The End of Power What Will Remain of Obama's Legacy?

Barack Obama is eager to define his legacy before "turning over the keys" to Donald Trump. This week, in his final trip abroad as president, he was in Berlin to visit his close ally Angela Merkel. But what will remain of his tenure in the White House?
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Barack Obama in Berlin

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Barack Obama in Berlin


He loves Berlin, he says. And he would like to return again soon with Michelle and his daughters, but without all of the fuss that severely limits what a sitting US president can see and do. He was likely referring to the sniffer dogs, the security personnel and all of the other staff who make sure that overseas visits go according to plan.

Next time, he said, he'll come in disguise, wearing a hat and glasses. "Maybe I'll grow a beard or something." Barack Obama laughed as he considered the possibility on Thursday morning in the US Embassy in Berlin while microphone was being affixed to his lapel. It was just seconds before the real interview was to begin.

Obama's visit to Berlin this week was full of messages. First and foremost, he wanted to show his support for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, an intention that was clear throughout his Wednesday-to-Friday stopover. He also wanted to promote democracy in the form of open debate and political engagement. He wanted to express his concerns that Western societies are becoming increasingly unjust, leading populist political movements  to gain in strength. And he of course wanted to promote his own legacy so that he doesn't go down in history as a failure once he is replaced on January 20 by Donald Trump , who will likely revise signature pieces of Obama's domestic legislation in addition to revisiting key foreign policy achievements such as the Iran deal and the rapprochement with Cuba.

But his greatest success as president, Obama said during his Thursday interview  with German public broadcaster ARD and SPIEGEL, is that the global economy didn't slide off the cliff in 2008. "I think people don't fully appreciate how severe the economic crisis was."

It has been an eventful eight years. Back in November 2008, on a cool, gray evening in Chicago, people in the crowd cried and even journalists shed tears when Obama took to the stage following his election victory. It was a touching moment, or perhaps kitschy, depending on how unemotionally you choose to view the world. A young Obama, with his campaign slogan "Yes We Can" and rousing speeches, managed to beat out the Democratic field, led by favorite Hillary Clinton, and then defeat Republican candidate John McCain. He came to the victory party in Hyde Park with his wife Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha in tow -- and even cynics were aware at the time that it was an historic moment: the first black president of the United States.

His tenure did not begin with the same energy as his campaign and there have been several phases of weakness during his eight years in the White House. Climate policy, which had been a linchpin of his campaign, disappeared from his agenda for a few years only to make a late reappearance, just barely in time for the 2015 Paris Agreement. He announced his intention to close the Guantanamo prison, but then did little to deliver on that pledge. He also drew a red line in Syria, warning President Bashar Assad not to use chemical weapons against his own populace. But when Assad did just that, the US shied away from intervention, partly because Obama thought the rebels would topple Assad anyway. As such, the 2016 Aleppo disaster and the refugee crisis are also partly the results of Obama's eight years at the helm.

The Better President

But he became more resolute after his re-election and knew that once his second term began, so too did the countdown. If he wanted to take action, he had to do it soon -- and he made his move. The treaties with Iran and Cuba changed the geopolitical map. Obama also became tired of a Congress that sought to block his every move, and of the racism harbored by a significant group of Americans who never wanted to accept him as president. So he began issuing Executive Orders and stopped wasting time.

When the campaign for his successor began in 2015, Obama was asked if he would have liked to run again, barring term limitations, to complete his project. He hesitated, perhaps thinking that it might sound too vain, but after a brief pause he answered in the affirmative.

Did he really think that he would be able to win people over to support him for a third term? Again, his answer was yes.

He likely considers himself to be the better president. Better than Trump, to be sure, but also better than Hillary Clinton might have been. He doesn't say so publicly, of course, but in smaller groups he hints at it. The mistakes, the weaknesses, they are always those of others. Those close to him say that Obama's self-confidence hasn't suffered. And it became clear early on in his first campaign that charisma and arrogance went hand-in-hand, presumably axiomatically. He knew he was a good speaker, a gifted writer and had an air of cool -- one that became even cooler when he gazed into the middle-distance with eyes half closed. And if someone knows all that about himself -- and one constantly reads and hears about it -- then arrogance isn't far away.


Photo Gallery: Eight Years of Barack Obama

Foto: The White House / Pete Souza

To take a more positive view, however, it is also true that aura is another outcome -- the aura of an American president. It is a position that almost demands arrogance, as demonstrated by many of his predecessors, like Lincoln, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Clinton. The position demands leadership and not tenderness or kindness.

In Obama's case, all of that comes together to create a strange sort of distance.

