressive chest-beating, can also be explained by the fact that, on the international stage, Obama is regarded as extremely weak. Any US president that spends most of his or her time explicitly declaring all of the things they are NOT prepared to do is going to be far to unpredictable for other world leaders.
At the same time, Obama has made a habit of announcing plans and then not following up on them – during the Syria conflict, for example – which simply reinforces the widespread view that he is weak. The world hasn’t become a safer place because of Obama, in reality we are all less secure than we were before he took office. This applies to Europe – were the Baltic states feel threatened by Putin – as much as it does to Asia. China was as quick to exploit Obama’s weaknesses as Putin, it’s just that China’s aggressive policies towards countries such as Vietnam are hardly reported on in Europe. I was in Vietnam and saw just how concerned the people there are. Things are so serious that many Vietnamese are now placing their hopes in the USA; of all things, the country that once bombed their country to pieces.
It is only when taking all of this into account that it is possible to explain the massive success of Donald Trump’s calls to “Make America great again”. But foreign policy isn’t everything. American’s are now more dissatisfied with their country’s social and economic conditions than ever before. I currently live in New York and am able to get a taste of American’s discontent every single day – and it doesn’t matter whether people are more closely aligned with the Republican’s or Democrat’s.
Has Obama, as claimed by the journalist quoted above, brought his country together? No, divisions are deeper than ever. The unexpected successes of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have taken Germany completely by surprise. But they they are only so surprised because they had no idea of just how unsatisfied US Americans are after eight years of Obama.
Has Obama at least, as so many hoped, improved the situation for Black Americans? No, their situation is worse than ever before. During a speech in Prague at the beginning of his presidency, Obama promised a world free of nuclear weapons – today we are further from this goal than ever before and, if anything, the arms race has kicked into an even higher gear. It may not be entirely his fault, but Obama is certainly guilty of raising expectations that were unrealistic from the outset. He was also spouting hot air when he announced that he would close Guantanamo within a year, plans that evaporated into thin air in the same was as so many of his promises.
Yes, Obama is an accomplished public speaker – otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to win two presidential elections. But he never managed to be an accomplished president in either of his two terms in office. Whether the Iran Deal, proclaimed by Obama himself as such a great success and the source of hope for many in the region, actually achieves anything, remains to be seen. The Israelis stand to benefit more than most, and they have already made it clear that they don’t hold out much hope. Large numbers of US Americans are just as skeptical.
American society is much more polarised than it was eight years ago. Rather than having created a unified US American identity and a united patriotism, this is a country beset by deep division. The Democrats have successfully grasped this truth and have positioned themselves as the voice of all minorities – and they have now been met by the opposite movement centred around Donald Trump and borne by a wave of White American enthusiasm. That one of Obama’s final acts in office has been to unleash conflict as he has weighed into the “Transgender Toilet” controversy (see my article on the topic: America’s Controversial Topic No.2: Who gets to use which bathroom? ) is hardly going to do anything to improve his popularity. If anything, it is simply going to confirm the impression that Democrat’s are only interested in minority issues and that they ignore the really important issues that America and Americans face.
Germans made a mistake in their views of Obama, and they still haven’t realised it. But this isn’t the first time they have been wrong about American politics. In the 80s they greeted Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, with derisive howls of laughter (because of his past as a Hollywood actor), before going on to demonise him as a short-tempered warmonger. In actual fact, Reagan was one of the best presidents in the history of the United States. In stark contrast to Obama, who leaves almost nothing positive behind as his presidency draws to a close, Reagan’s economic reforms ensured that America bounced back stronger than ever from the deep economic crisis it was in when he took office. Even the Democrat Bill Clinton, the 42nd president, reaped rewards from Reagan’s reforms – policies Clinton was at least clever enough not to undo. At a geopolitical level, Reagan’s policies, despite him being so hated by the German population, made a significant contribution to the downfall of the communist system and the eventual reunification of Germany. As demonstrated here, there is a continuity in German misconceptions of US presidents, both among the general population and the German media.