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The 44th President of the United States was known for his flowing oratorial skills, an attitude that struck friend and foe as unflappable (the one exception being the tragic Sandy hook shooting incident, talking about which made the President extremely emotional), and an outlook that endeared him to the nouveau riche and Vieux riche alike. But, as Burton I. Kaufman, Professor Emeritus for the History Department in the Miami University, writes in his new book, “Barack Obama: Conservative, Pragmatist, Progressive”, Barack Hussein Obama was also a juggler of paradoxical hats. A jugglery that confused and confounded progressives and conservatives in equal measure.
As the title of Kaufman’s book suggests, Obama’s eventful and landmark tenure (the first Black to have been elected President of America) saw the President walk a political tightrope and balance priorities and prerogatives in his own inimitable manner. Whether it be bulldozing the Affordable Care Act (derisively known as “Obamacare” by his Republican Opponents) into legislation, or advocating and entering into a nuclear deterrent agreement with the moderate leader of Iran, Hossan Rouhani – and in the process ruffling the feathers of both Democrats and Republicans alike – Obama was a progressive, yet conservative, a pragmatist yet theorist. Obama always fell back on the words and works of his favourite theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr embraced a radical approach to theology and ethics which he termed Christian realism. According to the philosopher, a primary reliance on the power of reason through education and moral suasion was naïve and misplaced.
The main planks on which the entire presidential campaign of Obama tested represented an unshakeable commitment to usher in a multiracial, multiethnic, and multicultural society, while at the same time preserving in its original and intended shape the tenets of a free market enterprise. No wonder Bill Clinton was more than just a tad miffed when Obama referred to Reagan as one of the more progressive Presidents. These kinds of conflicts and paradoxes permeated the Presidency of Obama. While a vehement and vociferous opponent of George W. Bush’s military unilateralism, Obama was obsessed with the use of drones to carry out targeted and precision attacks on terrorists. A total of 563 drone strikes, aimed at the geographies of Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen during Obama’s two terms, represented an almost ten-fold increase in such strikes that were carried out during the Bush regime. The latter authorized just 57 drone strikes.
Kaufman also highlights the struggle faced by Obama in tacking the rising racial tensions during his eight year term in the White House. The indiscriminate killings of Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, and Michael Brown that led to the Black Lives Matter Movement, threated to disrupt the President’s avowed objectives of racial equality and justice. Exacerbating the issue was acerbic sermons delivered by Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s pastor. Excerpts of the sermons were found to allude to terrorist attacks on the United States and government dishonesty. These were unsurprisingly subject to intense media scrutiny, and Obama was forced to publicly disown Wright which understandable stirred up angry sentiments amongst the black populace.
Obama also made it a mission to get the United States sign up to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. A deft maneuvering in the Senate and the Congress following heated debates ensured that the United States ultimately signed up to the accord. However, Obama’s successor, Donald Trump pulled the USA out of the Agreement only for Joe Biden to reinstate it in what was a prolonged game resembling snakes and ladders.
A political aspect that caught both Obama’s ambition and, ultimately, his goat, was the doomed Transpacific Partnership (TPP). Positioned as an “antidote” to China and Xijin Pin’s hegemonic forays in the South China Sea, TPP was intended to keep the motives of China under check by a coalition of 12 Asia Pacific nations. However the monetary muscle of China that had many nations in the Asia Pacific firmly entangled finally prevailed and the TPP remained a still born child before being put to rest by Donald Trump.
Kaufman also provides a compelling insight into Obama’s early years as a biracial child spending time between Indonesia and Hawaii, his tumultuous years as the first Black President of the Harvard Law Review, his courting of Michelle Obama while interning at the law firm, Sidley & Austin (where Michelle was his senior), the President’s early experience as a community organiser, a tactful building of political connections with senators such as Paul Simon, and Dick Durbin and his testy tussles with Hillary Clinton when both of then contested in the Democratic Primary.
While not a comprehensive treatise on Obama’s life or principles, “Barack Obama” is a luring appetizer which indicates that the dessert is still many courses away.