There exists an overwhelming amount of cognitive dissonance when it comes time to address the awful actualities of former President Barack Obama’s legacy, but if we want to ensure that the era of Trumpism is truly gone for good, it must be done, lest we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. As the first Black president of the United States, Obama was, and still is for many, a symbol of progress and hope. For people my age, he was the first president many of us have memories of — and juxtaposed with the recent administration, it’s easy to feel a sense of nostalgia for the bygone era of his presidency. But this nostalgia for Obama is just that –– nostalgia –– and it ignores the reality of the fact that his administration was right-wing, white-supremacist and imperialist in nature.
To start, one of the most overlooked ways the first Black president harmed his own people was abroad in Africa. Through the United States Africa Command, which originated in 2008 under President George W. Bush, Obama oversaw its advancement and expansion as he worked effortlessly to continue neo-colonialism by extending U.S. influence throughout Africa via military dominance.
Domestically, Obama arguably made it his mission to harm Black Americans. His administration contributed more heavily to the militarization of the police than any president, leading to an overwhelming increase of police brutality in Black America. This directly resulted in the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, which, as you may recall, started during the Obama administration for this reason. Ultimately, the Obama administration responded to this movement and subsequent protests by sending troops and tanks to Ferguson, calling Baltimore rioters “thugs” and working to increase surveillance of prominent Black activists — sound familiar?
Looking toward immigration, Obama’s immigration policy resulted in fostering the growth of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Starting in 2008, his administration cultivated the Alien Transfer and Exit Program which deliberately sought to create complications for migrants seeking to cross the border, by separating them from their families and shipping them off to mystery locations without any identification or means to contact their loved ones. As his admisinistration continued on, it participated in the deportation and removal of nearly 2.7 million undocumented immigrants. Additionally, it caused tens of thousands of undocumented parents to be stripped of contact with their own children, most likely forever; some “disappeared” only to be found in countries they weren’t even from, where they were most likely trafficked, sexually abused or killed. On top of this, in 2014, the administration constructed border detention facilities with the sole purpose of placing undocumented parents’ children in cages. The growth in detainment of immigrants occuring during the Obama era proved especially lucrative for firms like Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, two companies that contributed hundreds of thousands to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
From his military coup in Honduras, displacing the democratically-elected leftist government of Manuel Zelaya and putting a far-right narco-dictatorship in its place, to his parliamentary coup in Brazil, which gave rise to the fascist Bolsonaro regime, to his soft coup in Paraguay, to his managing of Project Gunrunner, which led to armed drug cartels in Mexico with thousands of weapons, to the sanctions he imposed on Venezuela after declaring it an “extraordinary threat to the national security of the United States,” the great instability regarding immigration is not only the fault of the Obama administration, but Obama as well. If you’re appalled at the violence that took place at the U.S. Capitol last month, imagine how the citizens of these countries felt when forces of U.S. imperialism came to wreck havoc and unleash chaos in their home countries, all in service of capital and Western hegemony.
On the other side of the globe, Obama was also actively destabilizing the Middle East, having dropped over 26,000 bombs on seven Muslim-majority countries in 2016 alone (a low estimate). His administration conducted airstrikes in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan and led a drone-strike program in which 90% of the people killed were civilians, or non-enemy combatants. During his time as president, he initiated the civil war in Yemen and offered $1 billion in weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, resulting in one of the largest modern-day humanitarian catastrophes with over hundreds of thousands of casualties. Obama armed the Israeli apartheid regime with $38 billion in military aid and launched a war in Libya, using NATO to support rebel groups of Islamist extremists and resulting in the destablization of the Libyan government and an increase in slave markets. Yet, while the president who allegedly told a White House aide in 2011, “Turns out I’m really good at killing people. Didn’t know that was gonna be a strong suit of mine” continues to be seen as a beacon of good in the Western world, the Global South still suffers from the evils of his legacy.
With the U.S. military being one of the largest polluters, bigger than 140 countries combined, producing more greenhouse gas emissions than any other institution on the planet, it's clear the Obama administration was not the climate-change conscious, science-believing administration it led the American public to believe it was. Furthermore, Obama worked diligently to increase domestic oil production to record levels and allowed police officers to attack Indigenous protestors at Standing Rock in order to build a corporate oil pipeline.
As Paulo Freire wrote in Pedagogy of Freedom, “The capitalist system reaches, in its globalizing neoliberal crusade, the maximum efficacy of its intrinsically evil nature.” This was embodied in the Obama administration, and from a dialectical standpoint, because of its fundamentally contradictory nature, ushered in the era of Trumpism we just witnessed.
Naturally, it’s very easy to read these accounts, hear these details, see these article links and brush them off as “things of the past.” It’s even easier to justify these atrocities by saying that “Trump did these things, too.” It’s even easier to trivialize them by pointing to the positive aspects of Obama’s presidency. What’s hard, is making a conscious decision to modify our behavior and attitude in order to overcome the cognitive dissonance we face when we hear the truth about someone we once admired. If we really want to say “no thanks” to Obama, we can start by remembering that these aren’t simply article links and facts. These are real events that happened to real people with real families whose lives (if they still have them) have been changed for the worse, forever, because of President Obama’s administration. And if you think that’s bad, wait till you find out who his vice president was.