A Fighting Mood

Obama, of course, can be passionate, and even heated -- as he was in Athens earlier this week just prior to his trip to Berlin. Once again, he delivered a speech that stayed in one's thoughts even hours after it was over. But one has to wonder: Is he using the final weeks of his presidency to revisit the consequences of the decisions he made: the mistakes, the children killed by yet another imperfect drone strike? Or is this somehow all part of the movie called "Obama's Presidency"?

It was certainly striking how quickly Obama was able to come to terms with Donald Trump's election victory. Prior to the election, he had said that Trump was dangerous and "unfit" to be the president. "If somebody can't handle a Twitter account, they can't handle the nuclear codes," he said. After the election, Obama received Trump in the White House and said the transition would be seamless -- as though nothing had happened.

Trump a demagogue? A racist? Nope. It was business as usual. Just one president passing the baton to the next. All of which wouldn't matter much if the questions at stake this year weren't so fundamental: credibility, integrity, the elite versus the people. Is Obama interested in the consequences of his policies or is he only interested in his own legacy? Does he really want to improve the lives of his voters -- or is he merely after the praise that comes along with doing so?

During this week's brief visit to Europe, Obama was in a fighting mood. He fought for his legacy but also for democracy as such. He sees dark clouds on the horizon and believes that it is time for the battle to start -- and that it can only be won with justice and equal opportunity.

But the fact that Trump became possible as his successor also has to do with Obama, and that is a thought that has to make him unhappy. Part of it has to do with racism: After a black president, conservative, white America has struck back and elected the only white man on the ballot. But it is also true that Obama advised Joe Biden and others against running because he wanted to clear the path for Hillary Clinton -- partly because he wanted to help her fulfill her dream of becoming president. He ignored the fact that she had too many blemishes  from the very beginning. The Democratic Party's choice of a candidate was anything but democratic and Obama allowed it to be so. That was an enormous mistake.

A Tight Trans-Atlantic Bond

Now, in Europe, Obama presented himself as the great protector of democracy, but also as one who is aloof from the daily battles of politics. Of course he is interested in saving as much as he can of his legacy. But he was at pains to avoid the impression that it will be difficult to "turn over the keys" to Trump, as he put it. In his interview with SPIEGEL and ARD, it was only apparent for a brief moment in the way he almost spit out his successor's name: "Trump." Suddenly, he no longer followed the well-worn American protocol of referring to him as "president-elect," "Mister," or even "Donald."

Apart from that, though, he sought to maintain distance and discretion. It was how he has always reacted when provoked by all manner of world leaders: Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei or, on occasion, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Obama always remains calm. It is a characteristic that drove many Americans crazy -- those who would prefer to have reacted with missiles and force, anything for the US to retain its world power status. Despite their many differences, this discretion was something that bound him to Merkel and grew over eight years into what was, for Obama, an unusually deep sense of trust.

It is true what Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security advisor, says: namely that Merkel has been "the president's closest partner over the course of his entire presidency." Perhaps most important was his emphasis on the fact that she was German chancellor during his entire tenure. Merkel remained a reliable partner even in those moments when Obama was deeply alone. The two never developed the warmth in their relationship that Helmut Kohl and Bill Clinton enjoyed. Or even the kind of manly friendship that initially characterized Gerhard Schröder's relationship with George W. Bush prior to Schröder's polemic rejection of Bush's Iraq invasion plans during his 2002 campaign for re-election to the Chancellery.

The relationship between Obama and Merkel was always respectful, rational and professional in nature.

But perhaps it was exactly that sort of relationship that allowed an element of emancipation to creep into the German-American relationship of a kind rarely seen since World War II. America had always seen Germany as being reliant on its trans-Atlantic big brother.  The NSA spying scandal contributed to the new distance, along with the SPIEGEL disclosure that the Americans had eavesdropped on Merkel's mobile phone. Obama, it is said in Washington, cursed when he learned about it and publicly promised that something like that would never happen again, at least not involving Merkel. In May 2014, during her first visit to Washington after the affair, Merkel told Obama exactly what she thought. On a sunny day in the White House Rose Garden, she delivered a sharp rebuke.

Trust in Merkel

To those close to her, she even compared the NSA with the East German secret police, the Stasi. Her comments were leaked and Americans were not amused. Obama, though, accepted it. That, in fact, is another way in which he differs from his predecessors: In addition to hubris, Obama is also capable of humility. Following the dust-up, cooperation between their two governments became more antiseptic and mistrustful, but also more grown up. And paradoxically, the relationship between the two leaders became closer as a result of the affair.

To the chagrin of conservatives in Congress, Obama initiated an orderly retreat  from the world stage, in part because of his trust in Merkel. In the Ukraine crisis, she grew into her role as mediator and, more recently, as Obama's surrogate. In conversations with Putin, she translated Obama's positions into a language that the Russian leader could understand -- and the US president was happy for the help. With Syria, Cuba, Iran and domestic issues, he had enough on his plate.

