The Guardian’s Washington bureau chief from 2007 to 2013 recalls years that might have delivered more had the Democrats pushed home their advantage
Ewen MacAskill: The Guardian – Wednesday 4 January 2017 04.00 EST
Barack Obama recognised almost from the start of his presidency in 2009 that he would never be able to meet the high expectations raised by an election campaign in which he had electrified voters with rolling, honeyed rhetoric and a slogan based on hope.
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He had begun his bid for the presidency in earnest in January 2008 in snow-covered Iowa, traditionally the first state to vote in the nomination battles. An outsider, he hurtled along icy roads, always running late, from church to church, from community centres to school halls. He spoke to meetings of a few score and occasionally a few hundred.
By the time he reached the eve of election day in November that year, he was still running late and it was well into the night. But the crowd waiting for him in Manassas, Virginia, in fields close to a civil war battlefield was well over 100,000, buoyed up by the slogan of “Hope” and chants of “Yes, we can”.
But within a few months of taking office in January 2009, disillusionment was already setting in. Speaking at the White House correspondents’ dinner, the social event of the year, in which the president is expected to be a standup comedian for the night, Obama joked about those high expectations. “I strongly believe my next 100 days will be so successful I will finish them in 72 days. And on the 73rd day I will rest.”
Although he tried to laugh about it, that sense of disillusionment lingered over his presidency for the last eight years.
Covering US politics for the Guardian from January 2007 through to April 2013 – from the start of Obama’s bid for the presidency through to the start of his second term – I never fully shared that sense of disappointment and was puzzled from the outset by the speed with which much of the American left began to disown him.
But there have been many mistakes, some of them only becoming clearer in hindsight, now that Donald Trump is about to become president on 20 January. If Hillary Clinton had won, Obama could have expected most of his legacy to remain intact. Instead, he faces the prospect of much of it being dismantled.
Obama cannot be directly blamed for Clinton’s poor election run in 2016 but the Democrats can. All the weaknesses she displayed in the epic 2007-2008 contest with Obama were still evident in the 2016 race. She showed no sign of having learned the lessons of 2008.
Within weeks of arriving in Washington in 2007, I flew to Iowa to cover a rally by Hillary Clinton in Des Moines, Iowa, where the official election campaign would kick off a year later. I had been looking forward to seeing her on the campaign trail but came away underwhelmed. She was unable to connect with what had been at the outset a sympathetic audience, leaving them listless, with an excessively cautious speech and, in a question-and-answer session afterwards, resorting to cliches and platitudes.
Within weeks of seeing Clinton in Iowa, I heard Obama speak for the first time at a Democratic conference in Washington and told Guardian editors I thought Obama would win the Democratic nomination.
One of his best speeches was in January 2008 when he spoke at the Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta, near where Martin Luther King had preached. I almost missed it, arriving late after a long drive to Atlanta. Obama’s press team squeezed me into the balcony and his chief press officer, Robert Gibbs, who I knew only slightly at the time, handed me his BlackBerry so I could scroll through the speech and take notes. He was trusting: I could easily have scrolled through his email messages and phone numbers.
Barack Obama signs the ‘Obamacare’ healthcare bill in the East Room of the White House in Washington on 23 March 2010. Photograph: J Scott Applewhite/AP
This might seem like a small point but Obama’s campaign team were accessible throughout in a way that Clinton’s were not. Another lesson not learned by the Clinton team.
Rereading the speech that day from the pulpit of the Ebenezer Baptist church offers a contrast with Trump. Obama’s message was that America had to face up to the deep divisions in society and stop stereotyping and scapegoating. “We can no longer afford to build ourselves up by tearing someone else down. We can no longer afford to traffic in lies or fear or hate. It is the poison that we must purge from our politics; the wall that we must tear down before the hour grows too late,” he said.
That was the central message, even more pressing today than when he delivered it. But he also set out his priorities for his presidency: extending healthcare coverage, more resources for education, alleviating poverty and tackling climate change.
And he did, as president, deliver on much more than he is given credit for. In an interview with the New Yorker, he said that he achieved as much domestically in his first two years as did Lyndon Johnson. US presidents on average deliver about 75% of what they set out to do. Obama did that. He fears the Trump administration will roll back about 25% but that would still leave a reasonable legacy in place. That might be overly optimistic on his part.
And what is that legacy? Only nine days into his presidency, Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Act on equal pay into law. He announced a ban on torture in response to the Bush administration’s use of waterboarding. He pushed through a financial stimulus bill that was to help lift the US out of recession faster than Europe.
The biggest single achievement of his presidency has been Obamacare, the extension of healthcare provision to 11 million people, signed into law in 2010 after a prolonged struggle with Congress. It is such a symbol of the Obama years that Trump will be under strong pressure from Republicans to dismantle it but it will be hard to take that cover away from the millions who now have it.
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Obama supported same-sex marriage and gays serving openly in the military. He withdrew, at Iraq’s insistence, US forces – 139,500 when he took office – from Iraq. There are 5,200 back there. He did the same in Afghanistan, down from 34,400 to 9,800. And he ended the Bush-era rhetoric about bombing Iran.
He was a cool president, seemingly at ease with visiting leaders from overseas or invited guests to the White House. One of my favourite moments was when there was a blues night at the White House that included BB King. Obama was put on the spot, invited to sing and joined in with a reasonable rendition of a verse from Sweet Home Chicago.
Despite the calm he brought to the White House and his record of promises fulfilled, the list of failures too is long. Guantánamo is still open, though the numbers are down. His record on education is debatable. Even though he was the first African-American president, race relations are more tense now than when he took office. On foreign policy, he expanded the drone campaign started under Bush. He also underestimated the rise of Isis and ambitions of Vladimir Putin. On top of all that, he was responsible for overseeing a crackdown on journalists alleged to have undermine national security.
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One of the biggest frustrations for Obama in the struggle to have the healthcare legislation passed was not just the Republicans but his own Democrats. For almost two years, the Democrats enjoyed a majority in both the Senate and the House and Obama, with the help of those Democratic members, could – and should – have pushed through bill after bill.
That Obamacare took so long to pass and occupied so much of the legislative programme was down to those Democrats. In November 2010, the Republicans regained control of the House, the number of Democrats in the 100-seat Senate fell from 58 to just 51 and the opportunity was gone for good. The Republicans who came in played by different rules from the Democrats, out to repeatedly obstruct Obama. I have strong memories of weekends spent in an eerily empty Capitol Building, occupied only by security guards, senior Republicans and Democrats and fellow journalists as the deadline approached on yet another ultimatum threatening to close down government.
The Democrats too should show the same zeal in opposition to Trump, although the arithmetic will make that harder, with the Republicans in control of both Senate and House.
Barack Obama speaks at the White House Correspondent’s Association annual dinner in Washington on 30 April 2011. Photograph: Chris Kleponis/AP/Getty Images
One of Obama’s biggest mistakes may have been, again with hindsight, his baiting of Donald Trump at the White House correspondents’ dinner in 2011. Trump was in the audience that night, sitting at a table as a guest of the Washington Post, and said later that he had not been upset by Obama.
Obama singled out several people that night but he devoted much more time to Trump, taking revenge for Trump’s campaign claiming Obama had not been born in the US.
They were good gags but they may turn out to have been costly. Trump sat stoically, only acknowledging the jokes with an occasional sideways shift of his head. But the president publicly humiliated him. Although Trump has since denied it, that might have been the moment Trump decided to run for the White House.