Alternative title: The triumphant, tragic presidency of Barack Obama
Historians will look back at the presidency of Barack Obama as one that was both triumphant and tragic.
It was triumphant for the obvious reasons: Obama is a brilliant orator and a decent human being. He is the first black man to win election to the highest office. He saved America from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, bringing on economic growth that continues until now.
Historians will point to the real, if partial, victories of the Affordable Care Act, re-regulation of Wall Street, and increased environmental regulations. They will point to the intractable wars that Obama inherited and to the relentless and almost unanimous wall of opposition from Republicans in Congress and from right wing media. They will point to the racism and birtherism that he had to face. They will say that his progressive critics had too high expectations for what he could achieve.
Yet the tragic thing about the presidency of Barack Obama was that he was given a once-in-a-generation opportunity to control the narrative, expose GOP corruption, establish a strong Democratic majority and save America from the forces of corporatism and militarism.
Obama barely even tried.
A review of the evidence shows that Obama failed to take advantage of the opportunities he had available, with the result that most of his legacy is now being destroyed.
In short, he didn’t fight.
Due to an excess of moderation, idealism, naiveté, and/or cowardice, Obama disheartened his supporters, confused the public about which party would serve their interests, allowed the Republicans to control the narrative, and facilitated the handover of the White House, Congress, the Supreme Court, and a majority of state legislatures to extremist Republicans.
Specifically, the Democrats lost 900 seats in state legislatures during Obama’s presidency. “At the beginning of Obama’s term, Democrats controlled 59 percent of state legislatures, while now [in early 2017] they control only 31 percent, the lowest percentage for the party since the turn of the 20th century. They held 29 governor’s offices and now have only 16, the party’s lowest number since 1920.” (source: Barack Obama Won The White House, But Democrats Lost The Country: What Happened?)
And Donald Trump is now president.
Here’s a particularly outrageous example of Obama’s bad choices. As reported in Politico (Biden: McConnell stopped Obama from calling out Russians), three weeks before the 2016 election, Obama and Biden wanted to inform the American people about Russian interference in the election. But they allowed Mitch McConnell to veto the announcement.
Biden said he and former President Barack Obama worried that without a united front of bipartisanship, speaking out before the election would undermine the legitimacy of the election and American institutions in a way that would play into the Russians’ larger ambitions. (source)
About a week later, Obama allowed James Comey to announce that he was re-opening the email investigation against Hillary Clinton.
This is the same Joe Biden, by the way, who, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee that was holding hearings on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, decided against allowing women other than Anita Hill to offer testimony about Thomas’s sexual harassment.
Why don’t Democrats fight?
Republicans in Congress had opposed virtually every policy position of President Obama. The Senate threatened filibusters on numerous bills. In March of 2016, President Obama nominated Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court; the Senate, under the leadership of Mitch McConnell, refused to hold hearings on the nomination. Yet three weeks before the 2016 election, Obama and Biden still wanted to be bipartisan and still deferred to Mitch McConnell?!
There are dozens of similar examples of inexplicable cowardice or excessive moderation on the part of Obama. See the list below and this petition.
Compare how weakly Obama led to the masterful tactics of Mitch McConnell, who engineered the placement of two Supreme Court justices and then convinced Senate Democrats to allow fifteen more federal judges to be confirmed as a condition for his letting Senators return to their home states to campaign. Why didn’t Obama fight like that?
If Obama is a closet conservative, then some of his choices make sense. But from a purely political, strategic point of view, many of his choices were just dumb and naive.
In 2008 America was ready for the change that Obama promised. The economy was in deep recession. Corporate America had come begging to Uncle Sam for bailouts. The war in Iraq — launched on false pretenses — was going badly. The war in Afghanistan was unresolved. Wall Street was exposed as corrupt and under-regulated. Scandals and criminality in the Bush administration and the GOP (Tom DeLay, etc) made Americans yearn for a strong, ethical, populist Democratic leader.
Obama campaigned as such a leader and had a mandate — certainly in terms of the electoral college vote: 365 to 173. The popular vote margin was respectable but not overwhelming: 52.9% to 45.7%.
Signs of trouble appeared early after Obama won election. Before his inauguration in 2009, when President-elect Obama was asked by ABC News’ George Stephanopoulo about whether there would be investigations and prosecutions for Bush-era criminality, Obama responded, “we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.” In 2012 Obama again tweeted: “We don’t look backwards, we look forward.”
Apparently, Obama didn’t look forward far enough. Else he would have foreseen the Republican takeover of the House in 2010 and the election of Donald Trump in 2016.
Obama was a brilliant and inspiring speaker. But, once elected, he barely used his oratorical skills to sway public opinion. His successful campaign organization, Obama For America, devolved into the ineffective Organizing for America. He often betrayed his base: progressives, environmentalists, women, labor, educators, and pacifists.