That's why this trip was so important to him. First, to Athens, the birthplace of democracy, for a speech about the dismal present and the future of democracy, which, he said, can only work if executives don't earn as much in a single day as their employees do in an entire year. He also went for a walk on the Acropolis looking like a completely normal tourist in his beige pants, blue shirt, brown shoes and sunglasses. He visited the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, built in A.D. 161, and then the Parthenon, constructed in the golden era of Greek democracy. As if he couldn't get enough, he also agreed to a visit to the Belvedere Tower. It almost seemed as though visiting these ancient structures was a way to convince himself that these symbols of democracy were still there -- and that they had withstood greater crises than the one we are facing today.

He then continued on to Berlin, landing on Wednesday evening at 5:51 p.m. at Berlin's Tegel Airport, greeted there in drizzling rain by US Ambassador John Emerson, his wife Kimberly and German head of protocol Jürgen Mertens. It took Obama until 6:07 p.m. to finally emerge from Air Force One, walk down the red carpet and jump into his waiting vehicle for the drive to the Adlon Hotel in the heart of Berlin.

He and Merkel spent three hours together on Wednesday evening in the Adlon. They had dinner and talked, informally and privately just as the White House had requested. Ben Rhodes said that he couldn't remember Obama ever sitting down with someone for so long during his entire eight years as president.

Obama began Thursday morning in his Adlon suite. He had no appointments and he prepared for his meeting with Chancellor Merkel and subsequent press conference that afternoon as well as for his interview with ARD and SPIEGEL.

Proud of His Accomplishments

The conversation took place in a conference room at the US Embassy, located just two buildings away from the Adlon at the Brandenburg Gate. He walked into the room at 11:37 a.m., immediately uttering the kind of wonderfully meaningless greeting that only Americans can make sound sincere.

In speaking with Obama, it immediately becomes clear that he is proud of what he has accomplished as president. When he talks about Donald Trump, he smiles slightly, knowing full well that a majority of Americans still approve of the job he is doing; most recently his approval rating stood at 55 percent. He also mentioned that only 27 percent of all American voters cast their ballots for Trump. His message was clear: I am the real president of the country. And during the interview, his answers were expansive and comprehensive, even responding to the brief closing question about Edward Snowden with a mini-speech about the responsibility of a state ruled by law.

The interview came to an end at 12:07 p.m., after exactly 29 minutes and 45 seconds. Obama took a few more seconds for a group photo and then disappeared for lunch in the embassy with John Emerson. Afterwards, he headed over to the Chancellery first for a one-on-one with Merkel and then for a larger meeting with her entire cabinet. A press conference followed. Then came something that rarely happens in the life of an American president: The entire evening was free -- to spend with Merkel.

The two had a second dinner together, this time in the Chancellery surrounded by guests. They reminisced about years passed, but there were no speeches and no cameras. With Americans, who are constantly full of praise and who claim everyone is a good friend even if they aren't always sincere, real emotion isn't measured in words, but in time. As such, Thursday evening was a rare display of affection, almost tenderness, between two heads of government.

Largely Alone

What, though, will remain of this president? Obama's legacy seems all the more respectable in light of Donald Trump's victory. For now, at least. By introducing health insurance available to all, he brought a sense of warmth to an America that often seems cold and hard, a project that Democrats have been trying in vain to implement since Harry Truman's times. Obama also paved the road for the equal rights of gays and lesbians in the military and appointed the first Hispanic justice to the Supreme Court.

In foreign policy, he revised the image of a bellicose, imperialistic America that George W. Bush had left behind. Yet the weaknesses of his foreign policy convictions -- which will go down in history as the "Obama Doctrine" -- also became abundantly apparent in Syria. It is a doctrine in which the use of force is an exception, the last resort -- against terrorists, for example, when they threaten access to oil or attack allies. Foreign policy, says Obama, must reflect America's highest ideals and convictions.

But in a civil war like the one raging in Syria, where there is no clear dividing line between good and evil and thus no clear allies, this principle reaches its limits. Obama, the most powerful man in the world for the last eight years, seemed impotent in the Middle East. The strength of his brand of politics is that it defines which lines it will not cross, but it has found little recourse for situations in which others cross lines at will.

The much-touted turn towards Asia, which the US completed under Obama's leadership, may have taken place in the economic and, to a certain extent, in the military realms -- but not emotionally. For Merkel, Obama was a true partner. Her relationship to him was different from her oddly shallow bonds with European leaders such as François Hollande, Matteo Renzi or, in the past, Silvio Berlusconi. And with, as seems likely, Donald Trump.

Perhaps Merkel hasn't even realized it yet -- after all, Obama still has two months to go -- but with the end of the Obama years, she will be largely alone.

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