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Mainstream, VOL LV No 6 New Delhi January 28, 2017

Civility in Political Discourse: Lasting Legacy of President Obama

Tuesday 31 January 2017

by Vijay Kumar

It was early 2009; one of the most distinguished former Foreign Secretaries, Muchkund Dubey, asked me about my assessment of Obama. Obama was in the White House for hardly a few weeks, and it was too early to make any meaningful evaluation. However, I had heard Obama’s great inaugural address on the customarily fixed day on January 20, 2009, and having been impressed, I offered a tentative comment that he brought civility in public utterances, a comment and compliment one is compelled to repeat and confirm after he is all set to demit office on January 20, 2017.

For rendering a critical appraisal of Obama presidency, the nature of presidency of his immediate predecessor, even his successor, and the prevailing circumstances in which Obama became the President of the US must be factored into with as much objectivity and detachment as one can marshal. Therefore, the profound assessment of Obama must await the end of the presidency of his successor.

Obama became President when Americans were war-weary on account of two wars, first against Afghanistan and, subsequently, against Iraq started by Bush Jr. Then, came the economic crisis in September 2008. Thus, the timing and economic condition were hardly propitious when Obama took oath as the 44th President of the US. Obama, after becoming President, decided to forsake the misadventurism of Bush Jr. by deciding not to unleash any war, and he lived up to that resolution till the end of his Presidency.

Foreign policy was not the forte of Obama. On the one hand, he can claim credit for making an opening in Iran and Cuba, but, on the other hand, he vacillated to even control, let alone crush, the monster of ISIS resulting in the aggravating crisis in Syria.

It is true that the hegemonic status of the US has waned under the presidency of Obama, but it would be unfair to blame him for this erosion. The US’ unilateral status has declined not because of Obama but because of the imperial overstretch at the time of Bush Jr. It was two wars coupled with a disastrous economic policy and the hubris of the sole superpower that resulted in the diminishing of its influence. It is this erosion of hegemony that has emboldened Putin in Russia and China to flex their muscles in Ukraine and South China Sea respectively. Therefore, the historical conjuncture prevailing at the time of inauguration of the Obama presidency was not favourable at all to sustain the US’ unilateralism.

On the positive side, Obama’s contribution for his Obama care and on the climate issue cannot be ignored. The climate issue is the single most important issue confronting humanity in contemporary times, and Obama must be given encomiums for, at least, attempting to grapple with the same. The fact that Obama‘s successor is all set to dismantle the Obama care and his policy on the climate issue should not detract from his contribution.

On the social issue, Obama failed to protect the Blacks. In fact, he has been too diffident to take stern action, and this weakness, far from furthering the racial integration, aggravated the White prejudice against the Blacks and entrenched the White supremacist.

One of the great menaces of American culture is the issue of gun control. Obama made a sincere and serious endeavour to tackle the problem of gun control but his attempt came unstuck mainly on account of utter non-co-operation by the Republicans in the Congress.

That legacy of the American President is sustained by the President’s appointee in the Supreme Court for the simple reason that one can be President for maximum two terms lasting eight years, whereas the Supreme Court judges are appointed for life. The example of Antony Scalia, appointed by Reagan, automatically crops up in mind. The Reagan presidency lasted for eight years, but Antony Scalia continued to further his conservative policy till his death in 2016. Since the appointment of judges in the Supreme Court is for life, the power to appoint becomes a matter of chance, and Bill Clinton could not appoint any judge in the Supreme Court though he was President for two full terms because no vacancy arose during his presidency. Obama was lucky to appoint, first, Sonia Sotomayor, a woman and Hispanic, and, subsequently, another woman, Elena Kagan. These two Obama appointees are expected to carry forward his policy till they are in Supreme Court. Obama got another opportunity towards the fag end of his presidency when the most conservative Justice Antony Scalia died, but Obama’s attempt to fill up the vacancy was blocked by the Republicans.

Coolness was one of the civil virtues Obama demonstrated throughout his presidency. His cool, calm and confident demeanour, even in the face of grave provocation, has become phenomenal.

The Omaba presidency has come to an end at a time when we are witnessing the surge of strong leaders in the “Post-Truth” world known for speaking in uncouth language informed by muscularity, demagoguery and theatrics. The immediate predecessor and successor of Obama in the US—alongwith Abbey of Japan, Modi in India, Putin in Russia, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Erdogan in Turkey—fall in this category. Once again, the farewell speech of Obama in Chicago last week brought to the fore his prowess in oratory marked by sagacity and the old charm of civility. Regardless of how his regime is assessed otherwise by future historians, Obama will be remembered for bringing civility in his public engagements and dignity in political discourse.

The author is an Advocate, Supreme Court of India.

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