Written by Elena Lazarou,
Against the backdrop of Donald Trump’s surprise election victory the previous week, the External Policies Unit of EPRS organised an event asking ‘Will There Be an Obama Legacy: Impacts on America, Europe, and the World’, on Monday, 14 November 2016. Naturally, the panellists’ focused both on the achievements of the outgoing President, and on the conditions which led to the election of the controversial Republican candidate. They also reflected on the possible future agenda of the President elect, who will be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States in January 2017.
Providing an overview of current US public opinion, Bruce Stokes, Director of Global Economic Attitudes at the Pew Research Center, Washington DC, underlined the varying views that different demographic groups hold on specific policy issues in the US, such as jobs, immigration and terrorism trade. He highlighted the decline in public trust in media and business, while trust in the government fell to all-time low of around 30%. On the external affairs front, the Pew polls demonstrate that Americans are becoming less supportive of trade and of American involvement in the world. Sir Peter Westmacott, Former British Ambassador to the US, echoed white/Middle America’s dissatisfaction with the US electoral system, and pointed out that a large part of the electorate voted on the basis of feelings rather than reason. This need for change felt by many was an important driver of the electoral result. Sir Westmacott described President Obama’s legacy as largely successful, with key accomplishments despite Republican Congress resistance throughout most of the Obama Presidency. He referred to successes with Obamacare, climate change policy and to foreign policy achievements, with an emphasis on Cuba and Iran. What the President elect will do remains to be seen (especially regarding President Obama’s achievements), as a lot will depend on the nominations Trump makes to the key posts in his administration.
President Obama’s influence in the progress made in relations with Cuba, and a number of international agreements (Iran deal, TTP), notwithstanding, Jeppe Kofod, Member of the European Parliament and Vice-Chair of the Delegation for Relations with the United States, also argued that, in the context of the US elections, Obama’s legacy might very well depend on the policies of the future President Trump. Trump has indicated he would go back on a number of President Obama’s efforts (including ‘renegotiating the Iran deal’ and pulling out of the Paris Agreement and TPP). Mr Kofod examined Obama’s policy footprint, and specifically his efforts in diplomacy, including his initial determination to reset relations with Russia. Mr Kofod also referred to the ongoing issue of nominations to the Supreme Court, noting that any Trump administration nominations would likely have a significant impact on continuity. This view was also echoed by Julian Barnes from the Wall Street Journal, who briefly spoke on the changes to the scope of Obama’s legacy brought about by the election of Donald Trump. As Obama used his executive powers extensively, precisely due to the resistance of the Republican majority Congress, a number of policies stand a greater chance of being undone by the next President. The same conclusion can be made regarding President Obama’s shifts in projecting military power, first to Asia, then back to Eastern Europe after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
While President Obama will be remembered for his multilateral approach in foreign policy multilateralism (Paris Agreement, G20, Iran deal), his legacy also includes the emancipation, during his administrations, of groups and voices who felt that they were not being heard. Elena Lazarou, Policy Analyst at EPRS, opened the floor for the debate, pointing out that Barack Obama will be remembered for his changes in style and policy shifts. His personal style and rhetoric attracted the public and that is why he remains so popular. The ‘Yes we can’ motto was indicative of his ability to capture the will for change, and is in fact rather similar to Trump’s communications today. Looking ahead to Trump’s Presidency, his relations with Congress and with the EU, questions and answers reflected on why the election went wrong for the Democrats, what might be the future of the party, the country, and what direction US-EU relations may take.