President leaves behind legacy of intellect and grace

The Straits Times/ANN

SINGAPORE — U.S. President Barack Obama’s eight years at the apex of world power end tomorrow. They represent the culmination of a remarkable political career — he started as a community leader in Chicago and went on to a single term in the U.S. Senate before he broke through the glass ceiling of racial prejudice to be the first African-American in the White House. By any yardstick, it has been a successful tenure even if it was burnished by having a predecessor who bequeathed him a poisoned economy and a successor with a penchant for disrupting established codes of politics. Without question, his big success was to stabilize, and then revive, the tottering economy. Obama took office at a time when unemployment exceeded 10 percent and jobs were hemorrhaging by the thousands. His unconventional mix of solutions, including bailing out the auto industry, helped the economy set itself right and begin a steady, if unspectacular, climb through the rest of his tenure. He will also be remembered for pushing through the Affordable Health Care Act that brought medical cover to 20 million Americans, even if compromises involved meant that overall health care costs did not decline significantly. His successor has vowed to repeal Obamacare. It is the other two great promises on which he rode to power — healing societal wounds and improving America’s image around the world — that will bear the most scrutiny. His scholarly instincts prevented him from building ties across the political divide. Economic inequality has risen on his watch, though the trend is not unique to the U.S. The continued use of excessive force on black suspects by the police is a reminder of the distance America has yet to travel on some key issues. As for foreign policy, the record is decidedly mixed: The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria grew more powerful during his tenure, and ties with Russia soured. On the matter of the rebalance to Asia, although ties with Vietnam and Myanmar improved, America’s clout in the region is on the wane. The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, the trade portion of the rebalance, has failed to fructify. It is on personality that he scores highest. Obama’s years were not only free of scandal, but brought intellect, integrity and family values to the White House.

The respect he consistently showed his wife and his desire to be home for dinner with the children to the extent possible underscore his remarkable ability to balance work and private time. It can justly be said that he achieved the dream of his hero, the late Martin Luther King Jr. — to be judged by the content of his character and not the color of his skin. Obama, who is only 55, has indicated that he intends to stay on in the national conversation. Washington and the world will, as they should, feel his presence for years to come.