Here’s a partial list of Obama’s betrayals and mistakes:
- Prosecuting whistle blowers
- Protecting war criminals and Wall Street crooks
- Surrounding himself with Wall Street cronies
- Supporting the charter school movement
- Bankrupting and weakening the Democratic National Committee and state parties (see below)
- Continuing the Bush bailouts of Wall Street, not Main Street
- Failing to support the Employee Free Choice Act, despite union support during his election and his promise to “to fight for the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act”.
- Appointing conservative judges to the federal courts (“According to a February analysis by the Alliance for Justice, a coalition of environmental, consumer, civil rights, and women’s groups, 70 percent of Obama’s judicial nominees are former corporate attorneys. ” Obama’s Judicial Nominees: Liberals Are Upset With Them, Too).
- Pushing for strong enforcement of federal marijuana statutes US vows marijuana enforcement regardless of California vote, Medical Marijuana Industry Is Unnerved by U.S. Crackdown
- Stacking the committee responsible for designing the Affordable Care Act with conservative Democrats, resulting in a health care bill similar to what Republicans had proposed: a gift to the private insurance industry
- Supporting conservative Democrat Blanche Lincoln against progressive challenger Bill Halter in the Arkansas Senate race; see Biden Sends Fundraising E-Mail For Blanche Lincoln.
- Compromising early and often on taxation and other issues, in a vain hope to garner Republican cooperation;
- Compromising with Republicans on extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich; Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said this about the estate tax provision included in the tax cut compromise: “We had the president — George W. Bush — we couldn’t get it done then and we’re getting it done here.”
- Nominating Jason Furman for Chief of the Council of Economic Advisers; the American Enterprise Institute says of Furman: “He has written on the importance of fiscal discipline, the need to undertake entitlement reform sooner rather than later, the role of international trade in improving living standards, and the benefits of Wal-Mart in boosting living standards for low-income Americans.” (source: Jason Furman would serve with distinction as chair of the Council of Economic Advisers).
- Promoting the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a neo-liberal “trade deal” that was more about giving power to corporations than about promoting free trade
The above is just a sample of his betrayals. See this petition for a much fuller list.
Under Howard Dean, the Democratic National Committee had pursued a successful 50-state strategy. Obama weakened the DNC and state parties, making sure that most money was fed to his re-election effort and to the re-election campaign of Hillary Clinton. As it says in the Rolling Stone article Can Democrats Fix the Party?
The 50-state strategy devolved under Obama into a presidential-battleground strategy, leaving state parties starved for cash and leadership. “Obama didn’t put resources into local parties unless it was for his re-election effort,” says the former party chair. Making matters worse: Obama tapped ambitious Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz – a favorite of White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett – to run the DNC in 2011. “That congresswoman had no idea what she was doing,” adds the former chair.
Wasserman Schultz went rogue. In a rift with the White House that spilled into a story on Politico, she was criticized for using the DNC as a vehicle for self-promotion, hoping the office would serve as a springboard into House leadership. The White House made overtures to oust Wasserman Schultz, but she dug in, promising an ugly fight that could tar the president as both anti-woman and anti-Semitic. (Wasserman Schultz, who was forced to resign in the aftermath of the Russian hack of the DNC, declined to participate in this story.)
Obama dodged that fight, and instead fostered Organizing for Action, the grassroots group born of his campaigns. “They had a mirror organization that did just their politics, and it weakened the DNC,” says a source in House leadership. “It directed money elsewhere and was not in the interest of the long-term stability [of the party]. It was a selfish strategy.”
In Donna Brazile’s account of her the role in the 2016 campaign, Hacks, the Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns that Put Donald Trump in the White House, she wrote, “Obama left the party $24 million in debt — $15 million in bank debt and more than $8 million owed to vendors after the 2012 campaign…. As I saw it, these three titanic egos — Barack, Hillary, and Debbie [Wasserman Schultz] had stripped the party to a shell for their own purposes.”
A DNC member in Washington State said the same thing to me: Obama left the DNC weakened and broke.
In Land of the free? How Trump Has Put America’s Identity in Peril, Ben Fountain writes
Obama was elected on the shoulders of an incipient movement that he allowed to languish once he became president. It started early, even before he took office. Locked in a runoff for the Georgia senate seat held by a Republican incumbent, the progressive Democratic nominee, James Martin, begged the popular president-elect for help. A Martin win would have given Democrats a crucial 60-vote supermajority in the Senate, but even with the stakes so high, Obama, reluctant to spend any of his considerable political capital, limited his support to a single radio spot. Martin lost, and the template was set.
“Obama’s whole approach was to minimize opposition, rather than to maximize support,” said Martin Ganz, a union organizer and Obama adviser, and so it would go for most of Obama’s presidency. His reluctance to take his case directly to the people, allowing his opponents to control the narrative. His muddying of what were in fact sharp partisan distinctions, including his maddening restraint when it came to the politics of class. His tenderness toward Wall Street, which was hardly reciprocated. His feckless pursuit of common ground with the Republican opposition long after their hardcore obstructionism had become painfully clear. It’s a matter of record that the Republicans’ deliberate, unwavering, freely admitted strategy was to destroy the president by thwarting every single measure he put forward, even those previously supported by the GOP. In fact, even those that originated in the GOP; the Affordable Care Act was based on a plan developed by the hard-right Heritage Foundation.
