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Editorial: Obama leaves legacy of lofty ideals, patchy execution

Politics requires two things: ideals and the ability to put them into practice. Absence of either makes good politics impossible. It will be some time before history passes judgment on the accomplishments of U.S. President Barack Obama. It is already safe to say, however, that his embrace of such lofty ideals as “a world without nuclear weapons” has helped made him a symbol of good sense in America even as anti-intellectualism gains ground around the world.


In his farewell address, delivered on Jan. 10 in Chicago, Obama made an appeal for solidarity: “Democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity — the idea that for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together.” These words echoed the message of the keynote address he gave at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, which catapulted him to national fame. In that speech he said, “There’s not a black America and white America … there’s the United States of America.”


With his farewell speech, he seems to have broadened his message to an appeal for a broader global solidarity.


Much Accomplished


Critics have often derided Obama’s stance on diplomacy — the seemingly naive belief that nations can understand one another by talking — as being “weak-kneed.” In his farewell address, he underlined the goals his administration achieved, including ones people might have thought had been “set a little too high.” He cited such accomplishments as the normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba and the agreement with Iran to shutdown its nuclear weapons program.


His efforts in the pursuit of nuclear disarmament, which brought him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, appear to have dwindled. Yet he made a deep impression on the Japanese people when, in May 2016, he became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima, a move that marked the first step toward real postwar reconciliation between Japan and the U.S.


His achievements on the domestic political front are also far from negligible. He took office immediately after the start of the global financial crisis in 2008. Less than a month after his inauguration, the U.S. government pushed Congress to enact an $800 billion stimulus bill that served to stem a further spread of the crisis. Ironically, the very fact that America climbed out of the economic slump more quickly than any other leading economy lead many to undervalue the importance of this step. This weakened the impression that the Obama administration had made the appropriate response to the crisis.


His initiative for health insurance reform, popularly known as Obamacare, has made it possible for an estimated 20 million people to receive health insurance coverage for the first time. Discontent among middle-income Americans about the higher insurance premiums resulting from Obamacare may have been a factor in Donald Trump’s presidential election victory, but there is no arguing that the insurance reform has reinforced the social safety net for those with little or no job security. Part of the Obamacare reform is expected to be retained under the Trump administration.


It is also commendable that, despite being a member of the Democratic Party, which traditionally tends to lean toward protectionist trade policies, Obama pushed forward with the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement.


Obama, who became U.S. president just halfway through his first U.S. Senate term, lacked the experience and the ability to truly change the political establishment. What is more, much of his political legacy will likely be dismantled by Trump.


Even so, Obama’s two terms in office were not a waste of eight years. He concluded his farewell speech on a hopeful note, with the slogan that once aroused enthusiasm around the globe — “Yes, we can.”

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