Attacked almost as fervently by the left as by the right, Barack Obama is now doing what second-term presidents often do – looking to his legacy. He has been remarkably successful, not least in the face of a rabidly hostile right wing in Congress and with a frequently lukewarm Democratic Party in support. Many Democrat legislators would make New Labour’s worst sound like Bolsheviks in comparison.
For Americans, Obamacare is his signature legacy. Although deeply flawed in comparison with a single payer system, compared with what passed for healthcare before, it is a huge step forward. Like most American legislation, it is a complex product of messy compromises with the pharmaceutical and insurance lobbies which had to be persuaded not to kill the reforms completely It is sad but true that while donors have considerable influence in the Tory Party, and were gaining it rapidly in New Labour, in the United States, quite often they literally write the law. That is one of the reasons why donor-driven policy making has failed to reform the American financial system since the sector is a major donor to the Democrats.
Even so, Obamacare has offered millions of Americans health insurance coverage who could not afford it before and has even managed to constrain the cost inflation that has already made American healthcare the most expensive in world. Diehard Republicans have tried more than 50 times to repeal it. The Republican leadership is glad at the failure. Depriving millions of voters of healthcare in the run up to an election would have brought reality crashing down on the empty rhetoric of the Republican right.
Foreign policy is a traditional recourse of second-term presidents trying to make the history books and here Obama has faced down strong lobbies such as the Israel and Cuba to make a mark. It is only a couple of decades since Bill Clinton bowed down to the Cuban American Foundation and ratcheted up sanctions against Havana in return for campaign donation. Obama has now finally normalised relations with Cuba and is surviving unscathed. Third-generation Cuban Americans now either don’t care or even actually welcome more access to their ancestral homeland. The business community is more concerned with getting its toe in the door than closing the gate on Cuba business. It has long been clear even to the more rational American conservatives that Cuba is no threat to the US nor to the hemisphere and that the policy has been counterproductive. The domestic lobby was moribund, and internationally there was nothing but praise for the move.
Over Iran, he has had to work much harder to overcome the prejudices and passions against Teheran where there are unlikely allies from the Saudis to the Israelis uniting to sabotage the deal. Obama has had to take on the mother of lobbies, AIPAC and its allies, exhorted on by Benjamin Netanyahu and a host of derangedly conservative Likudnik billionaires. Again, he saw his chance. Polling showed that Netanyahu’s support among the American Jews was minimal. Fewer and fewer American Jews see their identity as particularly tied to Israel and, like the general American public after Iraq and Afghanistan, even fewer relished the idea of another all-out war in the Middle East – let alone the one that the Israeli leadership is so ostentatiously trying to provoke. John Kerry and Obama have kept the line to get the agreement which is now enshrined in United Nations Security Council resolution 2231. Netanyahu’s attempts to interfere directly in Washington’s foreign policy decisions have been so outrageous that he might well have alienated the Democrats away from the hitherto unbreakable bipartisan support for the Israel lobby.
But Obama’s administration is so overcome with its own temerity that it shows signs of the “fight or flight” syndrome. The release of the Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard is clearly an attempt to compensate Netanyahu, as is the public talk of increasing military and economic aid. So, can he force a durable Middle East peace settlement on Netanyahu and Israel? It was one of his first avowed ambitions on taking office, and after all the humiliations he has endured at the hands of Israel’s Prime Minster, it would be of deep personal and historical significance to pull it off now with political pressure instead of the traditional pandering.