Such was his practice of the politics of moderation that Obama lost even when he won. The “shellacking” that the Democrats took in the 2010 midterms was due in no small part to Republicans’ successful demonizing of the Affordable Care Act. The popular mobilization that twice elected Obama president might have, with sustained, vigorous support and forceful leadership, matured into the kind of mass movement that creates lasting change.
Obama promised openness on national security matters but instead enforced secrecy. “Obama’s transparency phase did not last long. His administration secretly subpoenaed reporters’ phone records and brought at least nine leak-related prosecutions, more than all previous administrations combined. ” (source: the New York Times)
The same New York Times article summarizes the Obama administration legacy on the war on terror:
In all, what Obama left behind was a troubling inheritance — vast, secret and mostly unilateral powers to spy and to kill in the name of fighting the global war on terror, powers that depend more on the good intentions of those who wield them than on any written law. Listening to Obama’s early rhetoric, it was easy to think that he was going to do something to pare those powers back and remove the country from its permanent post-9/11 war footing. The war against Al Qaeda would continue, he said, but with “an abiding confidence in the rule of law and due process; in checks and balances and accountability.” He would pursue “the strongest and most sustainable legal framework,” a legacy “that outlasts my administration, my presidency, that endures for the next president and the president after that.”
But in the end, Obama’s record on counterterrorism was one of continuity, not change. Guantánamo shrank; it did not close. Obama responded to Edward Snowden’s disclosures by throwing his weight behind the National Security Agency. The C.I.A. kept its drones and signature strikes. Efforts that might have been intended to scale back the drone program wound up codifying it; the series of speeches that Obama presented as part of his “framework” — road maps to reform — had the effect of normalizing and putting a humane face on a policy of quasi assassination. During the final months of Obama’s second term came a gesture toward transparency, an executive order requiring the White House to release annually the number of noncombatants killed by drone strikes outside war zones. Their estimates for Obama’s years in office were far lower than those compiled by outside groups.
President Trump has now loosened the rules for drone strikes and used the other powers established by Obama.
The lost opportunity of the Obama administration is particularly painful to behold, because of the damage that was done by his predecessor and that is being done by his successor, and because Hillary Clinton could be president now, had Obama made a few small moves.
A sympathetic assessment is that Obama was a decent man, of moderate temperament. He was not up to fighting the vicious and relentless forces arrayed against us. In the end, he and Hillary were swiftboated into defeat. Her email scandal was minor compared to the scandals around Trump. But, again, the Democrats let Republicans control the narrative.
I believe the sympathetic assessment is too kind. It is a mystery to me that a man with such gifts and such an opportunity threw it all away and allowed the Republicans to regain control.
Glen Ford, of Black Agenda Report, wrote an incisive article Psycho-Babbling Obama in 2010 — about the same year I realized that Obama had sold progressives under the bus. Ford’s devastating words ring true today with even more force:
For two years we watched Barack Obama undercut the left wing of his party at every turn, with a disdain so palpable his minions could not resist insulting leftists in the most juvenile terms. For two years we watched the First Black President facilitate the greatest transfer of wealth in human history – $12 to $14 trillion – to Wall Street, and we watched as he put the U.S. war machine back on the offensive in the world. For two years we heard Obama say over and over again that he had no intention of taking targeted action to help Black and brown communities that had been targeted for destruction by banks. After two years, one would think that folks on the Left would have gotten the idea that Obama is pro-Pentagon, pro-Wall Street, and doesn’t have a transformative bone in his body regarding either race or class. But, for many, the message, however obvious, has not sunk in. Rather than face the fact that Obama is not a friend of the people, leftish commentators insist on conducting a psychological analysis of the president. They seem to be trying to find some quirk in Obama’s personality that can by corrected in time for the Armageddon showdown with the Republicans.
Still unwilling or unable to admit that they were “psyched out” by Barack Obama and his corporate handlers, Lefties search for psychological reasons that the First Black President has been such a disappointment. It’s the failure to fight thing, or the lack of vision thing, or the failure to communicate thing, they say. [But i]t isn’t that Obama has trouble conveying his vision, it’s that his actual vision is unacceptable to progressives. As for his willingness to fight, Obama fought his own left wing, and stomped their butts into the dirt over his corporate health care plan.
It’s hard to be angry at Obama, because he is brilliant and decent. But looking at his record of compromise and accommodation, it’s also hard not to be angry.
Sure, there were many causes of the 2016 election debacle. (Hillary, for her part, had the hubris to think she didn’t need to campaign in the swing states.) As sitting president and head of the Democratic Party, Barack Obama bears a particularly heavy responsibility.