The first time I ever heard Barrack Obama speak I had to sit down. So did my wife. We were in the Big Apple for a short break, and we were getting ready to go out for dinner and a night out in Manhattan. It was our first time in New York, and we were excited about the possibilities of nightlife on Broadway and Times square. We had a meal booked in the famed Smith and Wollensky’s restaurant.
It was 2007- seven years after the election of George W. Bush. Six years after the invasion of Iraq but less than a year before the collapse of the banking and financial system that caused the most recent economic depression. Having always been interested in US politics I was looking forward to the Presidential Election of 2008. I was hoping that the world could see the back of George “W” Bush and his party. Despite his “one of the lads” persona, the guy you could grab a beer with, the man had turned the world upside down with his disastrous decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Bush was a disastrous President even before the consequences of his economic policies became apparent. Most of the world hoped that the 2008 election would bring a better administration.
So while I was waiting for my wife to finish getting ready, I turned on CNN. Barrack Obama was debating Hillary Clinton. I listened standing up, calling on herself to hurry up, but soon found myself sitting down, spellbound. It wasn’t long before my better half paused her preparations for the night out and joined me, equally transfixed, by what we were hearing. Young, handsome, articulate and smooth he seemed exactly like what America and the world needed. He promised “change” he offered “hope”, and it was as simple as believing that “Yes, we can”.
We were astonished by our reaction to him. He had halted our preparations for our night out with his words. We were in New York. We had a table booked. Yet here we were both glued to the television listening to an unknown senator. Never before had we heard a politician speak so inspiringly and strike such a chord with us. For the first time, we considered the possibility that Hillary was not a shoo-in to be the next President. This was disconcerting, as apart from wishing to see a female President and wanting to see the back of Bush, we were also, like most Irish people, very fond of the Clintons. They had been great friends to Ireland and very instrumental in the Peace Process. While it was during Bill’s Presidency that Irelands “Celtic Tiger” economy had taken off and had helped create a newly prosperous and increasingly confident country. Until that night we were very much in the “four years of Hill” camp.
In fairness, even after that night, we still were – but one speech had such an impact that it gave us far more than pause for thought. It felt like we were witnessing the future. The debate was the main topic of conversation for the entire evening. Later that night, we met a group (3 women and a man) of young New York professionals (all attorneys) out having after-work drinks. We got chatting. They had been watching the debate as well, and they made it clear that they were all Hillary supporters. However, they believed that misogyny would prevent her from getting elected.
When I asked what they thought about Obama, one of the girls reacted with frustration “see this is the problem….” she began. This woman assumed because I was impressed by Obama that I must be anti-Hillary. However, when I explained how popular the Clintons were in Ireland, the conversation turned to the merits of an Obama presidency. An air of despondency descended over our formerly talkative, new acquaintances. They knew the game was up for their woman, Clinton, and that they had witnessed something special and that a black man would become President before a woman. However, one black man I asked about the chances of seeing a black president dismissed the notion saying “if he did get in there would be a bullet waiting for him”.
Against the odds, Barack Obama won the Democrat party nomination and would go on to defeat the Republican nominee John McCain to become the first black President of the United States. In 2012 he would secure his second term by beating Mitt Romney. The young President faced unprecedented challenges when he assumed office. The financial markets and banking system were on the brink of collapse, and the United States was embroiled in what seemed like never-ending wars in the Middle east. Obama though offered hope to the world. He exuded the confidence necessary to bring about the change that he had promised. The world wanted and needed him to succeed. Barrack had voted against the invasion of Iraq. He had pledged to close Guantanamo prison in Cuba and was promising to reform the US healthcare system so that everyone would have access to health care. It seemed that a more caring and peaceful world was possible.
However, the shine quickly wore off the cool, new President. Within the US, the Tea Party movement emerged to challenge Obama’s domestic policies. Especially his healthcare policy, which they dubbed Obamacare. The wars in Iraq and Afganistan continued, and the Syrian civil war erupted. Shockingly the most despicable and fierce terrorist organisation in modern history, ISIS, emerged and were able to establish a Caliphate. Not only did Obama not end the Bush wars, as many had hoped that he would, but his weak and ineffectual foreign policy further reduced US prestige on the International stage.
Obama did successfully turn the US economy around after inheriting a basket case from Bush. He returned the economy to growth and helped to create the continuing boom that we still have today. However, even with this success, his administration caused me to be angry. His Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner, rejected Irish pleas to allow a failed Irish bank to collapse. Geithner and the ECB (European Central Bank) were mostly to blame for the Irish people having this debt burden placed on them.
Obama remained very popular with the majority of US voters. His approval ratings during his last year were sky-high. He was treated like a rock star when he campaigned with Hillary in 2016. He remained cool. His intelligence was always obvious. He displayed dignity and class at all times. However despite this and the economic boom created during his Presidency, many voters, particularly in the mid-west, did not feel the benefit. America was more divided not just economically or between conservative and liberal fiscal and social positions but also between the urban and rural voter. It was this division in US society that leads to the greatest failure of President Obama, and that is the election of his successor Donald J. Trump to the office of President.